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Shawna Wu: Crafting Sensibilities Beyond Image-Focused Practices in Fashion

In December, textile and garment artist Shawna Wu put up an installation at artist-led space 21 Moonstone. In this interview, she addresses breaking away from unhealthy tendencies of the fashion industry and how her practice weaves in empathy, cultural and identity representation with the philosophy of sustainability.
Shawna Wu: Crafting Sensibilities Beyond Image-Focused Practices in Fashion

by SAND Magazine

February 10, 2019

Shawna Wu wearing her zero waste hand painted and woven dress, photographed by Yang

Cultural nuances were a huge part of your presentation at 21 Moonstone. What were your motivations to merge the varying levels of culture with fashion?

There are so many nuances that I’ve been forced to recognise in my life. How did my parents feel about themselves as Taiwanese and why did they decide to move to Singapore? I’ve been tackling the experience of ‘being Asian’, ‘female’, ‘Taiwanese? Singaporean?’ in different contexts. These things inform my work, and is probably why I’m very conscious about traditions and rituals.

Since I’ve been in many different environments, the way I present myself has also always shifted. As I got older, I decided that I wanted to talk about the feelings of having to deal with all of these changes. I’m sure a lot of people go through such situations and identity crises as well. I feel that fashion is a great medium to come to terms with all of that. It is about embodiment. What we see in the industry these days is very image-centric. But I’m looking at material culture and materiality at the forefront. How they convey value systems, and how certain cultural rituals, meanings and legacies are embedded in them.
If you’re consuming an image, that’s not fashion. Fashion is about something touching your body. Why are we consuming images when we should be consuming a material type of embodiment?
How do you keep yourself focused on the things that matter in a world where we’re constantly exposed to new ideas?

I’m a very intuitive person with a rich inner world. I rarely feel the pressure to follow what other people do because that experience is theirs and not mine. Work is very personal to me. My life experience and emotions are often overpowering and for that reason, my work will be based on who I am and the situations that I come across. I don’t really create for other motivations apart from keeping my intentions pure. I have friends who keep me in check too.

How would you describe the process of arranging the performance? What were the key areas of consideration?

Location is very important. I’m very uncompromising on my materials. For my presentation in Singapore, Hawthorn was presented as the main element of the performance. I love the colour and what it stands for in Chinese medicine. Hawthorn is a nourishing ingredient that, when consumed in excess, builds heatiness in your body. It’s all part of what culture means to me as well – too much of it is good for one but it can also throw you off.

Photographed by Nicole Ngai
It’s important to go into details because my work is all about materials being an actual legacy and embodiment of what our culture is, so I never compromise on that.
It shows in the people I work with as well. Bringing my work to Singapore meant that I had to have the essential ingredients that were representative of the culture here.

There’s something really sweet about having Singaporean models this time round. They draw from their own experiences. Having them interact with tea that’s sourced from Singapore, too. It’s a small detail but I think these things run deep when you start unpacking them.

It was also about bridging my own cultural nuances with the place I find myself in. My grandparents belong to the generation of Taiwanese who settled before the Japanese occupation. So the performance presented textiles from Japan, Taiwan and Singapore. These objects are sourced and collected over a period of time.

Did you also consider the age, gender and cultural backgrounds of your audience when directing the performance?

Even though I’m no longer a permanent resident of Singapore, my parents still live here. Something that was important to me was to make sure that they could witness the integration of my authentic self and the human experience.
To me, eroticism is all about the conflicting feelings of pain and tension from shame and disgust. We, as human beings, debate on what’s considered ‘dirty’.
Honesty is an important part of my work. I’m not here to make something sanitised. At the same time, I want my family, or your family, to be able to come in and share this experience. To answer your question, diversity of my audience group was definitely part of the consideration. It should embody what it means to be living.

Do you see performance and fashion as binding together or independent of each other?

Why would it be independent? They are both tactile, haptic, sensual, embodied experiences.

The thing about fashion right now is that we are totally divorced from the meanings of objects. People tend to be very far removed from the material implication of objects that they are willing to purchase something for the sake of image without really considering the full extent of what these materials mean. How did they get here? Was there pollution, suffering and death involved? How has fashion or aesthetics led to this culture of waste? I find myself thinking, how do we get people back to a form of material sensing? How can I demonstrate that through performance?

We all embody the everyday. What performance does is bring it to the forefront of our consciousness so we can evaluate. That’s when we start to think about textiles and garments more deeply. What does this mean for people of different body types, race and cultural values? I wanted to bring all of that together.

You present your values in very subtle means. It’s quite different from the way major brands tend to convert their missions into loud marketable statements.

To me, technique isn’t the end. The issue with fashion is that it always ends there. But for me, it’s about an underlying form of care and empathy. Showcasing the emotion behind sustainability, people and culture. Another reason for using Singaporean models is their relevance to the culture here. That’s not something any foreign white model, for example, would be able to present.

The performance is two things at once – natural dyeing as a technique, and sustainability as a form of empathy. It’s about sparing a thought for the world. How can we carry on our cultures and feelings that come with that?

Photographed by Nicole Ngai
In the performance there was a lot of drinking and leaking. That’s about how, as people, we were born with a politicised body. That isn’t our choice. To carry that in your body no matter what you do can be too much to bear.
The marriage between soundscape and performance contributed to its significance too.

wanglianc11 is amazing. The thing about working with friends is that it feels truly collaborative. We have a similar family immigrant experience – he was originally born in China. The soundscape was channelled from a sense of aesthetic drawn from the culture and history we are both familiar with.

You once mentioned that aestheticism isn’t just about the surface and that it should be humanitarian too. How would you describe your work in relation to this principle?

That’s really what it’s all about. In philosophy, aesthetics are values. People who study art history will be familiar with how aesthetics show our value systems. The objects that we find beautiful or deem valuable to be called art has to do with a history of class and race, for example. There are structures contributing to these things that we don’t examine enough.

Singaporeans value themselves for being great English speakers as compared to other Asian countries. People can decide what to preserve about themselves – the way they look, how they speak, and all the other aesthetics of relevance to the culture, which contributes to deep feelings about what they think is worth keeping.

Photographed by Nicole Ngai
It’s so important that your object retains who you are. Don’t lose yourself or diminish your culture just because it’s not seen as valuable to others.
That comes down to why I work with Chinese knots. Yes, the cheongsam is universally beautiful but how can we elaborate on that? Culture has to be elaborated on and not just preserved or it will still seem dead. I want to take traditional techniques and expand on them.

How do you align your goals to new communities of people?

Whenever I create a show, I’ll make sure it’s sensitive to the space and location I'm working with. Which type of materials are suitable or relatable to the people there? Everyone at the show has a presence. Each of us has our own thing going on. It’s about curating an experience and giving these people an opportunity to present themselves.

I’ve been thinking that if I were to ever put up a performance in Taiwan, I’d work with bin lang/betel nut because its iconic to the Taiwanese culture. It’s likely happening in summer 2019!

I’ve always been hyper-aware towards the issue of identity crisis, which is probably why my work is at the level it is now. It definitely takes time. First, you experience it. Then, you resolve the trauma and feelings of dislocation before you can talk about it in a productive manner. I’ve been involved in situations where I have held the shock or miscommunication stemming from cultural differences. I hold it in myself and remember those feelings of adjustment. A lot of people go through that. It’s a thing. How do you emerge from that experience?

All of this doesn’t matter if there’s no desire to be intimate with someone different from you. At the end of the day, it’s good to know what my intentions are and bear in mind that being close isn’t about agreeing but merging, for me. The only way to do that is through empathy.

Photographed by Nicole Ngai
How do we become close? How do we access one another? What’s the feeling of being in love and together like?
I’m also obsessed with technicality. Material objects are just like people, in the sense that they are separate and will not perform an activity if they’re not structured to do it. Similar to a person, if you really love something you will understand their boundaries. It’s about negotiating and creating a dialogue with the ‘other’ – whether its a person or an object.

Apart from empathy and technicality, what is your greatest guiding principle?

I’m not easily content. I will not talk about fashion without going into fabric, followed by sourcing and people. It’s an endless tunnel. I guess you can feel it from the performance as well. I’m very curious as to what other people thought about or felt at the show. One thing that was brought up is sexuality and how we live our truths.

Putting the installation together was a great way for me to make all these experiences, thoughts and obsessions tangible. To really know you have to be soaking.
When you deal with other people, power will always be a thing. It’s the same for objects.

Shawna Wu (b. Singapore) is a New York based Taiwanese artist who works sensuously with garments and textiles. Her work explores the ways in which material culture addresses our understanding of and gaps within intimacy, empathy and cultural nuance.

Her pieces are elevated through traditional, meticulous handweaving, knitwear and textile making craftsmanship, reiterating the idea of deliberate, thoughtful material consciousness. Fully fashioning, natural dyeing and ethical sourcing are all techniques that she employs within a loving and sustainable vision.

Find out more at


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