In the studio with Nini Sum, struggling trailblazer
Nini Sum is reluctant to shake my hand. To be fair, her own hands are covered with sticky, black ink, since she’s hard at work on a template for her latest screen-print, a tribute to David Lynch. It also serves as a great allegory for what Sum thinks she and others like her need to succeed. The 23 year old, originally from Nanjing, later insists that if her art, and that of other young Chinese like her, is ever going to get the recognition it deserves, “people will have to get their hands dirty.”
We meet in the underground bat cave-like space in Shanghai that houses the Neocha Studio, the headquarters for a nascent online community of Chinese creatives; writers, musicians, and artists like Nini Sum who struggle to get their work represented in the mainstream media. Part of the space is currently given over to Idle Beats, Nini Sum’s new screen printing studio, and half a dozen of her limited edition t-shirts are drying on the table when I arrive.
Not so idle
Launched in November, Idle Beats is intended to be both a platform for local artists and a place for people to buy affordable, original art. Says Nini Sum, “I saw a screen-print on sale at 798 in Beijing for RMB 20,000. And I thought, ‘holy crap’.”
With her own prints and T-shirts priced between RMB 150-300, Nini Sum has high hopes for IdleBeats. “At the moment, people who buy art either go to an expensive gallery or to Ikea. There’s nothing in between. We’re trying something new. We’re doing this for China’s future, trying to show people the value of originality.”
Too many people just sit around talking. You have to put the work in.— Nini Sum, Shanghai-based artist
Work hard workshop
For now, all of the designs are Nini Sum’s -- from an eerie CCTV tree to a cawing Eagle Print (“actually, it’s a seagull,” she confesses). That, though, is about to change.
“There are so many super-talented artists in Shanghai,” she insists, “but there’s no channel for them to showcase their work.” The result is that they often give up, or sell out. Most have to take office jobs to get by. (Nini Sum herself is no exception, working as a graphic designer by day. “But if I said I liked my job, I’d be lying.”)
So the plan is to run regular screen-printing workshops, to throw participatory parties, to invite other artists to “just drop in and have fun.” The first IdleBeats workshop will be on March 13 as part of the JUE Festival, and will be co-hosted by Neocha, who’ve long been big fans of Nini Sum’s work.
Adam Schokora, founder and chief editor of NeochaEDGE, thinks her pieces “have the ability to be both calming and eye opening at the same time.” And he’s “in love” with her Tree Man series, acrylic paintings that use cross-sections of wood as their canvas (two of a planned four are now complete).
Design for life
Indeed, screen-printing is merely one string to Nini Sum’s bow. She shifts easily between oil paintings, toy sculptures, portraits, and pencil drawings. She won the 2D category at last year’s Cut and Paste Shanghai digital design tournament, and is most proud of her work illustrating a fold-out booklet for an album by U.S. singer-songwriter Chris Kasper (who found her through Flickr). “I just have a lot of ideas,” she says. “Right now I’ve got ideas for, like, 10 oil paintings and five sculptures. I save them as email drafts.”
Yet she knows that ideas alone will not be enough to shake things up or to create the opportunities in China that artists of her caliber elsewhere in the world could take for granted. Even her biggest fan, NeochaEDGE’s Schokora, admits that, “Like any trailblazer, hers is still an uphill battle.” Nini Sum, though, takes all this in her stride. “Too many people just sit around talking,” she says. “You have to put the work in.”
She walks me up and out of the studio, the two of us blinking briefly in the new and sudden sun, and I insist on shaking her hand.