Hannah Lim’s delicately captivating works ask us to consider how designers have appropriated East and South East Asia

The London-based artist shares how cultural designs can be shared “as opposed to the appropriated” in a broad yet intricate practice.

16 July 2021

The artist Hannah Lim’s sculptural creations are imbued with cultural narrative. Often creating furniture-like works and vases, Hannah has the ability to layer her personally-led research into distinct colour palette choices and intricate patterns. Often, she’ll also feature cultural motifs like plant life – particularly orchids, the national flower of Singapore – or animals like herons, dragons and snakes. Sometimes these pieces are largescale embodiments of the artist’s exploration of her cultural identity, but they also take shape as delicate creations, such as snuff bottles intricately crafted with polymer clay. The results take viewers on a journey, both in appreciating an artist utilising creativity to further explore their heritage, as well as offering a platform to wider consider the ways in which designers have appropriated East and South East Asia historically.

Growing up in the UK, “I think I felt a bit disconnected to my Chinese/Singaporean heritage,” Hannah tells It’s Nice That. This subject matter became an artistic focus predominantly when Hannah enrolled at Edinburgh College of Art. One of the few people of colour at the art school, “[this] propelled me to make work about my heritage,” in an environment that offered a stark contrast to the multicultural area of southwest London in which she was raised.

This first began with Hannah exploring the relationship between the UK and East and South East Asia via design, objects and architecture. “Naturally, this led me to look into chinoiserie,” she tells us. An aesthetic trend that Hannah explains was particularly prominent in the 18th Century, chinoiserie describes the practice of European designers imitating and appropriating Chinese designs for a European market. In turn, Hannah’s process became one of reclaiming this practice “and reimagining it in a culturally appropriate way,” she says. “Within my work, cultural designs are shared as opposed to appropriated, it is no longer about one culture being moulded to the demands of another.”

This research appears to drive the beginnings of Hannah’s artworks. Often, she’ll begin by “flicking through furniture design books to get some instant visual inspiration,” as well as utilising Instagram to source imagery into saved folders allocated for disciplines from sculpture to photography, set design, garments and graphic design. Critical texts are also key as “given that I’m quite often looking at the historic and modern relationship between Europe and East and South East Asia, texts such as [Edward] Said’s Orientalism have been important readings, illustrating the ways in which the ‘East’ has been ‘exotified’ and ‘othered’ by the ‘West’.” Most recently, Hannah has been looking into the ornamental nature of the objects she creates, “and how these objects have become an extension of me.” This practice has been inspired by Ornamentalism, “a feminist theory of East and South East Asian personhood laid out by the scholar Anne Anlin Cheng.” Within the text, Anne explores how women have often been “reflected and defined by ornamental things,” leading the artist to look further into her own relationship “between ornamental objects and the racialised body, as well as examining how this idea of Ornamentalism relates to Orientalism.”


Hannah Lim: Gliding Cranes (Copyright © Hannah Lim, 2021)

An example of this research in practice is Hannah’s recent series of snuff bottles, a number of smaller sculptures. While visiting museums in the UK recently, the artist was “struck by the intricate yet functional designs” of snuff bottles displayed, but also began to question their history and origin. Walking round displays Hannah found herself questioning “where they’d come from?” she relays. “Who they’d belonged to? And how they’d ended up in the UK?” In particular, these thoughts were driven from Hannah’s knowledge that snuff bottles in their nature are personal objects unique to their owner, with “the symbols on their exterior an emblem of good fortune for its owner,” she explains. In turn, her own designs, created by hand, “capture elements of my identity,” says Hannah. “Sometimes stamped with my namesake chop, decorated with clay copies of my grandmother’s jade pendants and topped with Singapore’s national flower, an orchid. These little objects capture and combine symbols of my heritage in a playful, colourful and imaginative way.”

To actually create these delicate pieces, Hannah works with polymer clay. Chosen as it “holds detail really well” and can also be easy to use at a small scale, what you would assume is quite a painstaking task is actually “quite therapeutic and calming,” and “the process as a whole I find really enjoyable,” adds the artist. “Intricacy is also important in my bigger pieces, details such as handmade coloured chains, ornate shelves and brackets are all important to the functionality and overall look of the work.”

The result is a number of pieces to not only enjoy, but reflect and learn from. The level of intricacy in Hannah’s work offers so many entry points, creating pieces that will stick with you. This is especially true because of Hannah’s chosen symbolism in her works, which encourage you to interpret or complete your own research into why pieces are sometimes anthropomorphic, for example, but also consider why Hannah is “interested in them not just being ornaments that reflects parts of my identity but also objects that appear to have a life of their own.”

If you’re currently in London there’s also the chance to enjoy these works in person at Cob Gallery. Having recently completed a residency as part of a collaboration between Cob and Ronan McKenzie’s creative space Home, the result is a combination of both Hannah’s small and large sculptures living together harmoniously. The exhibition runs until 24 July and you can find more information here.


Hannah Lim: Xiānhè Snuff Bottle (Copyright © Hannah Lim, 2021)


Hannah Lim: Winged Shelf with Hanging Lantern (Copyright © Hannah Lim, 2021)


Hannah Lim: Table of Knots (Copyright © Hannah Lim, 2021)


Hannah Lim: Shard of Fire (Copyright © Hannah Lim, 2021)


Hannah Lim: Six Legged, Lion Footed Snuff Bottle (Copyright © Hannah Lim, 2021)


Hannah Lim: Medici Lion Snuff Bottle (Copyright © Hannah Lim, 2021)


Hannah Lim: Lotus Snuff Bottle (Copyright © Hannah Lim, 2021)


Hannah Lim: Orchid Table (Copyright © Hannah Lim, 2021)


Hannah Lim: Lift Off (Copyright © Hannah Lim, 2021)


Hannah Lim: In Praise of Shadows (Copyright © Hannah Lim, 2021)


Hannah Lim: Family Portrait (Copyright © Hannah Lim, 2021)

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Hannah Lim: Big Spikey Hanging Stand With Turquiose Feet (Copyright © Hannah Lim, 2021)

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.


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