London-based artist and designer Nicole Chui is showing that it’s ok to try new things, make mistakes, and be fearless through her free-style hand embroidery
“Sewing is for fashion and art is just pretty paintings” – hand embroidery artist Nicole Chui is actively working against this mindset by creating designs that combine sewing, art, and fashion in her own individual style. With a background in creative direction, Chui’s isn’t afraid of experimentation and she fearlessly embraces new opportunities.
Chui's own identity exudes through her work, creating an impressive body of free-style hand embroidered designs. Reusing materials is also important to the artist, encouraging more environmentally conscious methods of working. This means that it is both Chui’s process of working and the final designs themselves that are used to communicate her thoughts and opinions.
The embroidery artists latest project Yellow Peril is a concept night, distorting the boundaries of club night and performance art, created with Chillidxddy. In anticipation of this installation, I spoke to Chui to find out about the inspiration behind her embroidery designs, what messages she communicates through her work, and what she’s been getting up to lately.
“For me, I want my work to represent a period of time where I was part of a movement, and I want my art to make MY point” – Nicole Chui
Courtesy of Nicole Chui
You are an embroidery artist and designer. When did you start exploring this kind of work and what inspired you?
Nicole Chui: I learnt traditional smocking and embroidery from my grandma in my early teens, but I began exploring this work when I was in high school in the visual arts classroom. I started experimenting with sewing on postcards after overhearing a conversation this girl was having about the artist Maurizio Anzeri, which made me more intrigued about his work. Without his body of work, I wouldn’t be where I am today because it took me out of the mindset of “sewing is for fashion and art is just pretty paintings”. After finding out as much as I could about him, I developed the confidence to evolve my style and learn my identity through my practice.
What is the process behind the creation of your works? Do you begin with a fully-fledged idea of what the work will look like or do you just see where the embroidery takes you?
Chui: I free-style, so I tend to see where the thread leads me. There have been instances where an idea has immediately popped into my head and I’ve had to sketch it out before sewing it on, but every time in the middle of sewing on something planned, I get new ideas and the outcome ends up completely different.
You have a background in creative direction for fashion. How does this influence your work?
Chui: It’s influenced me because I’m constantly thinking about the big picture for how I want to present myself as an artist and how I want my body of work to flow as opposed to just focusing on just a piece. I’m also really aware of the importance of concept and experimentation, because you never know until you try. I'd say the biggest take away from that degree was forcing myself to become fearless, and that helps me today when it comes to taking on new projects or doing things I’ve never done before.
Courtesy of Nicole Chui
You say you use embroidery to disrupt the natural and normalise imperfections in an uplifting way. How do you do this and why do you think it is important to communicate ideas about political, environmental, and social issues through your work?
Chui: If you think about the act of sewing onto unnatural materials like paper or food packaging, it is disruptive. Pushing the needle through the material is violent and scary because you’re making a hole in a piece that wasn’t made for that purpose. I think often times people are scared to try something new, especially in embroidery from what I've seen in my workshops— so through my free-style hand embroidery, I want to show that even if you make mistakes, there’s always a way around it, and that’s ok! It’s more of a life lesson than a lesson for creating art really.
I reuse as many different materials around me and I keep all the packaging for my thread instead of throwing it because there’s potential for a piece in anything. To me it’s important to treat everything like my canvas because I never know how it could develop my art. I would also say that this method has communicated and made me more conscious of what I can reuse and produce less waste, which is important for our environment today.
In terms of communicating social and political issues, that often starts from what the subject in the image is. I then express my views through my embroidered layers of lines, shapes or type on top of the image to pull out the key concept of the series. Each piece is different, but stylistically I aim to make each one look like a poster. I think it’s important to communicate these issues because art with no message/concept is not art, it’s just decoration. For me, I want my work to represent a period of time where I was part of a movement, and I want my art to make MY point. Art is open for anyone to interpret once you put it out there but when you communicate your view and your style, that is something no one can take away from you.
Courtesy of Nicole Chui
What are some of the recent projects or exhibitions you have been involved with and how have they allowed you to explore different ideas and experiences?
Chui: Every project I’m involved with has been fruitful in some way. The project I’m involved with now for the Yellow Peril has allowed me to meet more east and southeast Asian people living in the diaspora. I am particularly keen to collaborate and create further bodies of work exploring the east and southeast Asian diaspora in London because of this.
Outside of art, my involvement with football has unexpectedly inspired me creatively. I joined a team called the Victoria Park Vixens which has given me the opportunity to contribute my work in several football-related activities off the pitch. I learnt that football can be creative, I learnt that you can be feminine and fierce on the pitch, and I learnt that there can be so much duality, inclusion, beauty and diversity of the types of women in sport. Being part of this team has broadened my perspective and has encouraged me to do my best.
Courtesy of Nicole Chui
Can you tell me a bit more about your upcoming installation Yellow Peril?
Chui: The installation is a collaboration between me and Chilllidxddy and it’s actually titled '谁是自己人?' (Which translates to: ‘Who are my people?’) This will be shown at the event Yellow Peril by Diaspora Disco, Chinabot, and Eastern Margins. It’s a concept night distorting the boundaries of club night & performance art, featuring a mix of DJs and various Asian visual and performance artists. The origin of the phrase Yellow Peril was a metaphor for the fear of East Asians taking over the Western World during the 19th/early 20th centuries (have a look at the Chinese Exclusion Act in America if you’d like to know one of the parts of this discrimination in history). Therefore, through this piece, we want to ‘infiltrate’ and take space within white spaces whether digital or physical, by celebrating the east and southeast Asian people existing in the diaspora.
We are creating a large flag covered in gold leaf with a projected moving image of Chillidxddy’s face in the centre of the piece overlooking the audience with embroidered chillies coming out of his mouth. The chillies symbolize spicy energy, and an omen that scares away white supremacy. Taking inspiration from Do Ho Suh's Who Am We? (1999), we want to cover our flag with the faces of the young east/southeast Asian diaspora in London and globally. The reason we used a Chinese phrase is because both Chillidxddy and I come from different Chinese backgrounds, however we feel that the phrase is relatable to people outside the Chinese diaspora, and the meaning transcends all Asian languages. The piece accompanies a live performance that will be done by Chillidxddy revolving around the question “Who Are My People?”
You can buy tickets for Yellow Peril at The Yard Theatre on the 21 June 2019 and find out more details here.
Follow Nicole Chui on Instagram, Twitter, and check out her website www.nicoleemmapearlchui.com.