We all love posting memes all over our IG feeds, but what about actually wearing them? Well, thanks to jewelry designer Ada Chen you can actually dangle text messages from your ears or hung memes round your neck like a pendant. The NYC-based designer is also an artist, who uses her creations to make a comment on her experience navigating life as a Chinese woman born in the USA. We spoke to Ada about art, design and humor.
Photo by Daniel Terna
When did you first start making jewelry?
I first started making jewelry in high school, but not really the super serious kind of stuff that I learned how to make in college. I made some really simple beaded, wire-wrapped pieces for myself. Sometimes I experimented with some ribbon, sewing it together to make “ribbon rings” that looked like the ribbon flowers people stick onto gifts. I didn’t take it seriously until I decided to switch my major to jewelry after applying to every college as a fashion major. I never made a ribbon ring ever again.
Your jewelry has been exhibited in many exhibitions, do you think of yourself as an artist?
I’ve always thought of myself more as an artist than as a jeweler. I feel like I’m fulfilling the career path as a jeweler currently because it’s what pays the bills. When I had the privilege of immersing myself fully into my craft while I was in college, I made more sculptural objects using traditional jewelry fabrication methods that I learned. I plan to find ways to fund my conceptual work without having to dedicate most of my time to producing commercial work to survive financially.
Who/what are your muses?
Memes, well-designed objects, my parents.
Do you have any career advice for aspiring jewellers?
Surround yourself with people who are willing to help out and exchange support. I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish half the things I’ve done if my friends and peers hadn’t been so willing to reach out and lend a hand. The business of jewelry is kicking my ass right now even though my college career gave me all the tools to begin creating whatever I want. We can’t escape capitalism in this country, so do your best to make work for yourself instead of for consumers from time to time.
We love the memes in your work! Why do you think it’s important to bring the humour?
I feel like being funny about it makes it easier for Chinese and Asian Americans to relate and find a bit of joy in our identities, which we’d often grown up rejecting. It also makes creating my work more fun for myself (I literally think I’m the funniest person on Earth) and I think it’s more welcoming for non-Asian folks to hear my experience as an Chinese American woman through my work.
Your work draws light to Asian Americans within pop culture, can you comment on that?
When I first started creating an in-depth exploration of my identity as a Chinese American woman through my thesis collection in 2017, I hadn’t seen too much representation of Asian Americans in pop culture. Since then, we’ve seen a huge rise in Asian Americans in movies and music. As discussion of the Asian American identity has opened up, these representations are limited in how much of the Asian American they represent. I hope to create work that reflects the nuances of Chinese American culture as I continue to self-reflect, spend time with my family, and evolve my perspective past boba appreciation and following 88rising. Ultimately, I would love to see Asian Americans be proud of and make our own culture without being anti-black. That’s the type of culture I’m trying to contribute to right now.
Which artists should we have on our radar?
RC Shen (@marinatedclouds), Michelle Im (@ratxchicks), ShawnaX (shawnax), ChopstixMami (@chopstixmami), Cindie Xin (@males_r_cancelled), Jillian Zhong (@ada.wrong), Ashley Khirea Wahba (@ashley_khirea_wahba), Wo Chan (a.k.a. Pearl Harbor) (@theillustriouspearl), Jes Tom (@jesthekid), Joy Li (@_joyli)
Who are your she-roes?
My mom and my grandmothers. My mom is the smartest person I know when it comes to finances and making sure to plan ahead. She’s kind of goofy otherwise and has the habit of never wanting to carry her own bags, using the excuse that she’s the one who paid for the things in the bags so she shouldn’t also have to carry them. My dad and I would be nowhere without her. She came from only being able to own a real pair of shoes in second grade to moving from her village in China to the U.S., learning English, saving up and taking out a mortgage on our house to send me to college. My mom’s mom was the first to immigrate to the U.S. and has worked and saved tirelessly so that our family could start growing roots. She makes the best food and recently learned how to swim in her 70s. My dad’s mom stayed in China, but every time I visit her she is entirely healthy and coherent. She still looks after chickens and a dog on her small farm after 98 years of life and having 8 kids. All of my female friends are also my she-roes because they’re all growing and accomplishing so much that I couldn’t ask to know better. I have the deepest admiration for every female artist I’ve met and worked with since graduating. I know it sounds like I’m generalizing, but I don’t say any of this lightly! Most of the list in the last question are my friends.
Interview Lizzy Vartanian