“I was first attracted [to embroidery] by the texture and the nostalgia,” says Nicole Chui of her introduction to the medium, recalling a summer spent with her ahma (grandmother) learning the art of English smocking when she was 15. She goes on: “In the end, I realised how terrible I was at it. However, I loved the action of hand stitching and it kickstarted my journey to finding what I wanted to say through the art form.” Just over a decade later, it’s evident from Nicole’s mastery of the needle and thread and her unique freestyle approach that she has truly found her voice. In the years since she first picked up her trusty tools, she has built a name for herself in the world of embroidery, working with the likes of Google, TikTok, Nike and Adidas.
She’s even collaborated with big-name food and drink brands such as Oatly, helping the plant-milk giant to promote dairy alternatives and sustainable fashion. For the company’s clothing campaign Oatly Re-Runs, which saw it partner with 10 artists to create “original, plant-forward art on rescued and reimagined denim jackets”, Nicole put her handmade spin on the messaging. Working with Oatly’s “post-milk generation” tagline, she embroidered the words in bold red lettering on the back of the jacket. “For this piece, I wanted to interpret the rawness and the sense of urgency for the post-milk generation,” she explains. “I imagined someone who was covered in mud scratching a wall using all their energy to write these words just to be seen or heard.”
When she’s not working at the intersection of art and activism, Nicole can also be found producing eye-catching designs for other artists and musicians. Over lockdown, she connected with Swiss-Ugandan singer and rapper AWORI to help with the visuals for her recent EP Ranavalona. After listening to the tracks and working with AWORI’s vision of earthy tones and loud accents, Nicole created a cover that paid tribute to the album’s juxtaposition between “smooth melodies and impactful rap”, as well as the namesake behind its title: “The name Ranavalona is based on the Malagasy queen, so we wanted to pick a majestic photo of AWORI to go with the vibrant embroidery,” she says. “I love that she wanted to highlight a female figure in the legacy of Pan-Africanism as its history tends to focus on male figures, and the result was something powerful.”
Beyond working with high-profile clients and on creatively empowering projects, Nicole is also reinventing the medium of embroidery itself. Following her abandonment of the traditional techniques as a teenager, she has gone on to hone her own freeform aesthetic, creating “messy” artworks that utilise mixed-media approaches and fluid patterns. This contemporary needlework is a far cry from traditional tapestries and that’s exactly what Nicole wants. As well as being a reflection of the non-linear part of her identity, it’s also a conscious rebellion against the stereotypes that continue to plague the medium. “I was tired of the docile, domestic and beige perceptions of needlepoint and hand embroidery in the media,” she says. “I personally saw embroidery as disruptive (in a good way) and powerful, so naturally this was frustrating to me and I wanted to do something about that.”
Nicole Chui: Tom (Copyright © Nicole Chui, 2021)
About the Author
Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.