Kicki Yang Zhang is not shy about painting her cultural heritage all over her face. The German-born, Berlin-based artist, beauty influencer, and model can be found on Instagram with her eyelids or lips decorated in hand-painted motifs inspired by Chinese guóhuà paintings, particularly striking in contrast with the buzzcut or array of colourful wigs she sports. It’s a way, she says, that she can define her cultural identity for herself.
“A lot of my work is a manifestation of my experiences as a third culture kid. I grew up in a western country as an Asian girl and I felt I didn’t belong anywhere,” she explains. “I love to mix western and eastern elements together, show what I’ve seen and learned from each side of the world I grew up in.”
In 2018, Zhang made her worldwide fashion campaign debut, a special moment for her as her parents could see the billboards in Shanghai. “In the beginning, my parents were skeptical because I was the first person in my family to quit university,” she says. “But the moment they saw the campaign hanging in the stores they were super proud and accepting of my unconventional career choice.” Since then she has gone on to work with brands like Gucci and Maison Margiela and with a move to New York coming up there’ll be many more to come.
How did you start doing the work you do, and what inspires it?
Kicki Yang Zhang: I have been drawing since I was three years old. My mum is actually a great painter but since she grew up in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, becoming an artist as a real job was out of the question. When I was young she started to buy a lot of art supplies she didn’t really have time to use, so it was my sister and me who took the chance to draw and paint as much as we wanted to as kids.
My first encounter with make-up was pretty much at the same time when I started to take pictures for MySpace and Tumblr. I started to watch YouTube tutorials of how to put on make-up, but because in the beginning, most beauty gurus were caucasian, none of the looks really worked on my mono-lids. I finally gave up on tutorials and a couple of months later of trial and error I finally succeeded and got it right.
What or who gives you hope and why?
Kicki Yang Zhang: In the public mindset, the perception of generation Z is extremely negative, but I don’t see it that way. Yes, we’re more lost than ever but also we are more aware than ever. Since I spend a lot of time online I see so many comments and messages of people constructively criticising and educating me and each other, and that’s great! It’s amazing to care about something so deeply that you take the time out of your day, commenting, posting and sharing, educating other people in hopes that it will light a little fire in them too.
How has the Coronavirus outbreak affected you, your work, and/or your community?
Kicki Yang Zhang: I think work-wise it has affected all of us. I don’t have a lot of jobs this month but I see it as an opportunity to work on my own projects. I’m really lucky that I live in Germany where the health system is really great, but I’m still worried about my parents and family in China and call them at least every other day.
Something that me and so many of my friends and family had to experience is the peaking of racism towards Asian people. I had people moving away from me on public transport, Uber drivers covering their face when I enter the vehicle, people shouting towards me on the streets that me and my people should stop eating rats.
“My work is a manifestation of my experiences as a third culture kid. I grew up in a western country as an Asian girl and I felt I didn’t belong anywhere” - Kicki Yang Zhang
At some point, I was almost scared to go outside after some news reported that Asians were beaten up by strangers accused of having ‘the Chinese virus’. I try to do my part to protect my community and educate people via social media why certain behavior is extremely racist and also show them how the media can be biased and fuels people’s fear and hate. In real life, I have had several racist encounters where people assumed I have the virus just because I’m Asian.
What creative or philanthropic project would you work on with a grant from the Dazed 100 Ideas Fund?
Kicki Yang Zhang: There are two different things I would love to make a reality. I would love to produce my own ceramics. I was always fascinated by the beautiful Chinese ceramics my grandparents have at home and would love to create a tea set and vases with my art on it – a modern version, my own version. I would also love to create a space for young Berlin-based artists. I always wished I had a space where I can do art. So many people don’t have a space to create and express themselves and I would love to help with this issue. It’s also so important to have a space where you can talk to people with similar interests; ideally a space where you can create and at the same time learn, inspire, share and push each other.