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What Are You? 10 Minutes with Artist Jennifer Datchuk

Texas-based artist, Jennifer Datchuk, sits down with Art Zealous to discuss power, identity, race and the social expectations placed on girls. Datchuk explores her Asian heritage through her own experience. She says of her work: “My work has always dealt with identity, with the sense of being in-between, an imposter, neither fully Chinese nor Caucasian. I have learned to live with the constant question about my appearance: What are you?” Jennifer’s concurrent solo exhibitions at Ruiz-Healy Art San Antonio and Ruiz-Healy Art NYC, both on view until January 11, explore the social expectations placed on girls and how this pressure translates into womanhood. In the words of the artist, this work confronts how “little girls are taught to be seen not heard, perpetuating our roles as empty vessels for the desire and fulfillment of men.”

AZ: Do you consider yourself a feminist? How do you feel about that word? 

JD: Yes, absolutely – but I fully acknowledge that there is a lot more work to do to make it intersectional. There is a lack of resources directed towards women of color, and we need to be better about diversity and inclusion by creating equal opportunities and inviting spaces.  

AZ: How did your parents react to the fact that you wanted to pursue a career as an artist? Were they traditional in the respect that they wanted you to pursue a “stable profession” such as a doctor or lawyer?

JD: As the daughter of an immigrant, there is a lot of pressure to live the American dream. For a lot of Asian families, that dream is for their children to work hard in school and become a doctor or lawyer. Those are stable and ‘prestigious’ jobs, and art isn’t always viewed as a profession. My cousins were always worried I was going to be a “starving artist,” and when I got my teaching position at a large university, they shook my hand and congratulated me.

G.O.A.T. Girls

AZ: Please give insight into why you use prize ribbons in “GOAT Girls” 

JD: This piece takes the form of prize ribbons from horse showing culture. I think all little girls love horses and I read that this love and fascination with horses is symbolic of dreaming and being a free spirit. I wanted to show little girls that you are valuable and prized in all shades and we can all be winners. 

AZ: How did you broach the subject of including women around Buddha in your work “Golden Girls,” I understand that you had to obtain permission to display Buddha around women?

JD: I grew up with a Buddha in my household, proudly displayed behind glass in a china cabinet. I often wondered why Buddha only had boys crawling all over him and not girls.

This one particular Buddha factory in Jingdezhen, China makes this very special Buddha with very detailed and articulated facial features. After each one is sculpted, it is painted with ornate Asian patterns and symbols. 

I had to ask the factory permission to use their Buddha. Many artists ask to use it, and the owners told me they usually want to alter Buddha’s face, which is considered inappropriate. I told the male factory owner my idea of wanting to sculpt girls crawling all over Buddha instead of boys because of the Chinese saying that girls hold up half the sky. He listened and went over to a woman and whispered my idea to her and she shook her head yes. I learned later that this woman was his wife and probably the boss of the factory.

Golden Girls

AZ: Please tell us about your time in Jingdezhen? Did you feel embraced by the community? 

JD: I have traveled to Jingdezhen in 2006, 2010, 2016, and 2018 to study and research the origins of porcelain and traditional blue and white decoration. It is where porcelain was first discovered over 2,000 years ago and still operates in porcelain production. It has become an artist destination for its capabilities in making and production (Ai Wei Wei’s sunflower seeds were made here), and it is amazing to see the craftspeople work, often specializing in one thing like mold making or glazing. I have always felt accepted by the community and often get questions about my appearance. “Her eyes look Chinese, but her nose doesn’t.” Being half-Chinese, it feels good to be recognized and accepted as Chinese and it opens a door for conversations about cultural identity in China. 

AZ: Who are the artists you are looking to? Or the traditions or crafts that inspired you?
JD: I am inspired by the material of porcelain and its origins in China, the history of ceramic patterns and production, and crafts often associated as women’s work. Textile practices like Victorian mourning hair wreaths and embroidery on Chinese bound feet slippers show beauty, sorrow, and pain. I think a lot about these practices, materials, and objects when I am researching new work. 

Ever since I was in undergraduate school and studying art, I didn’t always see my story represented in art. I found inspiration and solace in the work of Mona Hatoum, Lorna Simpson, and Deborah Willis.  

Champs

AZ: Please tell us about hair as a medium? 

JD: I use hair to confront issues of identity, race, and gender. Hair has the power to identify us to the world, and people can make assumptions on us based on the cut, color, and condition of it. In the beauty industry, hair is a multimillion-dollar business and African American women propel the hair industry based on white standards of beauty. In lower-income Asian communities, women grow their hair (to then sell) for money and it’s become a commodification of the body – this painstakingly slow process mainly profits big business and has very little acknowledgment of women and their labor.

AZ: Where do you source your Confederate States of America plates? I would think these are not easy to find?  JD: I purchased these plates off of eBay from sellers in Richmond, Virginia. They pop up all the time, and some are little bit harder to find like the ones depicting Robert E. Lee and Samuel Jackson. These were made in the 70’s from Lennox China, a United States porcelain manufacturer, and one whole set of plates are on display at the Smithsonian. Follow Jennifer Datchuk on Instagram and check out her shows Don’t Worry be Happy and Don’t Tell me to Smile through January 11 at Ruiz-Healy Art San Antonio and Ruiz-Healy Art NYC. 

Confederate States of America Plates

images // courtesy of Ruiz-Healy Art