Reinterpreting Chinese culture through jewellery-based art

Acclaimed Chinese artist Bifei Cao – this years WARE (Wellington Asia Residency Exchange) artist is residence – uses innovative jewellery design to comment on contemporary issues and reinterpret Chinese culture.
Bifei Cao standing on a city 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, tells me 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.

Bifei talks about his art and inspirations

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.