Bianca Ng on art, womanhood, and defying contradictions

This interview was originally published in the April 6, 2018 issue of The Slant. Want more Asian American news, media and culture stories like this one? Subscribe for free to get The Slant in your inbox every Friday morning.

Bianca Ng is an artist based in New York. Her most recent project, “Defying Dualities”, captures the contradictions that 31 women face in day-to-day life. Inspired by the female experience, Bianca illustrated the stories of these women as they navigate societal expectations like “be sexy, but don’t be a slut” and other gendered contradictions. Her work is on display at an interactive art experience on Saturday, April 7th from 5–10pm at the New Women Space in Brooklyn.

We sat down with Bianca to learn more about her project, her purpose, and what inspires her art.

Chery Sutjahjo: How did you get interested in and involved in creating your own art?

Bianca Ng: I think I’m someone who has always known I wanted to do art. I started doing art when I was very small, probably like 8 years old. That was my hobby growing up. I’d spend hours in my room just drawing. I didn’t know why or what it meant, I just knew I really loved doing it. It’s always been something I’ve been interested in.

I wasn’t really encouraged to pursue it in my childhood — it was more about taking extracurriculars in math and English, it was never really about art. I took one art class and my mom said it was too expensive. And then junior year of high school, I had this moment where I was like, “wait, I really like doing this. This is what I want to do.” I told my parents and they let me go to pre-college at Carnegie Mellon for 6 weeks.

It was the first time they took my art seriously, and it actually took my sister convincing them to let me do it. My sister was like, “design is becoming a thing now, she can make a career out of it, so don’t worry!” She’s older, so she convinced them to let me pursue art in college, so I was lucky in that sense that they let me pursue art in college. They supported me all throughout so I’m really grateful for that.

Over the years I just got more and more interested in it overall, and I got to a point where I got a job as a designer, and I’m making money and now they don’t care what I do. It’s kind of an Asian parent thing but it’s true. They don’t bother me much about it, and I’ve hit a point where they’re almost even supportive of what I do, which is an interesting transition.

CS: How much do you share with your parents about what inspires you and the projects that you’re doing?

BN: It’s kind of a weird dynamic where I’ve always been really independent, like a lot of Asian American people are because our parents are often working growing up. I learned that since I was very young — you just figure shit out, and I do tell my parents some things!

CS: What inspires your work and this work in general? I know last year you did a project called “Who is Your Shero?” which was part of your “Take Up Space” series. You have these themes of womanhood in your work — what inspires that?

BN: It started after the presidential election. I was pretty fed up with how negative everyone was being, whether they were right or wrong. I wanted to create something that was positive. I didn’t think it was going to do anything or change anybody but I wanted to have fun.

I’ve done projects like this in the past, so it’s not my first time. My first passion project was called “100 Days of Better Conversations.” I had 50 conversations with strangers and 50 conversations with people I know, and after every conversation I would illustrate a poignant quote from that conversation. So this is the third time I’m doing this kind of visual storytelling project!

Back to “Who is Your Shero?” — [the election] is kinda what sparked it. The other side of that story was that I was creatively burnt out and drained and I needed a creative outlet. The other aspect of that project was recharging myself and finding my own voice again after not doing a personal project for a long time.

It’s hard to describe it, but I was feeling kind of empty and lost without that thing anchoring me. Then I pursued that project, and I challenged myself to use over 60 different colors because previously I hadn’t really used colors.

“Be delicate and demure/Be aggressive and strong”

CS: So going into this year and this project, “Defying Dualities” — how did the current social and political climate impact your work? We’re dealing with a lot of the same emotions and issues from the election, but in a way it’s the “new normal.” I know the feeling of being burnt out resonates with me. Did this make you approach your work differently?

BN: With all that, knowing that this is the “new normal,” which is very upsetting, how can I not continue the project? It’s even more important now more than ever. I don’t want that to be the normal. I need to go against that as much as possible to get people talking about things.

That’s the whole point of my project: to spark conversations with different people — male, female, all humans, to just challenge preconceived notions.

That’s the goal. If one female feels less alone in their experiences through discovering the project, that’s what I want. And if it sparks more of these conversations. I think that’s the point of art. It’s about challenging the norms and challenging the political climate. That’s what art is there for. I hope to continue this as long as possible.

CS: We talked a little bit about the #MeToo movement and how there’s much more focus and conversation around women’s experiences. How did this emphasis on the perception of women impact your work?

BN: The female experience has always been something I’ve been really interested in exploring, just because I am a female. I feel like all these stories and all these experiences aren’t really heard or seen. As we see with the #MeToo movement, we didn’t know so many women were going through the same thing. I’ve faced sexual harassment at work and I felt so alone in that experience. I had no idea that half of my friends had experienced something similar, or even strangers on Facebook that I don’t even talk to have experienced these things.

There is power in sharing these experiences and bringing awareness to these issues. Sharing these collective experiences makes people feel less alone, more heard, and more empowered in their stories, whether to take action, or at least to not feel like the only person experiencing that.

“Don’t be Arab/Don’t be American”

CS: As I was looking through “Defying Dualities,” I related to the majority of the pieces. Even the ones I didn’t totally relate to that were more explicit about identity (“Don’t be Arab/Don’t be American”) I could deeply empathize with and understand what that feels like. I can imagine that telling such personal but simultaneously shared experiences could be challenging. How did you think about that as you designed each piece?

BN: I feel like a lot of artists have trouble explaining this because it’s almost an intuition. I have the conversation and transcribe it, digest the conversation, do some research. And after so many years of practicing how to translate different ideas visually and developing the skill to craft compelling stories, at some point it becomes a muscle that you just flex.

I don’t want to say it just comes to me, but in a lot of cases it does — especially for [the “Don’t be Arab/Don’t be American”] piece. It just felt obvious. It was my first sketch and my first idea. And it’s one of my favorite pieces because it just hit it so spot on. But then other times, when an illustration is a little more frustrating and abstract, I’ll do a lot more research about how people are represented in figures and illustrations.

Another part of the process for this project was that I wanted to represent women’s bodies in ways that aren’t stereotypical — like small and meek and perfect — which is already out there. Depending on the stories, I definitely take inspiration from what the story is saying, as much as I can, but a lot of it is intuition.

CS: Was there a piece that you related to really deeply?

BN: Obviously, I related to every single one of them. It was really hard not to. But there’s two that were kind of the same idea. It was the idea of “don’t be independent, don’t be dependent”. Actually, two people had the same contradiction. It was really freaky because as they were explaining their experiences, I thought “holy shit, the same thing has happened to me.” And I think it’s so insane that we all had that same experience.

One quote that one woman said was about traveling alone and this idea of having a totally different perspective when you travel alone, and you’re exploring the city for the first time by yourself, and having that experience, versus going with somebody, and having that independence, and learning about the culture, and really getting immersed in the space, and discovering your own voice, because you don’t have anyone else dictating that. You don’t have any friends, you don’t know where you are. And when you’re brought into a new place you just find your own independence and voice that’s only defined by who you are in that moment.

Her story was also about being codependent on relationships and how you battle and combat that with your independent voice. She’s one of the most badass ladies I’ve met and she’s struggling with that contradiction. I think a lot of us do.

CS: I love that. I think of these women that I look up to, and I think they’ve got it all figured out. But we have these conversations and it’s like — we’re the same.

BN: We’re the same. Yeah! That’s something I realized I really like about New York. I’m still kinda that friend that hates New York, but the more that I’m exploring and meeting people, the more I see my feelings change. I do love New York because you have the opportunity to meet everyone from your idols to complete strangers, and everyone’s the same.

Everyone is human, no one knows what’s going on, everyone’s just doing things. That’s all anyone is doing, no matter who you admire or respect. At the end of the day they’re just humans doing things. I think that just brings it to another level where it’s like, you and I can be doing whatever we want too.

CS: Yeah, I love that aspect. New York is the best place to meet people and run into people and build friendships and get into really inspiring conversations. I feel like that happens here so often.

BN: Everyone’s really open and nice. It’s not the stereotype that you think of. It’s amazing.

CS: I want to talk a little bit about your gallery opening this Saturday. The subjects of your illustrations will be there, sharing more about their stories in real time. Why was this the structure you designed for this opening? What’s the intention behind it?

BN: This whole project is me doing things that I wish existed — this is me trying to be the woman I wish I had when I was younger and trying to create that. I hate gallery openings, I haven’t been to one gallery opening where I felt included or comfortable or engaged. I hate the idea of all these snobby hipsters coming and talking to their friends and then leaving. I want to totally change that dynamic completely. I want to create work that’s accessible to anybody, and what I really want is to spark these conversations.

I’m really excited about having the participants of this project come and have conversations with the audience about these topics that are very important and not often talked about. That’s the most exciting aspect of this art experience.

It’s the first time I’m doing it, and the first time I’ve seen it done to my knowledge, so I’m really excited to create a safe and vulnerable space for people to share their ideas and connect beyond the project.

CS: What types of conversations do you hope to evoke in your audience?

BN: I think — just that moment of “I never thought about that before.” That moment of curiosity and shifting into learning something new, either about someone else or maybe even about themselves. Maybe they’re surprising themselves by being more open minded about something and realizing they never thought about something a certain way, that’s awesome. I hope those are the conversations that will happen. Or even just like “oh, I feel the same way. That’s crazy.”

“Be sexy/Don’t be a slut”

CS: This is a sneaky “asking for a friend/asking for me” question. As more conversation and public discourse has been centered on the female identity, it’s made me hyper aware of these contradictions and dualities in day to day life. How do you manage these contradictions and dualities?

BN: I guess the thing that sparked this whole project was a conversation I had. I was talking to my old female boss about it, and she said being a woman is a battlefield of ambiguity and it’s filled with contradictions. That’s the first time anyone’s said that to me. I was mindblown because there’s power in naming the thing, and it’s not just this icky feeling you have.

After that conversation, I started realizing I have all these contradictions and I wondered if anyone else did too. I started talking to all my friends about it. But dealing with it on a daily basis — it’s hard. I really feel that since I was digesting these stories every day and posting these stories for 31 days, it really kept me grounded. Reading their experiences helped me recognize that a lot of women are feeling this way, and it helped me be more aware that I don’t really need to be this or that. I’m just constantly reminding myself to take a step back when I feel that tension of a contradiction. It’s fine, chill out, you can do whatever feels right for you.

That’s my new motto, is following my intuition and doing what feels right for me. Not basing it off what everyone else is doing because everyone else has their own emotions and expectations and everything.

CS: So what’s next? Have you thought about what you want to work on or what you’ve been inspired by recently?

BN: Definitely taking a chill pill for all of summer. I do have ideas. I’m interested in the topic of saying “no.” So maybe something along the lines of that. I’ve been interested in that for a while. But we’ll see. Definitely going to be working on something for next year.

Bianca Ng’s latest project, “Defying Dualities”, is a component of her “Take Up Space” series. “Defying Dualities” will be on display at the New Women Space in Brooklyn on Saturday, April 7th from 5–10PM. See more of Bianca’s work at her website, http://bianca-ng.com/, and on Instagram at @takeupspacebybng.