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Re-Energising Embroidery with Nicole Chui

Tradition and modernity collide through a medium gaining resurgence driven by unexpected interpretations and unapologetic messages.

Nicole’s Chui’s first exhibition in October 2017, commissioned by NOW gallery as part of ‘The Body Issue’, showcased an artist with an agenda. Exploring intersectional themes, experimenting with mixed mediums and raising themes of race, objectification and idealisation, her art continues to be even more relevant and open spaces for discourse.

For TONG’s second talent in our Creators in Focus series, we connect with HK born artist Nicole Chui (@thatsewnicole) to understand the mind and process of the star behind the striking social media posts and driving the traditional practice of embroidery forward in collaborations with Converse, Victoria Beckham and New Era.


What’s your story and how would you describe yourself as an artist today?

When I was 15, I learned embroidery, a technique called ‘English Smocking’ from my grandma for a personal project but also because I wanted to spend more time with her because she lived in Malaysia, she still lives there, and I lived in Hong Kong at the time. It was a good way to connect over the summer and get to know more about her story.

In the very beginning my perception of embroidery was mostly on baby garments because my grandma would do them. It was very traditional and very thoughtful but as I learnt the technique and evolved, I realised that my style was very different from that. I wanted to rebel against traditional perceptions of hand embroidery, and also its attachment to domesticity and the Victorian times where women sat at home and did needlepoint. I wanted to show that embroidery could be empowering, very loud, messy, brash, and very disruptive, which is the way I describe my work today.


How did you evolve and arrive at your current practice?

In terms of embroidering over photography it all started because I came across this artist called Maurizio Anzeri. He embroiders over vintage photography from the Victorian era, but he embroiders very geometric shapes that accentuate and emphasise an element of like the portrait, whether it be someone's face or a body part. It made me break away from my idea of needlework being just stuck to fashion and it made me think of it in more of a visual art context. You can change things when something is handmade and input your expression so I started treating, embroidering and doodling on top of notebooks and magazines.

I interned and worked in magazines quite a lot so I would have loads of print available to me. I basically decided to use them as sketchbooks because there was so much going to waste. Also, I didn’t want to use blank pages and waste money! I wanted to work on top of something that was already existing and it spiralled from there.

Nicole Chui
Nicole Chui

So in the context of your work, being resourceful is important?

Definitely. Embroidery is kind of like sampling music in a way, because you are using existing pieces and adding your voice onto it, but it also brings something different at the same time.

It wasn't popular at the time I started, I was just doing it out of what was around me and in my environment. It came naturally, rather than me going out of my way, I used what I had around me.


How did you approach hustling, finding your own path and organic growth as an artist, especially as an ethnic minority in the creative industry?

Being ‘niche’ was not easy because being an artist is not a normal pathway and it's all about hustle, but at the same time, you don't know what the final destination is, so there's a lot of anxiety and worry around that. Passion is what drove me to continue practicing embroidery even when I was doing it on the side. My main work was as a creative and graphic designer which is a role I thought I would go into once I had left uni. I didn't intend to go into the world being a freelance artist. It's something I never thought anyone could do unless you were from a place of super high privilege.

It's hard not to compare yourself to other people but I'm really happy with where I'm at. I want to grow more, it has been passed down to me from my grandma, not just the technique of embroidery, but that grit and that mentality.

All Stretched Out: 'Harder Than You Think', 'Good Toes, Naughty Toes'
All Stretched Out: 'Harder Than You Think', 'Good Toes, Naughty Toes'

‘All Stretched Out’ caught our attention as a project with clear intention, how did that come about?

During 2016 and 2017, I was illustrating a lot for a platform called gal-dem, a platform run by women of colour and non-binary people. One of the cultural commissioners from NOW Gallery saw my work and reached out to me. Every year they run a group exhibition named ‘Human Stories’ where they commission a range of artists to either contribute existing works or to create new works for the theme of the exhibition that year. For 2017 the theme was ‘The Body Issue’. Right before that, I worked on a piece that was focused on dancers. I used to be a ballerina so I have that connection with movement and dance. I always wanted to express the inner feelings of, the struggles and the pain that dancers went through. Embroidery was an interesting way to channel that and mix it with photography. People see a really beautiful picture when looking at dancers, but don’t really understand how much work and pain that comes with pointe shoes, how dancers adapt to this pain and what goes into doing one beautiful action.

I decided to photograph two people I knew who were voguers, but also who train like ballerinas. Voguing is quite intricate and also quite difficult. I could see how much effort went into each action so I wanted to use colour and thread to express that. One was shot at my friend’s house and the other in a park where there was nobody and so much space so it was comfortable there. I decided to stitch very vivid and very intense thread patterns and prints that contrast the naturalness of the environments.

It was a balance between comfort and pain and mixing the two together. That is what this collection of work was about. When you see it, you will understand how the two balance each other out, and hopefully you gain a sense of joy but also stress by looking at it.


The significance of ‘All Stretched Out’ is as relevant today, with topics such as diversity, body issues and mental health more openly discussed. Are these interests or obligations for you as an artist?

I have always been vocal about a lot of those topics, even when they weren't ‘popular’. So the projects that I'd worked on span across women, diversity, mental health because they are so important to me. These topics have always been important, especially sisterhood or, de-stigmatising mental health. I don't go into a piece thinking I have to touch upon these points, but they come naturally because I'm genuinely interested in them. It's not a starting point, but more like a natural progression.

Human Stories: The Body Issue at NOW Gallery, London
Human Stories: The Body Issue at NOW Gallery, London

What role does digital and physical play in your output?

Digital is more accessible to an audience that I never could reach, but the physical is how I make an impact and the personal impact. When I've had in-person shows or workshops the feedback is always that it just feels different and that it's not something people would have thought of. Whereas with digital people assume it's illustrated or digitally modified.


One commonality across your body of work is colour, how essential is this?

Colour for me has always been really important because I personally have really bad eyesight so it's a way to attract and actually see what I'm doing from afar. I personally love bold colours, especially red. I use that a lot because not only is it one of my favourite, but I feel it provokes people in a different way. Some people see it as an angry colour. Some people really hate it or really love it. Some people see red as a romantic colour, others see it as a sad colour. Loud colours are just a great tool to express and to channel the embroidery in a very expressive way without needing to say much.

I'm attracted to visually loud things so it is subverting embroidery in that way. When you think of embroidery, it is mainly baby colours and very pastel-y and I don't want to be a pastel artist.

All Stretched Out: 'My Hair Tastes Like Hubba Bubba', 'Tight'
All Stretched Out: 'My Hair Tastes Like Hubba Bubba', 'Tight'

Different fields and sectors are becoming more integrated, what is your experience of collaboration - commercial or otherwise?

A lot of happy accidents come out of those things that I wouldn't have done before, but because of the openness to collaborating, I've grown my work in that way. A lot of people see collaborating with brands as a way to sell out, but I just see it as a way to just grow as an artist and actually not just survive, but to share my work with a new audience.

My message is to disrupt the world of embroidery. My work is changing that perception. I'm acting as a bridge to many different industries that embroidery would not have been in the forefront of before. It is a positive growth and from my background in creative direction for fashion, I see it more as a positive way to problem solve. It is more about inserting yourself and sharing your voice to an audience who would have probably thought of before.


What is the role of artists today, if different to before?

The artist has a lot more agency these days and it is a lot more present in the art. It is equally as important to be present alongside your art in order to survive. Even just continuing to share your work in a way is like marketing because I don't believe you can separate the art from the artist.

Five years ago it was different because you could just show your art and never show your face. I'm noticing now the importance of being present a lot more, whether it's through campaign shoots where brands want to engage with artists themselves and hear what they have to say or doing panel talks or events. Now, I do more workshops which makes me more present as an artist and allows me to get to talk to people. These people are in different stages of their own life, whether they are an enthusiast in art or even if they want to enter the industry. There's a lot more democracy and barriers are being broken down with the artist being more present and having a greater ability to share their experiences.

All Stretched Out at NOW Gallery, London
All Stretched Out at NOW Gallery, London

What is the future for creative communities in big cities as individuals are becoming more displaced and facing new barriers in terms of learning and opportunities?

There will definitely be more accessible education. There's this app called Daisie, which my friend and I recently did a talk for and they basically bring accessible education to young creatives in secondary school or to anyone who's aspiring to get into an industry around the world. The way it's formatted is kind of like Clubhouse, but for particular talks with actual photographers who are young, but have worked enough in the industry already. This brings that relatability to something that can be so daunting. I am seeing that communities can be built and be brought together and it won't just be exclusive to big cities.

There are going to be more creative disciplines that pop-up as seen with embroidery, five years ago that was not even a thing! So many roles that exist now weren't even around in our industries, like Creative Strategy. These things change really quickly and more and more are going to pop up like art disciplines, so who knows what is going to happen next? I think that helps break that idea that you have to be each other's competitor and that you can actually work together to build a strong community of like people who are just different and embrace that difference. The future of creative communities is that we'll embrace our differences and we won't need to be scared of competition, even though competition exists.

All Stretched Out: 'Finger Fun', 'Mind Mischief'
All Stretched Out: 'Finger Fun', 'Mind Mischief'
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