Whether you’re lacing up your sneakers ahead of a busy day, admiring them at the end of one or simply engaging in conversation about them, it’s no doubt that the rubber sole and synthetic material play a prominent role in your self-expression and add a little bit of excitement to an otherwise ordinary day.
Enter Natalie Wong, a papercraft artist that has been making waves for her translation of the globally-appreciated Nike Air Jordan 1’s into the 100 Paper Sneakers project.
“I believe that what we choose to wear indicates how we want people to perceive us. How we want people to perceive us is how we would like to be identified in society.”
This past Saturday, Natalie Wong exhibited her very unique and well-received 100 Paper Sneakers collection at The Griffin Sessions at Carfax in Johannesburg. After working on projects consisting of handbags, flowers and charms Natalie has redirected her passion, creative eye and attention to detail to an area filled with people that share just as much passion about design and silhouettes: sneaker culture. With paper as the “go-to medium of choice”, Natalie credits her innovation with this project to the significance that she feels sneakers have in adding to a person’s outfit and how they are perceived by others: “An individual can wear the most simple t-shirt and jeans,” she explains. “Just those items on their own tell others very little about his personality, character or background. Perhaps he is relaxed about fashion? Maybe he is just a casual guy? If say, he then chooses to wear a pair of rare sneakers, suddenly other people will see him completely differently. That one additional item of clothing potentially tells us so much more about him. For example, you may say he must be connected if he was able to get those. He must be successful and wealthy to buy them. He has excellent taste to choose these sneakers.”
In this interview, Natalie discusses how she began with paper craft, how her journey has evolved, her thoughts on Johannesburg during her stay, and her outlook on fashion’s role in society.
“We create our identity through what we choose to buy or consume.”
For those that don’t know: Who are you and where are you from?
Natalie Wong I am a pop artist based in Hong Kong. I grew up in the UK and moved to Hong Kong about 4 years ago.
How did your journey of papercraft begin?
Natalie Wong I’ve always enjoyed working with paper from a young age. I think the obsession started when I was little and I would go to dinner with my parents and their friends. When I was a child there were no iPads, iPhones or any electronic devices to play with. So the only safe thing my parents would let me play with at the dinner table were paper serviettes. My parents tell me I would rip up a serviette into neat strips and pretend I was making noodles. Much later on when I was studying art in school, I came across the famous French artist, Matisse. Matisse is most famous for his paper cut out series he started in the 1940s. His work absolutely captivated me. Cutting into paper is like cutting directly into colour, you draw with your knife.
The possibilities with paper are limitless – the sheer range of different textures, thickness, colours and patterns gives me so much to work with.
So you’re based in Hong Kong right now. Do you think your environment has influenced you artistically at all?
Natalie Wong If I am honest, Hong Kong is not a place that nurtures creative talent. We are the fourth most densely populated city in the world and the real estate industry, finance and law dominate in terms of what people choose as a profession. I grew up in London and moving to Hong Kong was tough because there aren’t enough quality museums or galleries to visit. I was frustrated with how little creative stimulus there was in the city, so I decided to start holding paper workshops and do my own thing to keep me going.
Is this your first time in Johannesburg?
Natalie Wong It’s my first time in Africa! I was so excited to be invited over by the Sneaker Exchange and Powerplay. The trip has been amazing and I am looking forward to sharing my art project with everyone soon.
What are your thoughts on the city?
Natalie Wong I am so thrilled to see that there are so many creatives working in the city. It seems like a lot of people who work in this industry have multiple jobs (e.g. presenter, radio producer, film-maker etc) which is amazing. The people who I have met have been warm and extremely friendly, interested to hear about where I am from and what I do. I do know that Johannesburg faces it’s own issues, just like any city. Wealth creation is difficult because young people are finding it hard to get on the property ladder.
During your time here, in Johannesburg, have you gotten a chance to check out any of the art locally?
Natalie Wong We went to Soweto and checked out the 33ft mural on the decommissioned Orlando Power Stations. It was so impressive. I also had a chance to look at a lot of local street art, around Newtown. The details and skills are mind-blowing. Interesting side-note, the sponsors for the event where I would exhibit my work painted a wall outside the Carfax building white so that a new graffiti artist could paint his work there. Initially, a local graffiti artist painted an image of my paper sneaker sculpture onto the wall. It was so amazing to see my work become part of the local street scene! But the next day, the previous graffiti artist (whose work had been covered) spray painted an angry message on the white wall (although it missed the sneaker). Unintentially, we might have just incited a street art war. The sponsors had to get security to watch over the wall in case the previous graffiti artist came back. Later it was re-painted and Wise Two (a super talented Kenyan street artist) painted over it and created an amazing artwork incorporating the African mask motif.
Your form of art, creating paper sneakers, is quite a unique thing, especially in street culture and Hip Hop, which has gained you a lot of attention. What inspired you to do this and move onto sneakers specifically?
Natalie Wong I’ve always been interested in fashion and the concept of identity. Sneakers are particularly fascinating to me because of the unique community it has created. No other item of clothing comes close to generating the level of passion and enthusiasm that sneakers do. Women like their Hermes Birkin and Chanel bags but you don’t see or hear about bag conventions or bag culture.
One of my favourite things about the paper sneakers is that you have continually highlighted the fact that sneakers are more and more being appreciated as pieces of art in society. Would you like for your paper sneakers to contribute to this perception as well?
Natalie Wong Yes, I like to see objects outside their function. The central concept of the 100 Paper Sneakers work is that sneaker culture has made the sneaker into an art form.
People buy sneakers but don’t wear them. They display them at home, just like art collectors. So I had the idea to make the sneaker into an actual work of art. But more importantly, I am reaching out to an audience that doesn’t necessarily appreciate art in its traditional context.
Less and less of our generation are visiting museums or galleries. The very fact that I’ve been invited by the Sneaker Exchange to present my art at a street culture event exposes my work to people who may not think themselves as being interested in art. You may not understand art, but you do understand sneakers. So when people see it, it challenges the way they think. I’m reaching out to a wider audience. A converted warehouse has become my gallery. The Sneaker Exchange organisers are my curators and street culture blogs are my art critics. Sneakers themselves are one of the most complex contemporary objects that contain so many ideas and concepts – I could write a thesis on it! One of the things many people don’t know is that my Air Jordan 1 sculptures contain 23 individual pieces. This was designed so that it would pay homage to the number Michael Jordan wore when he wore the first pair. Secondly, the 100 Paper Sneakers artwork contains colourways created exclusively for women.
What would like for people to take away from your work?
Natalie Wong I would like to inspire others to create things. Art sometimes can seem inaccessible, hard to understand and complex in technique and skill. Everyone should try their hand at making and creating, and not just limited to art. Sometimes people say that art is incredibly frivolous and not important in society. I argue very differently. The actual presence of art in the world is a reminder that we are not merely just surviving. The fact that the world still has capacity to create things is very important.
You’ve mentioned that paper as a medium is something that you really love. Many people, especially in the arts, struggle combining their passion with something that also generates income. What advice would you give to someone in this position?
Natalie Wong I still have a day job that is not arts related! Art for me is pure passion. It gets me excited and inspires me to do things and move outside my comfort zone. The fact that I don’t have that financial pressure means I can pick and choose partners to work with and I don’t have to stick to client briefs. I am free to express how I want. However, I have the utmost respect for commercial artists. My advice is to maintain the job that provides you an income and put as much effort as you can in your creative projects. The biggest killer of creativity is struggling to make ends meet. If you love creating enough, you will always find time to do it. Then, at a certain point you will be able to make the decision as to whether you can financially go full time with your art.
Going into 2017, do you have any upcoming projects or things for people to look out for?
Natalie Wong I have recently completed three new paper sneaker sculptures which incorporate elements of South African history and culture. We had a professional film crew following me around major landmarks in JHB and I go through my creative journey and explain the concepts and themes behind my new work. We will release the video soon, I will keep you posted! Very excited to share my new work with everyone.
Images sourced from www.natmozzie.com/paper-sneakers