Just as Andy Warhol had his Campbell’s soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles, Hong Kong-based visual pop artist Natalie Wong has her Nike Air Jordan 1s. Breaking into the art world by means of social media — in true millennial fashion — this London-born lady is making a name for herself in a new genre, one she calls Street Pop Cubism.
It all began with a passion project Wong started in 2016 called “100 Paper Sneakers“. Over the course of four months, she modelled, designed, and crafted 100 individual sneaker sculptures from paper. After recording the creative process, she put together a video touching on the themes behind her work and uploaded it on social media. Within three days it went viral, appearing first on HYPEBEAST, followed quickly by features in GQ and Esquire. Wong was stunned by the meteoric rise — articles about “100 Paper Sneakers” were everywhere in multiple languages, and the video shares quickly climbed into the thousands.
This year, Wong made the decision to leave her job in financial advising to pursue her art full-time. She’s setting her sights high, pushing the boundaries of pop art and its descendant, neo-pop or post-pop (think Jeff Koons). Wong wants her artwork to signify a turning point in the global phenomenon that is sneaker culture, being the first artist to conceptualise the trend within a piece of work.
Sociologists currently describe sneaker culture in three stages: first, the beginnings of sneaker culture in 1970s New York; second, the arrival of Nike’s Air Jordan 1 in 1985; and third, niche blogs and books dedicated to sneakers from 2005 onwards. Wong’s work represents a potential fourth stage: the culture transformed into an art form. We sat down with the breakthrough artist to discuss her whirlwind journey, and where she sees the future of sneaker culture and street art.
You were originally working in the finance industry — how did you get into art?
When I was 16, I wanted to go into art after secondary school, but my family didn’t approve, so I completed my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in law at King’s College London. Working in finance was the comfortable and easy option. It provides you with security, and it’s something your parents can be comfortable talking about to the rest of the family. You do what needs to be done and then clock out.
But when I had a taste of what it was like to do something I really enjoyed, everything changed. I made the “100 Paper Sneakers” artwork in my free time whilst working a full-time job. It was a way for me to express myself and just create. I never imagined that, within seven months, I would be on the landing pages of major international publications, approached by a US$90 billion dollar company, flown to Johannesburg to exhibit my work, and then be filmed by an Emmy Award-winning director from LA.
What was the highlight of those experiences?
The film crew in Johannesburg took us around several sites to film a short documentary for the upcoming exhibition. I remember standing in the Cradle of Humankind in South Africa and feeling completely overwhelmed. It was my first time in Africa and I was there because of art I had only made six months ago. For an artist, to be given the opportunity to explore an entirely new country and to find fresh inspiration is a fantasy made into reality. When you experience this, remaining in your day job is no longer an option!
What’s the inspiration behind “100 Paper Sneakers”?
There are three main concepts. Firstly, sneaker culture has made the sneaker into an art form. Sneaker fans buy sneakers but do not wear them. Instead, they keep them and display them at home — just like art collectors. Secondly, we buy the meaning of an object rather than the object itself. Thirdly, what we choose to wear is a non-verbal communication to other people of how we want to be identified in society.
The artwork consists of 100 individual sneaker sculptures, representing a collection of sneakers. On a conceptual level, the artwork simulates what a sneaker collector does. The fact that you cannot wear my paper sneakers is irrelevant since the sneaker collector would never wear those within his own collection anyway. It would lose value.
Each individual sneaker sculpture is made of 23 individual parts, a technical feature I designed to pay homage to the number Michael Jordan wore during his time with the Chicago Bulls. Within “100 Paper Sneakers”, I also included sneaker sculptures whose colourways were released only for women.
What statement do you hope to convey with the project?
On an artistic level, a defining characteristic of pop art is repetition and mass production. By making 100 individual sneakers with unique colourways but using a uniform design, I am making a statement within the traditional pop art sense. Where I push the boundaries in pop art is in the selection of my subject matter.
For pop artists like Warhol or Oldenburg, they used ordinary consumables such as Brillo boxes, soup cans, and burgers. The sneaker is what I call a ‘super-consumable’. There is no soup can community, there is no convention for Brillo boxes. Pop art uses objects which consumers would not think twice about. My art represents an object which some would say is one of the most worshipped and desired consumables in the world.
Why the Air Jordan 1s, instead of any other sneakers?
My artwork is about sneaker culture and the role consumption has in forming personal identity. I chose the AJ1s because they are generally considered to represent the turning point in the sneaker culture timeline. The AJ1s are widely believed to be the sneaker that started sneaker collecting — a global phenomenon, simultaneously transcending race, gender, language, age, or religion.
What genre would you say your art falls under?
I call it Street Pop Cubism. Pop art uses ordinary consumables and brings it into the realm of fine art. ‘Street’ because street culture identifies so strongly with sneakers. My art also has cubist features because I have reduced the natural curved surfaces of the sneaker into simpler geometric lines and planes. Collage, commonly associated with the cubist movement, also used paper as a medium.
We heard Nike approached you with a proposal and you declined — what happened there?
One month after the video went viral, Nike’s PR team reached out and wanted to collaborate with me. They were launching their new Air Jordan sneaker and were flying over NBA superstar Russell Westbrook to tour Hong Kong and China. Amongst other things, they wanted me to teach Westbrook how to make a bespoke paper sneaker. It was an amazing opportunity, but at the time I was applying for arts funding and I was told I would not be eligible for funding whilst also collaborating with Nike.
That’s a shame. But you did a much bigger collaboration shortly after, right?
Yes, at the end of 2016, Sneaker Exchange (SXC) — one of Africa’s largest sneaker trading events — flew me down to Johannesburg to exhibit “100 Paper Sneakers” at a prominent street event. There I made three new sneaker sculptures that incorporated elements of their local culture and environment. One of my new sneaker sculptures was based on the Nike Air Jordan 4 (AJ4). The colours I chose were the same as the ones in the South African national flag but the “Jumpman” logo was purple.
During my tour of the city, I saw a giant Nelson Mandela mural by Shepard Fairey with the words “The Purple Shall Govern”. The words referred to an event in 1989 when people were protesting against the former apartheid regime. Police had used water canons dyed with purple to identify protestors. When I exhibited the AJ4 sculpture, the visitors were very moved after rediscovering that historical moment through my art, especially since the original sneaker was made in the same year as the protests.
Your work has made a big impact locally. Were you aware of how big a sneaker community existed in Hong Kong?
Sneaker culture is a descriptive container that attempts to hold various groups of young people whose affect, clothing, music, and norms deviate from mainstream society. The growing popularity of sneakers led to the formation of a legitimate fashion genre called ‘streetwear’ in the 1980s.
‘Street’ has been the dominant style for many years in Hong Kong. In fact, sneaker culture stopped being a subculture in Hong Kong a long time ago. I have a couple of theories as to the main reason for the relative maturity of the sneaker community in Hong Kong. Many families sent their children to the States to study. In your teens, you are at your most transformative period in terms of understanding yourself and those around you. When these teens grow up in LA or NYC, where sneaker culture is strong, they naturally bring that influence back with them when they return to Hong Kong.
What is more interesting is that sneaker culture in Hong Kong isn’t a mirror image or a weaker dilution of sneaker culture from the States. Instead, it has developed its own unique identity with additional Asian characteristics — most notably, the influence of Japanese street culture and streetwear.
What’s it like being a female artist in the male-dominated art world?
It’s tough. Most of the feedback from the public on my work has been positive. There have been incidents in which I’ve been approached by men working in art with alternative agendas other than supporting me as an artist. It’s difficult when you’re trying to be professional and the guy is acting like he is on Tinder.
What advice can you give other artists who are thinking of doing the same thing?
If you want to be rich or famous, don’t do art. If you are afraid of putting yourself out there and getting frequently rejected, don’t do art. If you are easily disappointed and lose interest after things don’t work out on a certain project, don’t do art. But, if there is absolutely nothing else you would rather be doing for the rest of your life, then welcome to the party.
Your Instagram recently included some Adidas Superstar limited editions. Are you now branching out into other brands?
My Adidas superstar sculpture (A South African Superstar) was one of three new sculptures I made and exhibited during my trip to Johannesburg. I chose it because it’s also an iconic sneaker design and it represents another milestone in sneaker culture. Prior to Adidas’ collaboration with Run DMC, most collaborations were done with sports stars and NBA players. The collaboration with a hip-hop group was the first high-profile musician-based collaboration with a major sports brand.
What projects are you currently working on?
I have now rented a workstation at MakerHive in Kennedy Town, a unique co-working space for the creative industry. I’ll be continuing with my future projects there. Currently, I’m collaborating with local craftsmen on new work involving neon lights. I wanted to focus on a medium that Hong Kong strongly identifies with, and neon signs are true iconic markers of the city’s local streetscapes. The neon sign industry is slowly dying out due to cheaper alternatives, increased government regulation, and the lack of new apprentices entering the industry. I want to create new work that celebrates Hong Kong’s unique cultural heritage in a way that a contemporary audience can fully engage with.
Anything else exciting in the works?
Earlier this year, Seth Epstein (an Emmy-Award winning film director) flew from LA to Hong Kong to interview me and film my artwork as part of a special upcoming project. I can’t reveal more but it was a real privilege to be featured. It should be released this year so watch this space!
Photo credit: Artwork photography by Josh Tam. Studio portraits by Frank Freeman.