artist sophie teh

Exploring Cultural Memories with Artist Sophie Teh

Sophie Teh is an artist who paints and makes large scale installations. Her ‘sausage sculptures’ address her personal cultural experiences. She is a self-taught artist and previously worked as an architect and management consultant in London. Now, Teh lives and works from her studio in Barcelona. Her current solo exhibition at Galeria Mutuo, ‘Have You Eaten Yet?’ addresses experiences related to her Asian diaspora culture. Today on Meet the Makers, she talks to FrikiFish about her life and work.

Why painting?

A good and difficult question. I suppose I could have gone into other mediums of expression, but I like the act of directly making things take form. Just me and my paint and the canvas/paper. Nothing in between my person and the final product, like a kiln, computer programs etc. This may have something to do with being someone who values her independence and this has crept into my artistic practice.

What inspired you to make the work that is in the exhibition?

The exhibition shows work from my current series I call “Mother Said Not to Play with My Food”. The name plays on stereotypes that Asian women are subservient care givers. I began working on it in early 2021, during the pandemic, when there was a surge of hate crimes against Asian people. The #stopasianhate movement had a deep impact on how I thought about my “Asian-ness” and how I see myself as a person and an artist. When I moved to Europe almost 20 years ago, I sensed that my Asian customs got me ‘othered’ when all I wanted to do was to belong. So, I began to play down my own culture in order to fit in and encourage others to see me beyond my ethnicity.

I began to sense that my cultural memories and practices that I have pushed aside for so long were valuable material to be explored artistically.

The experience of hearing from and being connected to the many Asian thinkers and artists who spoke up as part of the #stopasianhate movement made me change my attitude. Creatively, I felt empowered. I began to sense that my cultural memories and practices that I have pushed aside for so long were valuable material to be explored artistically. I anchored my work to a part of my culture that was universally understood by the East and West – food. To be specific, fast food, not the popular version but the version I grew up with in a Chinese Malaysian family – eggs, sausages and rice. I use these elements repeatedly in different ways, because they were robust enough to address themes of cultural perception, ambition and hyper sexualisation.

Sophie Teh exhibition at Galeria Mutuo, ‘Have You Eaten Yet?’

Where do you get inspiration from?

I think it was Picasso who said that ‘inspiration exists, but it has to find you working’. I agree that studio time and being physically around my work is very important. It gets me into the frame of mind to be creative and build on that creativity in a meaningful manner. It is easy to be distracted so consistency is important.

Also going out and seeing art in person is very important. I feel very connected with the exhibiting artist and my creative self when I go see a show at a museum or gallery. I often take notes and come away with many ideas in my head for the next few days.

How do you name your work?

With a bit of fun and intention to play with double meanings, if I am able to do so. I play with a few names for each artwork as I am in the process of painting them and then narrow it down to maybe two as I finish the work. For example, my large installation is called “Killing Time”. The artwork likens my childhood in the 80s with the process of making sausages. The act of sausage making can be seen as repetitive and unexciting but the process stores away resources for the future. That was what I did in the 80s, studying hard and getting good grades in school with the hope I would be able to see the world when I grew up. Another example is my painting “Fat of the Land”, which plays with the character ‘肥’ (fat) in Chinese which also means ‘fertile’. In the painting I depict lactating cat breasts and rice fields.  I gave it this name because I thought it was a great coincidence that such a phrase exists in popular culture and also comes from biblical origins.

Sophie Teh exhibition at Galeria Mutuo, ‘Have You Eaten Yet?’

Who are the artists whose work you admire?

I was very moved from the first time I saw David Hockney’s work, long before I became an artist.  His commitment to colour highly influences my work. More recently, I became aware of Philip Guston and Amy Sillman’s work in the past 5 years. Their work inspires me on a working level as I am physically painting.

In parallel with these great contemporary artists, I also have great admiration for the anonymous cave artists who lived thousands of years ago and probably under very difficult conditions. Cave paintings are so raw and are the purest form of self-expression with no other motive. I hope to one day visit the Cuevas de Los Manos in Argentina, one of the sites where cave artists used hand stencils in their creations.

How is life as an artist in the age of social media? How does it affect how you work?

Platforms like Instagram are a great place to look at a lot of art very quickly. When I first started painting a few years ago, I was not as consistent with making work as I am now and I used Instagram like a productivity tool. Now it is part of my online portfolio and network.

It can be lonely being a self-taught artist; I went through architecture school and business school and I thoroughly appreciate how valuable a network from school is. Social media has helped a lot with helping build a network. I have met many artists and new friends in Barcelona and further afield via Instagram it has been very helpful as a support network and to bounce ideas off etc.

What’s next? Any projects you are working on at the moment?

I am very excited about moving to a new studio in a few months after spending 2 years working in a space with no natural light. The new studio still needs a bit of work but I am getting there. I plan to hold an open studio with an exhibition of an ultra-large-scale painting on one wall. Other than that, I may have one group show opportunity that I am thinking about now but that is still in very early stages of development.  I am also in early discussions for a small solo show for early next year which would involve making smaller works. This would be an interesting contrast to my current show. I am always keen to learn and expand my network so I am going to put in work to apply for a residency for next year.

‘Have You Eaten Yet?’ runs until 12 March at Galeria Mutuo (C/ Mendez Nunez, 7, 08003 Barcelona) Opening hours: Tue-Sat 5-9pm. For more information visit @sophieteh_art and @mutuo_centro

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