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 month-to-month basis. By a happy quirk, the pandemic that kept families apart around the world worked in reverse for them.
“We never lived anywhere together for a long period of time due to our careers,” says Liam. “The lockdown changed that for us, and with it came stability and the opportunity to explore scaling up my work. I wouldn’t say it is for better or worse, but as they say, you take what you can get.
“My constant need to work and be doing something has not changed. I’ve realised that even without the support that comes with joining an exhibition or residency, my drive to create is still very strong. I find that pretty reassuring, as it shows that this is what I love to do.”
Liam is one of 12 artists taking part in Everything Changed, Nothing Changed, which opens at Temu House on March 5. She will be showing five works — four featuring embroidered figures and a still life on furniture — done during the lockdowns. The exhibition aims to highlight the impact of the coronavirus on artists and their work.
The bigger pieces of her art, which she was already working on then, serve as a reflection of the Covid-19 situation. Asked how she mapped out the theme with fabric and thread, she replies via email that as a highly visual person who is not very eloquent with words, she tries not to overthink things when it comes to interpreting themes.
This will be the first time Liam is showing her embroidery at home. In 2018, she did a solo, Times New Romance, at Item Gallery in Paris, also the venue of Propositions inédites, a group exhibition she would be involved in two years later. She did another group show, Lemonade Stand, at The Naughton Gallery in Queens, Belfast, in 2020.
Planning a piece of work before starting is always tough, she says. But once she gets into the routine of sewing, “it becomes almost meditative to me. And like any meditation, there are days where you can go for hours, and some days when even 15 minutes would be fulfilling enough”.
Born and raised in Kuala Lumpur but with a lot of extended family from Penang, Liam and Zacharevic — who gained fame for the large-scale street art murals he did in George Town in 2012 — chose to hole up in his studio there during the lockdowns and keep working. The change of scene and pace prompted her to observe that human beings can adapt to anything.
Adapting has happened as a matter of course for Liam, known for her embroidered images of girls with plaits in meditative poses. These are based on her self-portraits, only because it is easier than having to guide or pose models the way she pictures. But her subjects have evolved since she started painting still life recently.
“There were a few weird months of looking at empty cafés and empty chairs. It was eerie but a very unique experience and I wanted to document that,” she says.
Liam was the winner of Asia’s Top Model Cycle 2 in 2014 and made her international debut at London Fashion Week that same year. Since then, she has walked runways in Paris, Los Angeles and New York, the last being her base pre-pandemic.
As one who cannot sit idle, she took up embroidery to fill the hours of travelling and waiting for shoots while on assignment and to pin down what she sees around her with a needle. During the first lockdown, she threw herself into Animal Crossing 24 hours a day. But her interest in the simulation video game waned when she decided to be more proactive and give herself more structure.
So, she joined Haus KCH, an online residency programme where she met other artists and got to work within a classroom structure. Nudged to approach her pieces academically, she realised “artists need other artists and dreamers need to stick with dreamers”.
A dream now would be to take embroidery beyond its traditional perimeter and find the right platform to realise the work. Liam was not exactly drawn to the medium when she started because of its repetitive nature. But when she saw artists utilising embroidery in contemporary works, she realised its potential and came back to it in earnest.
“Embroidery has always been overlooked and underappreciated. Even now, I have had people refer to it as a ‘hobby’. Residencies and competitions tend to not 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 in defiance of it being a traditional female activity or art form.”
It helps that embroidery has always been a big part of fashion, with designers decorating fabric and other materials using needle and yarn, says Liam, who sees her work transcending the two worlds seamlessly. Last year, she took a big step towards that in a collaboration with Coach, in which her designs adorned bags in the brand’s Spring/Summer collection. She embroidered the Mulan logo for the Disney film’s Malaysian premiere in 2020 and did an art installation for Tiger Beer at Pavilion Kuala Lumpur this year.
Inspiring clients to think out of the box in collaborations can be pretty tough, she adds. “Imagine how crazy it is that you’ve been given the commercial budget you’ve dreamed of your whole life but then the cost is that some of them don’t want to give you the space to really explore your potential. I think it’s important to support the artist through the complete vision.”
Every form of art involves an intricate process and every piece of work requires thought and soul, she believes. Knowing what it takes artists to put their work out there, it irks her when people are dismissive of art.
Liam has had abundant support from fans on social media, who have picked up embroidery and replicated her creations. Seeing some of them do even better than what she does 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 in ways better than I could explain it 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 draw attention to marginalised identities in America. The theme speaks to her and her personal experiences of a foreigner living in the US and she hopes to produce really good works that will reflect her time there and how she feels about a lot of incidents, such as the recent spate of anti-Asian hate crimes — allegedly what triggered the fatal stabbing of creative producer Christina Yuna Lee by a stalker who had forced his way into her apartment in Manhattan’s Chinatown on Feb 13.
“It’s horrifying how Asian people, or specifically Asian women, have been seen as commodities and not as human beings, and then it takes something horrific like a man going into a spa and shooting up people there to even start a conversation about this,” Liam vents.
What does her mother, the woman who taught her to embroider, have to say about her work, now that it is taking her places?
“I don’t think she completely understands what I do, but she has always been completely supportive of it. She has had to put up with me exploring alternative career paths my whole life while maintaining safe boundaries. She has kept me out of a lot of trouble.”
'Everything Changed, Nothing Changed' will be held from March 5 to April 10 at Temu House (49 Lorong 16/9E, Petaling Jaya). Viewing by appointment only 012 911 8470. See more here.
This article first appeared on Feb 28, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.