By Candice Okada
There are few people who can address the seriousness of colonialism and cultural appropriation in a manner that is both humorous and aesthetically meaningful. Brendan Lee Satish Tang is one artist who has successfully sparked a dialogue on the increasing influences of globalization and technology on cultural identity. Tang’s ceramic sculptures, Chinese Ming dynasty vessels fitted with techno-pop armour, capture the viewer’s attention and encourage audiences to reconsider the current state of Canada’s multicultural reputation.
Born in Ireland to Trinidadian parents of Chinese and Indian descent, Tang has been an artist since childhood. “I started drawing when I was fairly young. I guess I have always felt that art has been a part of me.” After immigrating to Canada and becoming a naturalized citizen, Tang continued his studies at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where he earned his BFA, and then at the Southern University of Illinois Edwardsville to receive his MFA. While still a student, Tang transitioned into the medium of ceramics. “I began working with ceramics for the emotions and feelings that it allows me to access,” he explains. “It also allows me to create better 3D images due to its forgiving and malleable nature.”
The fact that Tang is an Irish-born, half Chinese, half Indian, Canadian citizen exhibiting his work across North America emphasizes the multicultural nature of his work.
It seems appropriate that Tang would engage in the art of ceramics, as much of his family history can be traced back to Asia and, after all, the Chinese have always been regarded as the undisputed masters of ceramic vessels. In his most recent collection, the Manga Ormolu series, the ceramic sculptures take on another iconic character of Asian culture—Japanese anime and manga. Although not a fan of either himself, Tang finds the cultural sphere associated with such art forms fascinating. “I personally don’t watch too much anime,” he says, “but I do appreciate the design sensibilities of the work and I do have a lot of friends that watch anime and read manga.” It seems that Tang appropriates these Japanese pop-art forms, not so much out of passion, but more out of respect. His choice to fuse ceramic art tradition and techno-pop art brings attention to the elitism of popular culture and its strong hold over the way we view our world. “I am very much into popular culture,” Tang says. “I am constantly amazed by culture in general and how we all identify ourselves via a particular culture.”
Tang explains the inspiration behind his work, the 18th century Ormolu: a French practice that adorned Chinese ceramic vessels in finely ground, high-karat gold. These ceramics were transformed into curiosity pieces for aristocrats, an example of early globalization, whereby Chinese artifacts were appropriated for a western market. Tang’s updated and repurposed practice of Ormolu—the hybridization of Chinese Ming dynasty vessels and futuristic pop imagery—leads viewers into discussing and thinking about Canada’s most reputable attribute: multiculturalism. The fact that Tang is an Irish-born, half Chinese, half Indian, Canadian citizen exhibiting his work across North America emphasizes the multicultural nature of his work.
“I played hockey and I only speak English,” [...] “Cultural appropriation and assimilation seem like a natural part of my identity.”
The idea or practice of globalization is not a recent trend, as nations throughout history have used mechanisms of war and trade routes to buy, adopt, and pillage technologies and cultural artifacts from one another. And viewed in this way, the advent of the Internet and online social networking has simply accelerated the movement of people and technologies amidst countries and nations. Tang asserts, “It has not yet yielded cultural uniformity.” Instead, globalization has only blurred the boundaries of identity and left one’s perception of self subject to consistent change. Raised in Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island, Tang understands first-hand how particular aspects of “other” cultures can be adopted. “I was raised in a predominantly white culture. We had a couple of Asian knick-knacks around the house, but generally speaking we accepted the traditions of the dominant culture,” Tang explains. “I played hockey and I only speak English,” he goes on to say. “Cultural appropriation and assimilation seem like a natural part of my identity.” That being said, not everyone is so quick to assimilate and Tang is aware of this. “People look for comfort in communities and I search for things that inform these cultures.” Finding one’s place and identity within two different sets of cultural standards is difficult, and this is where Manga Ormolu comes into play. The ceramic sculptures—composed of delicate and detailed ancient Chinese vessels countered by the bulkiness and intrusiveness of robot prosthetics—and their presentation within Canada, mirror Asian influence in Canada and the overbearing reach of popular culture.
Manga Ormolu sculptures are important for another reason: the popularity of the work coincides with the increasing demand for designer vinyl toys (i.e. Kidrobot), and the commercialization of street/urban art and graffiti. Tang’s subtle criticism of consumerism goes hand in hand with his beliefs about globalization. Tackling the topic of cultural appropriation is far from easy, especially in the form of ceramics, but as Tang emphasizes, “the role of the artist is to present information and ideas, and to present them in ways that are not the most direct. As an artist, I think the most important thing is to instigate conversation.” Tang’s work offers viewers many different ways in which to enter into a discussion about pop culture, multiculturalism, and identity.
The frivolousness of manga and anime are qualities which make Tang’s ceramic sculptures approachable and accessible to all people, enabling them to grasp the deeper meaning of his delicate Chinese ceramic vessels fitted with futuristic robotic prosthetics. And even if viewers don’t fully realize the artist’s intentions, hopefully they will simply “pause and reflect,” as Tang puts it, on the piece that stands before them. He adds, “artists aim to help others understand and view our world in a richer and much more interactive way.”