Model Sheena Liam sees embroidery transcending the worlds of art and fashion

Model and embroidery artist Sheena Liam and Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, who married in 2018, used to spend time together and apart on a monthly basis. By a happy whim, the pandemic that has separated families around the world has worked in reverse for them.

“We never lived together for a long time because of our careers,” says Liam. “Lockdown changed that for us, and with it came stability and the opportunity to explore stepping up my work. I wouldn’t say it’s for better or for worse, but as they say , you take what you can.

“My constant need to work and do something hasn’t changed. I’ve realized that even without the support that comes with joining an exhibition or residency, my drive to create is still very strong. I find this is quite reassuring, because it shows that this is what I like to do.

Liam is one of 12 artists taking part in Everything has changed, nothing has changed, which opens at Temu House on March 5. It will present five works – four representing embroidered figures and a still life on furniture – produced during the closures. The exhibition aims to highlight the impact of the coronavirus on artists and their work.

The greatest pieces of her art, which she was already working on at the time, reflect the Covid-19 situation. When asked how she plotted the theme with fabric and thread, she replies over email that as a very visual person who is not very eloquent with words, she tries not to overthink it. when it comes to interpreting themes.

This will be the first time Liam has shown his embroidery at home. In 2018, she produced a solo, Times New Romance, at the Item Gallery in Paris, also the venue for Propositions industres, a collective exhibition in which she would participate two years later. She did another group show, Lemonade Stand, at the Naughton Gallery in Queens, Belfast, in 2020.

Planning a job before you start is always difficult, she says. But once she gets into the sewing routine, “it becomes almost meditative for me. And like any meditation, there are days when you can spend hours, and days when even 15 minutes would be enough”.

Born and raised in Kuala Lumpur but with lots of extended family from Penang, Liam and Zacharevic – who became famous for the large-scale street art murals he painted in George Town in 2012 – chose to hole up in his studio there during lockdowns and keep working. The change of scenery and pace led her to realize that human beings can adapt to anything.

The adaptation became a no-brainer for Liam, known for her embroidered images of girls with braids in meditative poses. These are based on her self-portraits, only because it’s easier than having to guide or pose models as she photographs them. But her subjects have evolved since she started painting still lifes recently.

“It’s been a weird few months watching empty cafes and empty chairs. It was strange but a very unique experience and I wanted to document that,” she says.

Liam won Asia’s Top Model Cycle 2 in 2014 and made his international debut at London Fashion Week the same year. She has since paraded in Paris, Los Angeles and New York, the last being her pre-pandemic base.

Unable to remain inactive, she took up embroidery to occupy the hours of traveling and waiting for filming during her missions and to pin what she sees around her with a needle. During the first confinement, she threw herself into Animal Crossing 24 hours a day. But her interest in simulation video games faded when she decided to be more proactive and to become more structured.

So she joined Haus KCH, an online residency program where she met other artists and was able to work within a classroom structure. Driven to approach her pieces academically, she realized that “artists need other artists and dreamers need to stay with dreamers”.

A dream would now be to take embroidery out of its traditional scope and find the right platform to carry out the work. Liam wasn’t exactly drawn to the medium when she started due to its repetitive nature. But when she saw artists using embroidery in contemporary works, she realized its potential and returned to it in earnest.

“Embroidery has always been neglected and underestimated. Even now I’ve had people refer to it as a “hobby”. Residencies and competitions tend not to have spaces for embroidery art. It’s a shame because I think embroidery is just as intricate as any oil painting or sculpture, and the medium demands more respect regardless of whether it’s an activity or of a traditional feminine art form.

It helps that embroidery has always been a big part of fashion, with designers decorating fabrics and other materials using needles and threads, says Liam, who sees his work transcend both worlds in ways transparent. Last year, she took a big step towards this in a collaboration with Coach, in which her designs adorned bags in the brand’s spring/summer collection. She embroidered the Mulane logo for the Malaysian premiere of the Disney film in 2020 and did an art installation for Tiger Beer at Pavilion Kuala Lumpur this year.

Inspiring clients to think outside the box in collaborations can be quite challenging, she adds. “Imagine how crazy it is that you’ve been given the business budget you’ve dreamed of all your life, but the cost is that some of them don’t want to give you the space to really explore your potential. I think it is important to accompany the artist through the complete vision.

Every art form involves a complex process and every work requires thought and soul, she believes. Knowing what it takes for artists to spread their work, it irritates him when people look down on art.

Liam received overwhelming support from fans on social media, who picked up the embroidery and replicated his designs. Seeing some of them do even better than what she is doing is amazing, she admits. “There are tutorials online on how to do 3D hair like mine and it’s weirdly nice to see people teaching my technique better than I could explain myself.”

She has been invited to be part of a show that will tour New York, Los Angeles and Boston from April to June that seeks to bring attention to marginalized identities in America. The theme speaks to her and her personal experiences of being a foreigner living in the United States and she hopes to produce some very good work that will reflect her time there and how she feels about many incidents, such as the recent wave of anti-Asian hatred. crimes – which allegedly triggered the fatal stabbing of creative producer Christina Yuna Lee by a stalker who forced his way into her Manhattan Chinatown apartment on February 13.

“It’s horrible how Asians, or more specifically Asian women, have been treated as commodities and not human beings, and then it takes something horrible like a man walking into a spa and shooting about people there to even start a conversation about it,” Liam’s Vents.

What does his mother, the one who taught him to embroider, say about his work, now that he takes his place?

“I don’t think she fully understands what I do, but she’s always been totally supportive. She had to support me my whole life exploring alternative career paths while maintaining safe boundaries. She saved me a lot of trouble.

“Everything Has Changed, Nothing Has Changed” will be held from March 5 to April 10 at Temu House (49 Lorong 16/9E, Petaling Jaya). Viewing by appointment only on 012 911 8470. See more here.

This article was first published on February 28, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.

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