April 21 2015 06:13 PM

The mixed-media artist addresses the political, historical and controversial in her subtly broad works

Andrea Chung in her City Heights studio
Photo by Seth Combs

Andrea Chung is used to the misconceptions by now. Take her name, for example. She admits that when people first meet her, they often think they'll be meeting someone who looks, well, more Asian. It's easy to look at a name and think you know what you're going to get. This same logic often extends to her mixed-media art. It's easy to look at a piece like "Bato Disik," which she displayed at Helmuth Projects in 2013, and see just a rectangular tub of water filled with amber-colored boats. It's certainly aesthetically pleasing enough to where the viewer might be tempted to move on from it too quickly, content in the pleasure derived from seeing the cute little boats bob around. 

"I started exploring colonialism and migration patterns, both voluntary and involuntary, and how that affects a particular location," says Chung, explaining the deeper meaning of the boats, which were made out of sugar, a reference to the people of Mauritius, an African island nation in the Indian Ocean.

"It's a former sugar colony," Chung says, "but the trade is slowly dying out. When slavery was abolished there, a lot of the former slaves became fishermen to make a living. I started to see fishing as this revolutionary act."  

Chung doesn't hesitate when asked if her work has a political subtext. The answer is a decisive "yes, definitely," which departs from the beautiful subtlety of the art itself. She describes herself as a "material-oriented" artist. Her work has addressed everything from income inequality to the history of a culture's food. Much of her work revolves around cultural labor, be it the forced labor addressed in the Mauritius video piece, "Bain de Mer," or in more personal stories illustrated in her new piece, "It Come Een Like...," which she'll be installing at the New Contemporaries VIII exhibition at the Valencia Gallery

"It's a piece about my grandfather," says Chung, whose maternal grandfather was a Chinese immigrant who lived in the Caribbean. "It uses shipping pallets. You can't really translate a Chinese character into English letters, so I wrote down the varying interpretations of the way his name could have been spelled. My last name is Chung, but I don't really know if that's the way it should be spelled. The names are painted on shipping pallets used for the various things shipped out of the Caribbean: sugar, coffee, arrowroot and allspice."

The New Contemporaries exhibition, which opens Friday, May 1, from 6 to 9 p.m., is a primer for the emerging artists chosen for the San Diego Art Prize, an annual award and collaborative exhibition that takes up-and-coming local artists and pairs them with established artists.

Chung has been living in San Diego off-and-on for more than a decade, with stints in L.A., Baltimore and, after receiving a Fulbright Scholarship, in the Mauritius islands. Over the years, she's used just about every possible medium, from paint and clay to collage and animation, to tell stories. Currently, she's working on an interactive sculptural piece about Jamaican midwives. Viewers will have to wash their hands in an antique dry sink using black bars of soap molded to look like the hands of these midwives, who were viewed as "dirty" despite having perfected birthing practices that are still used to this day. She sees this piece, and almost all of her art, as a loving tribute to not only her roots, but to the people whose labors went undocumented throughout history. 

"My work is very labor intensive and I like to think that my labor is, in a way, an homage to their labor," Chung says. "I mean, I can't compare it obviously, but it's one way of honoring them in a way that I can." 

Email editor@sdcitybeat.com or follow Seth on Twitter at @combsseth.