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Caregivers Residency Blog: Keng Keng Tang

Photo by Sam Trotman

For four weeks across 2023 and 2024 Keng Keng Tang completed their SSW X Counterflows Residency. The residency offered artists time, space, funding and support to develop artists practices alongside their caregiving responsibilities. Keng Keng Tang shares their journey through the residency and how it fostered a sense of renewal.

All words and images by Keng Keng Tang.

I am a mother, a milliner & textile artist, and a community arts activist. Over the past few years my artistic practice has been compromised by the need to survive. Recently, my artistic and activist practices have centred on communal sharing of personal memories and collective resting, using textile techniques as a medium of connection. As part of the 4 -weeks residency, I developed a sound-quilt project based on personal themes of home and belonging, embellished with experimental textile techniques.

I packed a theme-park’s worth of things for my first trip to Lumsden – all my fabrics, prints, stencils, materials, books – collected and treasured over many years. In the Summer before I started the residency I broke my ankle, which forced me to spend time to sit still with my treasures and enjoy them one by one. My time during the residency was a reliving of this, now with a project in mind. On the first evening, I just arrived at the studio, all my belongings jumped from my suitcase, and stretched themselves out along the length of the studio table, each one happy to have the room to show off. The chance to spread my belongings around is something I rarely get to do in my small and busy home.

Here I had time to sit and soak in my things and my thoughts. The rush of daily life, of daily work requires a certain smile and posture – to keep moving, be a good worker, be a model migrant, not cause too much fuss. The wash of life at home sweeps away thoughts which, given some care, might develop into something more stable and solid. But here they can be sat with, soaked in, held until they grow into something like a stitch or a sketch.

Even before I arrived at SSW I was exhausted from weeks of activism and community work. My first week there told me I had to draw a line between my everyday life and life on the residency. I had to rest, and to work hard, with a different set of thoughts in mind.

I cut the residency into four one-week segments. Starting in the Autumn and returning again in the darkness of Winter.

Every morning I woke up in my room in Lumsden, comfortable in solitude, with no partner, child, or flatmate to annoy me. Sometimes I would do yoga, or stretch – a very wholesome start to the day.
I had prepared to be alone during the residency, like a silent retreat, but happily there were some other artists taking part in a clay residency – Mina, Josie, Nic. They make my time in Lumsden joyous and familial. An excitement that spread between us made me feel like we were a group of students on a field-trip. At home we always cook as a family, and so I don’t really know how to cook for one – so a pattern began with the others on the residency where we would cook for each other and share long meals with conversation. The residency was loosely structured – no deadlines, no need for outcomes. This encouraged a self-discipline which actually made each day feel important and precious and gently pushed me towards my work.

In my second week my family came to visit and see this place where I worked. They brought a car, and we were able to see the surroundings – the star-shaped castle, the trees turning golden, the never-ending hills.

I used to live not far from here some years ago, with my young family, and I’ve always had a magical attraction to the Cairngorms. The ‘remoteness’ which others speak of feels familiar and dear to me. The scale of these mountains reminds me of my home. “Take a moment to behold, As still skies or storms unfold”.

I did go home, to Yunnan, after completing half of my residency. A chance to return to the roots of the ideas I was trying to recreate from memory in my quilt. I collected more things – fabrics,
stitching, skills, and sounds. I held one of my grandmother’s hands as she lay in bed and fought an illness; and learned old embroidery skills from my other grandmother, a drawing in stitch brought back to add to my quilt.

Through my third week back at the studio I tried hard to remember all the days spent at home, and pull out moments of importance to mull over and set in fabric.

In my fourth week I fasted in solidarity with Palestine. It weakened me and I fell ill. But the week stretched longer, and I made the time work for me. Scattered scraps began to take form, bringing fragments of thought and fabric together into a quilt-form. As I sewed pieces of memory into a whole, I could feel the healing power of connection, the process of making, holding me safe in its arms. “When the day comes, wrap me around you, feel no fear”.

The residency, for me, was a cloud. It carried me away from reality to spaces of healing, resting, thoughtfulness. The quilt is still in progress, but now has another life as the focal point for a series of new workshops and conversations. The ability of the quilt to hold me as I made it can now hold others too. I have returned to my activism and community arts work, distraught and enraged at the genocide taking place in Palestine, but with a renewed sense of focus on how art can, and has to, make a difference.

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