With firecracker earrings, monolid-accentuating eyepieces, and silver grillz, Ada Chen, an artist, jewelry maker, and Pratt Institute graduate, used her thesis collection, titled Made in Chinese America, to explore her identity as a Chinese American woman. "The collection was initially supposed to represent the most intimate aspects of my culture, but it became very politically charged in its development," Chen tells Refinery29. "The politics and culture complemented each other very well."
Fusing conceptual art and radical jewelry making, Chen’s work is a sarcasm-laden political look at how Asian Americans are "undoubtedly treated as the other" — served with a heavy dose of humor. First up, her exploration of the frightening confrontations regarding language that are becoming more and more common under Trump’s presidency. Carving "Speak Chinese We're In America" into silver grillz and "Speak English We're In America" into matching earrings, the pieces feel like a direct response to the circulating YouTube clips of white Americans demanding the same from people of color in malls and on public transportation.
"In a country where immigrants are significantly contributing to its livelihood, many conservative Americans love to tell people of color who speak languages other than English to 'speak English' in order to make these POC feel like they don't belong," Chen says. "I even said it to my Cantonese-speaking friends once when I was young and hadn't realized that I thought this way because I didn't want to seem like I didn't belong myself. 'Speak Chinese' also relates to how my parents always asked me to speak to them in Chinese at home because losing one's ability to speak their home language is common."
Perhaps the most political piece of her collection, jeweled metal headbands that wrap around the head to pull the eyelids sideways, tackles the highly problematic side of the beauty industry that’s seeing a rise in Asian women altering their features to adhere to Western beauty ideals. "This piece refers to how Westerners' favorite way to describe 'Asian' is to pull their eyes back to exaggerated slants. This mocking motion indicates, again, an otherness that Asians have negatively internalized, giving rise to beauty products like double eyelid tape and to double eyelid surgery to achieve a more Western look." She also created the piece to counter this growing industry "to make a commodity that prompts Westerners to achieve Asian features instead."
The jewelry that’s taken Instagram by storm, however, are her Text Earrings, which detail in laser-cut acrylic two conversations she had with men. "The green Android texts are from a man who texted me 'Are you Asian or Chinese?' I didn't think it would get worse, but after I let him know that Chinese is one type of Asian — implying that his question did not make much sense — he then assumed that I could not have been from America," she explains. "The blue texts weren't actually from a text chat, but a short conversation I recalled word for word while I was in a Wall Street apartment with a man in a white Gucci teddy bear T-shirt. Asian women, like me, love it when non-Asian men treat us like exotic prizes…"
This fetishization is nothing out of the ordinary for Chen and her friends. "My friends who are people of color and I often experience some form of fetishization. In regards to the specific fetishization of Asian women, I'd say that we can barely walk outside without hearing 'Ni hao!' or 'Konichiwa!' when someone catcalls us." This treatment and 'othering' is horrendous, but sadly not shocking. Chen finds solace on the internet, which is reflected in pieces like the Text Earrings. "The internet absolutely inspires my work!" she says. "Not necessarily in terms of aesthetic, but in terms of how people create content for others to relate to. The way that people express themselves and respond to content on the internet should be an entire scientific study in itself."
For Chen, inspiration comes in the form of memes, jewelers like Otto Künzli and Göran Kling, comedian Ali Wong, artist Tom Galle, her friends, her identity, objects in her house, and Chinese food, and she feels seen and heard by women like model and musician Rina Sawayama. "She does a freakin' amazing job at being unapologetically east Asian, openly talking about it in Western societies while also developing her art in her own style — not according to what people expect of an Asian girl."
Post-graduation, Chen's working as a bench jeweler for Satomi Kawakita Jewelry, but will be exploring "what 'Asian' means in all its nuances" in her future collections. "The term encompasses many cultures that don't actually identify with each other, and yet they are somehow grouped together," she says. And we can't wait to see — and wear — whatever radical jewelry she creates next.