Reinterpreting Chinese culture
through jewellery-based art

Acclaimed Chinese artist Bifei Cao – and this year’s WARE (Wellington Asia Residency Exchange) artist in residence – uses innovative jewellery design to comment on contemporary issues and reinterpret Chinese culture.
Bifei Cao standing beside Te Auaha entrance on street

Bifei Cao is the first international artist in residence at Wellington’s Te Auaha NZ Institute of Creativity

Bifei Cao was on a research exchange in the Netherlands in 2015 when a friend, desperate to avoid the exorbitant prices of the black market in China, asked if he could help send baby milk formula back home for his newborn child.

The request got Cao thinking back to the 2008 milk powder scandal, a widespread food-safety incident in China involving milk and infant formula being adulterated with melamine.

The Chinese artist and contemporary jeweller, who is the current Wellington Asia Residency Exchange (WARE) International Artist in Residence at Te Auaha, says his homeland China is renowned for manufacturing imitations – but in this case, with devastating consequences.

“I heard lot of stories. I wanted to comment on contemporary issues and reinterpret Chinese culture,” he says in Te Auaha’s new jewellery department.

Cao, whose work is characterised by jewellery-based object-making and hollowware, creates narrative pieces exploring how different cultures can be reinterpreted through his art.

He also recalls being a student of Fashion Design and Sculptural Metals and his class being asked to tell the difference between an original Louis Vuitton handbag and a fake one at the Beijing Institute of Fashion and Technology (BIFT).

“Chinese are very good at copying and mimicking things,” he says. “One was imitation, one was real, and we couldn’t tell.”

Cao wanted to comment on the milk powder scandal but also on the tradition of imitation – by replicating jade.

“Milk can be made into plastic [through a chemical curdling process]. I really wanted to use milk powder and I was also researching traditional Chinese jade forms. So I thought, ‘How about using milk powder to imitate jade?’”

Cao combined baby milk powder, baby oil and colouring within his materials to deftly imitate the highly sought-after pale green and milky white Chinese jade. His pieces Yue (adze) and Bi (disk) from the 2015 New Identity Series were also a commentary on ancient Han Dynasty tools and currency.

 Early artistic leanings

 Cao is the third generation in a rural, subsistence-farming community from the village of Xianyin County in Hunan Province, where Mao Zedong hailed from.

“[Becoming an artist] was accidental, but it has been my dream ever since I was a child,” he says.

But he almost missed out on a career as an award-winning international artist.

He remembers fishing with his father, and his mother making rice dumplings from scratch, and pickling everything in home-made pottery jars. He also soaked up his grandmother’s passion for traditional folk stories.

Bifei talks about his art and inspirations

Prolifically creative, Cao would scratch drawings on the bamboo slats used in the vegetable gardens. However his family had no interest in art; thought to be an impecunious profession.

“My parents wanted me to be an accountant or lawyer.”

Thanks to Cao’s middle-school teacher, who convinced his father over a glass of strong rice whisky that his son exhibited a prodigious talent, he was able to major in Fashion Design and Sculptural Metals at BIFT, and pursue an MA degree at the Academy of Arts & Design at Tsinghua University.

Exploring cross-cultural links

 These days, Cao is the Associate Professor at Guangdong University of Technology’s inaugural School of Art and Design. Jewellery is not the usual career path for an Associate Professor either, but then his path to success has been anything but conventional.

He describes himself a “cultural narrative artist”. Cao’s art is playful, reflecting stories from his rural childhood and contrasting these with the cultures of his host countries.

Cao sees himself living on the bridge between cultures, having spent almost a decade away from China completing an MFA in the jewellery and metals programme under Lynda LaRoche, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and a PhD in Canberra, Australia.

His latest work explores shapes related to ancient jade burial suits worn by Chinese emperors which also used the dougong interlocking process.

Bifeo Cao necklace object on white table

Cao says weaving practices in his home village are uncannily similar to kete-making

His residence in Wellington has been very fruitful – Cao’s been inspired by contemporary New Zealand artists such as Warwick Freeman, Lisa Walker and John Edgar.

Cao is keen to meet contemporary Māori artists, carvers and weavers to explore cross-cultural links between traditional use of pounamu/jade and flax, and the Chinese equivalent, ‘fire plant’.

“I’m making new works out of silver utilising traditional weaving.” Cao says weaving practices in his home village are uncannily similar to kete-making here.

Is it a good time to be working in jewellery, object art and design in China?

Cao sayshat China’s bourgeoning art and design schools are a stark contrast to the closures of their counterparts around the globe. China is experiencing a growth industry in jewellery design, with Cao being the first Chinese to win the coveted Art Jewellery Forum Award in January 2018. Budget cuts in the United States, Australia and New Zealand have forced tertiary institutions to shut down their jewellery and sculpture departments in favour of digital arts and technology.

“Schools in America are closing their jewellery departments, and schools like Monash in Australia are affected by this,” says Cao.

Auckland’s Manukau Institute of Technology, which had a 40-year history in jewellery and object art-making, closed its doors in 2017.

However Cao is hopeful for institutions like Te Auaha, which are so new that he’s the first resident artist to work in their jewellery department and workshop space.

Future plans? Cao’s working on his first book, Contemporary Jewellery Design, with Schiffer Publishing and will be teaching at Guangdong University.

Bifei Cao is the Wellington Asia Residency Exchange (WARE) International Artist in Residence at Te Auaha, New Zealand Institute of Creativity in Wellington, sponsored by the Wellington City Council in partnership with the Asia New Zealand Foundation. Cao’s exhibition, Vase-tibule The Translation of Cultural Objects through Jewellery, opens 5.30pm-7pm on Monday, 20 August, at Te Auaha Gallery, 65 Dixon Street, Wellington. His artist’s talk takes place at Te Auaha on 23 August. 

This article was first posted on the Asia Media Centre

Exhibition: Vase-tibule The Translation of Cultural Objects through Jewellery

When: Opens 5.30pm, Monday, 20 August and runs to 14 September

Where: Te Auaha Gallery, 65 Dixon Street, Wellington