Labor as Medium: Andrea Chung in the StudioApril 21, 2016
During her residency, Studio Residency Grant recipient Andrea Chung made work in our Papermaking Studio, exploring a totally new medium. “With all of my work, I always teach myself something that I didn’t know how to do,” says Andrea, who consciously chooses to use physical, time-consuming processes. “By including some element of my own labor in the work, the labor itself becomes a medium.”
While experimenting, Andrea built upon her ongoing interest concerning the complicated politics of colonialism, industry, and the work forces such systems exploit. Her studio practice focuses on the relationships between materials, locations, and cultural processes, with a special emphasis on the Caribbean, where she has familial ties. Currently, Andrea is exploring the roles of midwives in Jamaica. At WSW, she embedded images of Jamaican women within sheets of paper she pulled, and created a collection of pulp sculptures depicting hands in “baby-catching” positions.
“I love the physicality of papermaking,” says Andrea. “It’s very immediate and malleable, so it’s been fun to play with that.”
In all of her work, Andrea incorporates materials significant to the cultures and people she examines. In past projects, she cast sculptures from and painted with sugar to represent the legacies of political and economic regimes in former sugar colonies. At WSW, Andrea beats together handkerchiefs and raspberry tea—both used by midwives to aid in the delivery process—to create her pulp.
“Being a midwife was more than a job to these Jamaican women,” says Andrea. “It was a calling from God.” For centuries, midwives assisted women in rural areas and those who couldn’t get to hospitals, and implemented various birth rituals, many of which can be traced back to West African tribes. One involved putting scissors under a mother’s pillow to “cut” her birth pains. Andrea created her 2014 series Nana Midwives around this belief, which she heard in stories passed down by her own grandmother, who was a midwife in Trinidad. She uses this personal connection to tell a broader story.
“I want to create a lasting legacy of my family,” says Andrea. “It’s been so hard to find out things about my ancestors because there are so few records of them. I treat the work as a form of record-keeping.”
As modern medicine developed, these birth rituals and superstitions faded from necessity, and it became illegal to practice midwifery and deliver in the home. Some midwives continue to secretly practice, hidden in the shadows, and Andrea captures this in her work. She embeds imagery of Jamaican women between two sheets of her hand-pulled paper, still in the wet. Once the paper is pressed and dried, the image disappears into the whiteness of the page. When the paper is lit from behind, the image becomes visible again.
Like this work, much of what Andrea creates is ephemeral. Time is an integral part of her practice; through years of arduous researching and learning different processes, temporary objects are produced. Her cast sugar boats dissolve in water, her cyanotypes fade in the sun, and her midwives hidden in paper disappear once the light turns off.
The “baby-catching” hands that Andrea sculpted out of paper also appear to be caught between deteriorating and materializing—a fitting visual metaphor for a practice that seems outdated but is still necessary for many women. Andrea created these hollow paper sculptures using the positives of molds for Untitled (hands of the nanas), 2015, a collection of brown hands made from black soap. Andrea calls for the viewer to wash their own hands with this soap, ironically and poignantly deconstructing the negative stereotype of black hands being dirty. Through days and days of washing, the soap hands slowly disappear.
Andrea’s work fits within a rich history of artists like Clarissa Sligh, Carrie Mae Weems, and Kara Walker, who grapple with gender, family history, and African diaspora. Walker’s ephemeral 2014 site-specific installation A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby—a sugar-coated monument to the unpaid and overworked African women who refined sugar from sugarcane for export to the West—is especially connected to Andrea’s interests. In melding concerns of materiality with themes of race, politics, and history, Andrea wants viewers to rethink global issues in human terms.
“I don’t think there is a lot of representation of Caribbean art, and this is my contribution to it,” says Andrea. “I want the work to be accessible, so that anyone who sees it can think critically about their own impact in other’s spaces.”
Andrea Chung is a mixed-media conceptual artist currently living and working in San Diego, CA. She holds a BFA in Illustration from Parsons School of Design and an MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art. Find more of Andrea’s work on her website at andreachungart.com and see more images from her residency on our Flickr.