Nicole Chui: The sense of touch
Nicole Chui was born and raised in Hong Kong but currently lives in London. She is an embroidery artist and a contributing illustrator for gal-dem magazine.
Nicole graduated from London College of Fashion with a BA in Creative Direction for Fashion. It was a course about brand communication, focusing on designing creative solutions to solve various problems or challenges that the fashion or arts industry face.
She has been featured in Complex UK, King Kong magazine and Vogue Italia. Her first exhibition outside graduation was commissioned by NOW gallery and was part of The Body Issue exhibition alongside various contemporary photographers in the UK.
In this interview, Nicole gives an insight into what she’s all about and why she chooses to create images mixing illustration and photography with embroidery. We learn about the materials and techniques she uses to achieve this and why loud music and fried chicken are amongst the things which inspire her.
A powerful dynamic
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium?
Nicole Chui: I’m attracted to the sense of touch that textiles, specifically embroidery, allows a person to react instantly.
I’m also really interested in the variety of textures and vividness it can bring to my practice. It’s all really exciting.
And, more specifically, how was your imagination captured by stitch?
That’s a good question. It depends on the context of the image I’m working on.
For every piece it’s often extremely free-hand, I rarely premeditate how I’m going to construct an image through what, and where I’m going to embroider on the print.
That whole planning process can ruin the realness of the emotional flow that creates a powerful dynamic between the illustration or photography with embroidery.
What or who were your early influences and how has your upbringing influenced your work?
The core of why I began any sort of embroidery is my grandma. She used to do English smocking on all my childhood dresses which had a lot of beautiful hand embroidery of patterns and dainty feminine things like florally garden bits.
Learning how to do that particular type of embroidery from her was just an excuse for me to hang out with her more, she’s dope but such a perfectionist, can be annoying but I love her.
In high school I began to find out about Maurizio Anzeri’s work, he was a key influence in the beginnings of layering embroidery onto photography.
As my techniques and ideas evolved, I slowly realised that my work became more loud with powerful images. This came from the influence of my taste in loud music, watching female rappers perform, hustlers and people who aren’t afraid to confront issues that are swept under the carpet.
When I was a kid to teen I used to be told to shut up a lot and was always the type of person who was super quiet in class because I was afraid of being judged. Now I’m the complete opposite. This might sound strange and begrudging, but I want to call out as many people on their bullshit through my art in a positive way if I could.
It’s fun, also why not?
What was your route to becoming an artist?
It was honestly never intentional, and I don’t feel like I’m really there yet, but I’ve always been passionate about creating visual content or objects that could create weird and interesting conversations and reactions.
I still feel strange when I get called an artist, but I guess it has always been a part of my identity. To be honest, I embrace the term because there needs to be more diverse representations of us visual artists. I don’t just mean that in terms of race, I also mean that in terms of attitude, gender, lifestyle, practice types and age.
To this day people have a fixed perception that artists aren’t smart, savvy or all they do is paint. However, art is more than just a pretty painting, and a large chunk of my generation of artists are some of the most hard working hustlers I’ve ever come across. We do our own taxes, we are constantly churning concepts into visuals, some of us have online shops to maintain and on top of that we contribute to publications and independently do our press.
As of now, I feel like there is still a lot to learn about the artist in me, but that’s a life-long lesson.
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques.
To put it simply; I embroider on photography and illustration. I’ve always been a huge fan of the mix and match style, so this integration came together pretty well in my opinion.
My favourite embroidery technique is French knots. There’s something about its texture that elevates the emotion of a portrait if I’m sewing on a photo of a face. I love using that technique to create tears, a crying effect.
For the photography side I use mostly 35mm film because it’s convenient and something I use casually, I sew on magazine images or found imagery.
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
I would describe my work as loud, colourful, brash and humorous.
In the sphere of contemporary art…I’m not sure. I think it’s at that in between stage where my style of work is for the people and a strong influence from pop culture, hip-hop and street culture specifically, but it could also be something high-brow because of the luxe aspect to hand embroidery.
Freestyling the embroidery
Do you use a sketchbook? If not, what preparatory work do you do?
I treat magazines as my sketchbooks. I also have the usual plain/dotted page blank sketchbooks to jot my ideas and concepts down as opposed to planning an entire image every single time.
My techniques are very unstructured, which makes everything I do more fun to work on. I always feel like the moment your sketchbook feels like work, that’s when you need to re-evaluate what the hell you’re doing. It should be like your diary and a safe place to express or keep your thoughts.
Tell us about your process from conception to conclusion.
I usually have an idea written down. Generally, I start with a photo or illustration; that’s the base of it all. That image provides the opportunity for whatever concept I have written down or fresh in my mind to apply it into!
At this point, I usually have a caption for the image already thought out, so I choose 3-4 thread colours in my big bag of embroidery floss, most of the time I use red, then begin going ham with freestyling the embroidery. I like working on photography with people, whether it’s just their face or the full body.
What environment do you like to work in?
I like working in my home. I always play R&B, heavy metal, noughties music, hip-hop, rap, grime and rock and roll tracks, that’s the rule. I love that mix of sensual, heavy/trap/hustle, psychedelic and glam music.
I cannot stand listening to things like the xx whilst working, it’s just too irritating and makes me feel old. In any environment, music is THE most important thing, as it affects my headspace severely.
What currently inspires you?
People, trash TV, funny experiences, things I hear on the streets, drama in my real life, unapologetic people, hustlers, rappers, fried chicken.
Who have been your major influences and why?
There is never ONE major influence, but I admire Jeremy Scott a lot…I would love to work with him.
Others include Basquiat, David Lachapelle, Lil Kim, Aaliyah, Anita Mui, Picasso, Hattie Stewart, Eddie Huang, Maurizio Anzeri, Hannah Hill, Gianni Versace, Miss Info, Yohji Yamamoto, Sophia Chang, Rei Kawakubo.
I like colourful people who went against the norm by just being them. People who exude that fuck you attitude. Frankly, most of my influences aren’t textile based. I find it important to find influences away from your practice.
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
Most memorable definitely goes towards the Kong Galz piece. It’s a personal favourite because it was one of those things that just unthinkably came together so beautifully! If anything, this is the piece that represents me the most.
The backstory of it happened during the new release of King Kong where NME had its advertisements everywhere. Whilst I was holding it, I was in one of the most stressful moments of my life juggling a ton of things personally and professionally in one go. When I reached home, I stopped everything and knew I had to let go of this frustration and anger creatively instead of physically hurting someone, so I slowly but surely made this!
To me, it symbolizes the beauty and healing factor that embroidery can have on my mental health. The Kong Galz bit refers to me being a Hong Kong girl, owning all the negativity that comes with the phrase instead of shying away from it. Very me, but obviously, there are moments where I just want to avoid people who are criticizers and negative to me for no reason.
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
It has developed so much, from making shit ‘look cool’, to placing it into contexts that are meaningful and relevant in my life as an opinionated young woman of colour.
I am at a stage where I have the courage to express more positive representations of our ideas and challenges in life with confidence.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
The only mistake you can make is sitting on an idea and letting someone else do it first. Never ever push blame on someone else for your own failures and have something to stand for!
Can you recommend 3 or 4 books for textile artists?
I get asked this a lot but I honestly don’t buy textile books. The only ones I have read are on English smocking, I would highly recommend learning the traditional technique of smocking.
What other resources do you use? Blogs, websites, magazines etc.
Embellished Talk is the only site I actually read about textiles. It’s cool, modern, relevant and has a great network of girls supporting girls. If you’re on the site, you’re doing something right in your life.
Youtube is underrated, I learnt to do basic garment making and new embroidery skills from video tutorials too.
What piece of equipment or tool could you not live without?
Thin Needles, my phone and chunky embroidery thread. It’s my bread and butter!
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
I now have this new rule where I must meet the person in real life if it’s about a physical exhibition. I was just talking to my sister about the fact that in this digital age we know people exist but it’s really weird not having met two of the curators of exhibitions I did prior to doing this.
If we vibe well and they’re into what I stand for AND I like their project + personality, I’ll do it for sure. But if I don’t agree with what someone stands for or a collaborator does not try to at least do their research and only wants to use me to sew something without my input, it’s an absolute no. That would be like sucking my entire soul.
Where can readers see your work this year?
For more information visit: www.nicoleemmapearlchui.com
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