The Political Hand
The Political Hand
From American Craft Inquiry: Volume 2, Issue 1
Jennifer Ling Datchuk, the American Craft Council’s 2017 Emerging Voices Award winner, investigates issues of identity, race, and gender through the pervasive political power of her materials. The San Antonio, Texas-based artist embeds politics in her works by using feminist strategies to deconstruct established hierarchies and champion the handmade as equal to the more traditional fine art forms such as painting. “We live in a world where identity can be manufactured and appearances appropriated without concern or even awareness,” she says. “We question and desire authenticity of the other.”
For her, the personal is political, a concept grounded in the feminist work and performance art of the 1960s and 1970s. This was a time of social unrest in the United States, including the fight for women’s equality in the workplace, reproductive rights, and sexuality – battles that are becoming all too relevant again as state and local governments push to restrict access to health care, continue to debate issues of equal pay and family leave, and promote discrimination based on gender identity through so-called “bathroom bills.” Feminist artists like Datchuk tackle issues of gender and identity by reclaiming imagery and materials traditionally associated with beauty, femininity, and the domestic space. Objects that were once overlooked as part of everyday life are transformed into powerful tools to critique society and instigate change.
The establishment of “white gold”
Datchuk’s primary material, porcelain, is a type of clay that dates back to at least the 10th century in China. Due to its translucency, pure white color, and rarity, it has been referred to as “white gold,” and at various points in history was valued more than gold itself. Introduced through Asian imports to Europe in the 14th century, porcelain was regarded as a luxury item, which the West coveted and exoticized. As the import market grew in the 17th and 18th centuries, Europeans mounted precious porcelain vessels from China in gilt-metal and displayed them as examples of their wealth and cultural status. Once regular trade routes were established in the 17th century, Chinese potters began to make works specifically for export to the West. A significant number of these exports were decorated with blue-and-white patterns; today, blue-and-white is one of the most recognized styles of ceramics worldwide and has been appropriated by many cultures and artists.
Though Datchuk is one of many artists who has researched the history of blue-and-white porcelain, her contribution to this contemporary commentary is layered with rich cultural and personal meanings. Her work not only references her own history as a Chinese-American, but also connects with the politics of the porcelain trade, including issues of colonialism and exoticizing the “other.” Born in suburban Ohio to a Chinese mother and Russian-Irish father, she recalls a childhood dominated by a “sense of being in-between, an impostor, neither fully Chinese nor Caucasian.” Datchuk’s objects explore the desirability of white as both a symbol of the exquisite material and as a privileged racial culture. “Bound by these conditions,” she says, “I stitch together my individual nature, unravel the pressures of conformity, and forever experience pain in search of perfection.” Patricia Williams, co-author of White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art explains that “Whiteness is the site of privileged imagining, the invisible standard. It is whatever it wants to be.” Datchuk explores the pervasive effects of white privilege – societal, economic, and political advantages enjoyed by Caucasians not afforded to people of color – by embedding her personal story in her art as an alternative to the dominant white narrative.
Datchuk made one of her first major bodies of work after earning her MFA from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in 2008. This series used vintage handkerchiefs dipped in porcelain slip that were then draped and knotted around ceramic wall mounts. With their lace trim of simple floral motifs, the handkerchiefs evoke nostalgia for an earlier time, an era when owners with the means to purchase and launder fine textiles flaunted their status. Datchuk essentially whitewashes the textiles by dipping the cloths in porcelain slip, reinforcing coded notions of purity and status. She subverts the standard coat hook with a matte white porcelain chicken foot as the mount, a reference to her Chinese heritage; chicken feet are a delicacy in China and stereotyped in America as strange, a food that foreigners or “others” enjoy. Datchuk reclaims this motif in sculptures such as Tie, Catch, and Married, which allude to her familial connections; the knotted, twisted, textiles illustrate the tension and conflict in these relationships.
Communicating with hair
While porcelain is Datchuk’s primary material, her second material of choice is hair. In the 18th and 19th centuries in England, hair was often used in mourning jewelry, which was worn as a memento or token of affection for the deceased. Throughout history, hair represents “connotations of intimacy, sexuality, fragility, permeability, the personal and the social. . . . It is of the natural body and subject to society’s drive to alter the body for fashion.” In more recent decades, women artists have used hair’s direct connection to the body to comment on ideas of gender and beauty.
Datchuk investigates these issues of gender and beauty through a series that combines hair with objects used in cosmetics. Half (2012) is a set of two powder puffs, their forms referencing vintage midcentury tools for applying cosmetics. Replacing what would be a synthetic “puff” are tightly bound balls of hair, one of black hair, the other blonde. The two powder puffs rest on a porcelain tray divided down the center. One side is decorated with a traditional blue-and-white pattern, while the other side has been left unglazed. Half is a self-portrait that represents the two sides of Datchuk’s cultural heritage. In the next series of powder puffs, Making Women (2014), the hair, more than the porcelain, holds the meaning. Examples include Blonde Bombshell and Black Beauty, where the choice of hair is characteristic of a different ethnicity. Blonde Bombshell has blonde curls spilling over the edge of the tray, while Black Beauty is a stiff black tower stacked straight up and down on the ceramic surface. Datchuk harnesses the characteristics of each type of hair and uses titles to reference various gender and racial stereotypes.
In 2014, Datchuk created Pluck, a 7-minute video in which the artist plucks her eyebrows while reciting a childhood rhyme. Here, for the first time, Datchuk forgoes coded links to her heritage and instead introduces herself as part of the work. Dressed in pale pink, Datchuk faces the camera against a white background. She plucks each eyebrow hair while repeating a rhyme commonly associated with plucking flower petals: “He loves me, He loves me not.” The video goes on to frame different angles of the artist looking into a mirror, as well as the collection of the eyebrow hairs on a white table, until Datchuk faces the camera with no eyebrows. Confronted with the expectation that much of their skin be hairless, women often carefully groom their entire bodies. Eyebrows are, preferably, shaped and tweezed; by completely removing her eyebrows, Datchuk challenges this traditional notion of beauty and defies expectations that women experience from an early age.
Stereotypes and self-portraits
Datchuk has increasingly been using self-portraiture in her work. The series Blue and White (2014) includes porcelain prosthetic eyebrows in a dish and photographic portraits of the artist wearing the eyebrows. The prosthetics are decorated in blue-and-white transfer patterns that she bought while in residence at the Pottery Workshop in Jingdezhen, China. Arguably the site where porcelain was first discovered and processed two millennia ago, Jingdezhen remains one of the chief centers of porcelain production in the world. By wearing the patterned eyebrows, the artist becomes a vessel, a decorated object, and the exoticized “other.” Datchuk compares how the trade of blue-and-white porcelain from China influenced the taste and aesthetics of other countries during the 17th and 18th centuries with the modern-day reversal in this pattern, as Western beauty standards have traveled east to influence Asia. Datchuk’s work critiques these transactions and questions contemporary standards of beauty that are based largely on Western ideals.
Datchuk continues to interrogate racial identity and appropriation in her 2016 series Natural Hair Don’t Lie. The series shows Datchuk wearing different wigs associated with ethnicities other than her own. The hair used to make each wig is human hair of Asian women that has been transformed chemically to mimic the hair of other ethnicities. The combs were purchased in China, and each was made for a specific type of ethnic hair. In the series, the use of an afro pick is perhaps the most iconic object, as it was used in the 1970s as a symbol of black pride and a marker of the civil rights movement. Today, a majority of the world’s human hair industry comes from Asia and is a traded commodity, sold on public marketplaces such as eBay. Datchuk’s adoption of wigs echoes Suzy Lake’s Miss Chatelaine, a 1973 work that criticized media representations of women by collaging images of 12 different hairstyles cut from a women’s magazine onto a self-portrait in white makeup. “Are our ‘self’-projections an act of concealment?” Lake writes. “Or are they revealings of true self? To what extent are these image projections of the self deliberate, or chosen in some form or another?” While Lake’s work analyzes the portrayal of women in media, Datchuk critiques the cultural appropriation of each hairstyle and probes the deeply entrenched racial stereotypes attached to these fashions. She criticizes a hair industry “propelled by African American women, based off of white beauty standards, and from the hair of women in Asia.” Similar to the commodification and export of porcelain from China to the West, Asian hair is now exported as part of a wider market that devalues the human aspects of this commodity in service to Western aesthetic ideals. Datchuk’s self-portraits are attuned to the cultural appropriation prevalent in our society and challenge our awareness and sensitivity on this topic.
The topics of gender, race, and identity that Jennifer Ling Datchuk critiques in her art could not be more relevant to today’s political and social climate. Too often, artists who seek to engage deeply with political issues produce heavy-handed or insincere works that exist as opinions first and successful artworks second. Instead, Datchuk conducts intense and thorough research for each body of work. She confronts issues that are personal but can represent wider topics with authenticity and thoughtfulness. The seriousness with which Datchuk engages complex issues through her use of porcelain, hair, and self-portraiture sets her apart. She is an agitator for change, deftly mining her materials to create work that provokes questions and cultivates insightful reflection.
1. “Artist Statement: Blackwork, 2016” jenniferlingdatchuk.com, accessed June 5, 2017
2. “Artist Statement: Dark and Lovely, 2014,” jenniferlingdatchuk.com, accessed June 5, 2017
4. Berger, Maurice, Wendy Ewald, David R. Roediger, and Patricia J. Williams. White: Whiteness and Race in Contemporary Art, Baltimore: Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, UMBC, 2004, 19
5. Lineberry, Heather S., and Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe. Art on the Edge of Fashion, Tempe, Ariz.: Arizona State University Art Museum, Nelson Fine Arts Center, 1997, 50
6. Such artists include Sonya Clark, Mona Hatoum, Lorna Simpson, and Anne Wilson, to name a few. A more comprehensive history can be found in Heather Hanna’s book Women Framing Hair: Serial Strategies in Contemporary Art, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015
7. The politics of black hairstyles has a long history with many contributors. One essay of note is Kobena Mercer’s “Black Hair/Style Politics,” new formations 3, 1987, 33-54
8. Schor, Gabriele. Feminist Avant-Garde: Art of the 1970s: the Sammlung Verbund Collection, Vienna, Munich: Prestel Verlag, 2016, 300
9. Jennifer Ling Datchuk, correspondence with the author, June 10, 2017