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KQ Huang: Unboxing Notions of Labour and Value

Updated: Dec 3, 2022

Interview with Res Publica (Tabitha Boyton and Barbara Listek)

October 2021

Tabitha Boyton and Barbara Listek have been hugely privileged to meet with KQ Huang, whose work has been selected to feature in the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition 2021.

Thank you so much, Kaler, for joining us in Bermondsey!

What are the biggest challenges that young artists are facing today, particularly with regards to COVID? I'm not best placed to answer this given that I have a full-time job and am not making a living out of my art. What I can offer is the challenge I have personally faced in being unable to visit galleries during the pandemic which is a really important way I find of getting inspiration and being challenged by seeing new work. Online exhibitions are just not the same!

Why did you decide to connect your art with the culinary tradition? Is food a form of art? My art is centred around the history of the Chinese diaspora which is completely intertwined with food and the hospitality industry. Like so many first-generation Chinese immigrants, my grandad came to the UK in the 1960s and set up a restaurant to make a living. Food is also fundamental to Chinese culture and traditions. When we visit my grandma, for instance, she will spend the whole day cooking and preparing dishes. It's a beautiful way of showing love and bringing people together.

I definitely think food is a form of art, with the added benefit of being able to engage our senses of taste and smell. If art is simply about creative self-expression, then food can and certainly has been used as a medium in that. I'm thinking particularly of people like the British-Chinese chef Andrew Wong who has studied the huge variety in regional cuisine in China. He draws on the country's rich culinary history to create a menu that is inspired by history but also reinterprets it, which requires a great deal of creativity and imagination.

What, apart from your cultural heritage, impacts your artistic expression?

Definitely the work of other artists. I'm lucky enough in my day job to work with artists on a regular basis and learn how they think and work. At the moment, I am really inspired by artists of the African diaspora who are creating really powerful work that deals with the complex legacies of history and culture. Artists such as Kehinde Wiley, Tunji Adeniyi-Jones and Njideka Akunyili Crosby are making such exciting and exquisitely made work that has a real message and conceptual weight behind it.

My faith is also very important to me, and the way in which the Bible expresses notions of beauty and creativity definitely influences the way I think about the importance of art and self-expression. The idea that creativity is fundamentally part of what it means to be made in the image of God reminds me that our ability to make art, which in itself has no ostensible practical use, is such a gift and to take joy in the process of painting or sculpting.

What would you like the audience to take away from your work? I would like them to think it is beautiful or at least interesting to look at. And then hopefully they engage with the deeper conceptual concerns about how Chinese labour is valued. I love artists who make really visually attractive work, draw you in and then hit you over the head with something challenging that sticks and gives you something to think about. One of my favourite artists and actually curator of this year's RA Summer Exhibition, Yinka Shonibare, is a case in point. He uses colourful batik fabric to make amazing sculptures that bring into question our notions of African authenticity through the complex histories of trade and empire. As he says, "I am here to protest, but I am going to do it like a gentleman. It is going to look very nice. You are not even going to realize that I am protesting...[until] it is too late."

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