ART & CULTURE: How Sheena Liam found serendipity in her hobby: The artist and model just wanted something to do in her free time – now she’s having solo exhibitions
Interview: Katharina Lina
Embroidery: Sheena Liam
Born and raised in Malaysia, Sheena Liam is the embroidery artist behind the acclaimed Instagram account @times.new.romance. Her subjects, usually based on herself, are depicted in a thoughtful and calm, almost bored manner. Liam’s other occupation is modelling, a job that takes her around the globe. The jetsetter modelling lifestyle comes with waiting around on shoot sets while fighting jet lags. As a way to pass the waiting times, Liam picked up her childhood hobby of embroidery.
Delicately embroidered hands are supporting tired heads, and dainty fingers are patiently braiding long pigtails. Hair is a major component in her embroideries, as the yarn is often sewn in such a way that the hair falls loosely off the embroidery hoops, creating a compelling shift from 2D to 3D. Liam has mastered embroidering a number of hairstyles: messy buns, fringes, half updos, braids – you’ll even find mid-haircut depictions. But the hair being a focal point and recurring theme was more of an organic evolution rather than a planned creative decision.
Sheena Liam talks to us about balancing two jobs, and needing creative experimentation after a somewhat conservative upbringing.
Your mother originally taught you embroidery, but you didn’t like it. What urged you to start again when you were older? Just that I had a strong base in it to start with, I didn’t like the stupid imagery that came with the pre-made cross stitch packs. It was extremely restrictive and it wasn’t until I was older and living by myself that I realised I could really do anything I wanted. Including embroidering my own sketches.
What makes your embroideries so special is that the 2D subjects have 3D hair that moves or falls out of the frame. What is the significance of hair in your embroideries? I didn’t really set out to make hair the significant focus in my art. I don’t have a strong background in embroidery techniques. So, I just embroidered how hair behaves on people. I definitely didn’t expect to get the sort of momentum and media coverage I did on just replicating real life.
Your subjects often seem calm and slightly bored or somewhat melancholic. What is your subject thinking as she looks in the mirror about to cut her hair? I cut my own hair a lot. I had a time in my life when I had to be bleached platinum blonde for many years for modelling and it gave me a distrust of hair stylists. It’s a bit of security on my part because if I fuck up my own hair I only have myself to blame instead of outwards anger.
What is your relationship with your own hair like? Schools in Malaysia are pretty strict about uniform, hair colour and length, and my family was pretty conservative. When I got out of school and gained a little bit of independence I really went all out experimenting with different hair styles, colours and perms. I still don’t like my hair though.
"It's important to surround yourself with dreamers because I've lived amongst thinkers and didn't get anywhere with myself"
Congratulations on your first solo exhibition last autumn. How was that for you? It was great, a lot more people than I expected showed up and it was almost sold out. It’s pretty strange because I didn’t start out expecting a solo exhibition or even for it to be art or a statement on anything. I just wanted something to do with my free time. It’s a kind of serendipity.
Does the art world ever tempt you to leave the fashion one? Or do you plan on continuing to balance both? They balance each other pretty well. I get to travel a lot and work with a lot of inspiring creatives which in turn inspires my work. I think it’s important to surround yourself with dreamers because I’ve lived amongst thinkers and didn’t get anywhere with myself.
What are your upcoming plans and projects for 2019? Nothing crazy. I’m continuing on my studio practice and making my pieces while travelling. I’m hoping for a solo exhibition in New York next, but that requires resetting my practice and coming up with different concepts. I have a few pieces on the way and I hope people will love the work still.