Interview with Bifei Cao, 2020 Young Artist Award Juror

In English and Chinese

By Pakistan

Applications for the 2020 Young Artist Award, with a prize of $7,500, are open to jewelry artists through January 12, 2020. Guidelines can be found here. The three distinguished jurors will be Jorunn Veiteberg, Barbara Paris Gifford, and the winner of the 2018 AJF Artist Award, Bifei Cao. (The award he won changed names this year; it was previously called the AJF Artist Award.) Here, we interview the Chinese artist to learn more about the trajectory his life has taken since the award, and to find out more about what he’ll be looking for when he reviews submissions. The text is in English first, followed by the Chinese.

Bifei Cao, NO-B.658, 2018
Bifei Cao, NO-B.658, 2018, brooch, porcelain shatter, school cafeteria meal card, silver, stainless steel, 30 x 75 x 80 mm, photo: Chen Wenchuang

Amina Rizwan: The AJF Award is so transformative for contemporary jewelers because of its most significant aspect: The work and its maker acquire a new visibility. What changed for you and your practice with the visibility of the award?

Bifei Cao: As one of the prestigious contemporary jewelry awards, the AJF award benefited me and definitely exposed my work to a more international platform. Except for purchasing some tools, I spent most of the award money traveling to different international events, such as Schmuck 2018, a SNAG Conference, SOFA Chicago, and Radiant Pavilion, continually involving myself in art and cultural events in different countries.

The visibility of the award hasn’t changed my practice. I have been consistently using a similar method to explore different possibilities. The investigation includes material experiments where I face recycled materials, such as invalid credit cards and cafeteria food cards.

The only change is in my personal environment. After 10 years of living and studying abroad, I had to readapt my life to China. After beginning to teach at the School of Art and Design, Guangdong University of Technology, in Guangzhou, I joked that I hit an “unbreakable spell”—that of the Chinese maker who returns to China but is unable to produce more works compared to his production overseas. Almost all of us who return to China teach in different universities and have to adapt to the one-size-fits-all research evaluation system that Chinese universities use in every academic domain: arts, humanities, and sciences. The majority of makers who work in academia depend on publishing papers in SCI, SSCI, and A&HCI (the Science Citation Index, Science Citation Index, and Arts & Humanities Citation Index) rather than on personal works and exhibitions. It has been one of the weirdest judgments for me as I’ve lived in China the last two years, and I hope it will change soon.

Bifei Cao, NO-B.7571, 2019
Bifei Cao, NO-B.7571, 2019, brooch, porcelain shatter, school cafeteria meal card, silver, stainless steel, 42 x 80 x 155 mm, photo: Chen Wenchuang

In your last AJF interview, you spoke about returning to Yunnan province for further research into traditional Chinese crafts and their embedded historical and cultural meanings. What materials, processes, or traditions have you connected with this time?

Bifei Cao: Yes, I traveled to the Bai nationality area in Yunnan province, where I researched traditional Bai raising technique and related blacksmithing techniques. However, the most unexpected experience was an encounter there with traditionally knotted objects in the Yunnan Nationalities Museum, in Kunming. Later on, I was reviewing traditional Maori knotted objects at the Te Papa (Museum of New Zealand) during a residency program. Both observations allowed me to capture this primitive and original making method unconsciously. I continue to apply the historic joining method that was used for a jade burial suit made during the Han Dynasty in China, imitating each traditional knot.

Besides that, I spent most of my spare time writing a book, titled Casting in the “Threshold”—Chinese Contemporary Jewelry (1990–2020), which the American company Schiffer will publish in 2020. It introduces the general development of Chinese contemporary jewelry in the last 30 years with a collection of 62 Chinese contemporary artists. The writing has been an extension for me to understand materials, processes, and traditions after receiving the award.

Bifei Cao, NO-B.7571, 2019
Bifei Cao, NO-B.7571, 2019, brooch, porcelain shatter, school cafeteria meal card, silver, stainless steel, 42 x 80 x 155 mm, photo: Chen Wenchuang

What do you teach? As a cross-cultural artist with anthropological affinities and investigations into Chinese traditions, materials, and crafts, what does it mean for you to teach?

I currently work as an associate professor in the School of Art and Design, Guangdong University of Technology, teaching courses such as Foundation, Material Design, Craft Thinking, and Jewelry Design. Among these classes, I’ve brought an international craft environment to my students, a broadened review of different situations in contemporary crafts and arts, a range of artists and their works, and theories from art historians and art theorists. I’ve shared my making experience as an example of research in reinterpreting traditional crafts, material, and related culture and philosophies. It has really been about sharing my practice rather than imposing my idea on students.

School of Art and Design, Guangdong University of Technology, in Guangzhou
A workbench in the graduate student studio at the School of Art and Design, Guangdong University of Technology, in Guangzhou, 2018, photo: Wu Dan

As a juror for the upcoming AJF award, what are you looking for beyond originality, concept, or craftsmanship?

Clear ideas with clear expression. It has been an important consideration in my personal making. According to my superficial review of the field, my first impression is a large number of art jewelry works with infinite stacking of materials and colors. I don’t mean these works are bad, but I wish I could read, understand, and interact with these pieces. No matter how they investigate either or combination of technique, material, and form, or explore the functionality of jewelry to be wearable or adored, have symbolic meanings or challenging idea and concept, I would like to see works that have dug into any of above concepts deeply and clearly.

Li Jinfu silverware studio
Dai people draw silver wires in the Li Jinfu silverware studio, 2017, photo: Bifei Cao

You operate from the position of skill (and historical implications, too). Is it one of your aesthetic devices when looking at or judging works?

I definitely won’t look at any works based on my idea of my own creations. It’s only one of the devices or methods for artistic making. It will nonetheless be great to see the kind of works that reinterpret tradition through contemporary expressions, if any applicants have a different way of reinterpreting their traditions.

Work by one of Bifei Cao’s students: Huang Taotao
Work by one of Bifei Cao’s students: Huang Taotao, Forbid, 2018, brooch, transparent super glue, corn, plaster powder, cigarette butt, cotton thread, 32 x 100 x 130 mm, photo: Chen Wenchuang

Let’s talk about your work. You say, “Each work deploys a dissolving and reshaping position to reflect on the temporality of our cultural situation.” Your work is intellectual and intriguing on many levels. It has a diasporic quality. Shifting. Reshaping. Dissolving. But what it reminds me of is the word continual: continual as both a process in one’s search for identity, but it also becomes the material and process of making itself. Is continuity an important material and thought in your work?

Continuity has been one of key characteristics in my work. I define myself as a craft-based maker or artist who originally trained as a metalsmith. My early metalsmith training formed a good skilled foundation for me and allowed me to think through different concepts continually. This consistence benefited my current cross-disciplinary research between humanity and craft. My exploration has been a continuity of reinterpreting tradition, a consideration of continuity (temporariness) in cultural identity and keeping searching the process of making. Key words such as “connect,” “insert,” and “attach” express continuity in my works. I don’t know what exactly is next for my work, but emphasize these key words in my artistic exploration.

Maker unknown, Kafaga (climbing rope)
Maker unknown, Kafaga (climbing rope), 1990s, Tuvalu, made from sennit (coconut husk fiber), collection of Te Papa (Museum of New Zealand), 2018, photo: Bifei Cao

Your Vase series references traditional objects used in China. How do you view their functionality or historical connotations in a contemporary context? How does subverting and removing their own originality create a new emotional space, concept of function, or a new skin of the vase?

Traditional Chinese vases and pottery are daily-use objects, fragile and replaceable, developed through ancient Chinese history. Different Chinese artists reinterpret their functionality and historical connotations to create contemporary art. Work such as Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995) pushed me to wonder if he tries to unburden his traditional Chinese cultural influence. As a member of the generation born in the 1980s, after the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), I disconnected with a lot of tradition and traditional objects. Like shattered traditional porcelains or vessels, linking these broken parts to imitate traditional forms or reconstruct into new forms became my intention to make connection with tradition. While using traditional techniques to comment on contemporary life, could my work be contemporary, or the contemporary context imbued with historical connotations? I had all these thoughts when I was making. I also cared about how to reconstruct tradition in a contemporary way of subverting and removing their own originality rather than mimicking tradition.

Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995
Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995, referenced from

With these considerations, bringing contemporary life experience or feelings to my work has been another level of construction, where I engaged with thoughts of cultural identity that were related to my personal experience of more than 10 years spent living overseas, especially the multicultural and influences of place. Each new emotional space, whether enclosed or opened, hosted personal memories of culture, history, and life experience and brought new functionality while combining traditional techniques with contemporary materials.

Work by one of Bifei Cao’s students: Liang Huimin
Work by one of Bifei Cao’s students: Liang Huimin, The Left Elephant Trunk, 2018, brooch, super-light clay, sterling silver, brass, acrylic, 25 x 35 x 315 mm, photo: Chen Wenchuang

Where is your studio? What kind of visual library of materials, objects, readings, or sketches would we encounter there? Do you work outside the studio as well, for example engaging directly with the village or community of makers? Can you talk about your working process?

I have a public space in the graduate student studio in the School of Art and Design, Guangdong University of Technology, where I teach. I’ve hardly focused on making since I traveled back and forth between the US and China after leaving Australia in 2017. In my workspace, I can’t solder and explore materials. I have only a workbench with some drawings, sketches, bench tools, and samples. I have benefited from the residency program in New Zealand. A short three months gave me a great opportunity to experience Maori culture, communicate with various artists, and think about what’s next.

I guess my working process has been a process of craft thinking. My working process is a slow reaction. Every series of my work has depended on slow processes of sample making. During the working process, I find the closest way to express my idea, no matter how many attempts.

Maori welcoming ceremony at the Te Auaha (New Zealand Institute of Creativity)
Maori welcoming ceremony at the Te Auaha (New Zealand Institute of Creativity), 2018, photo: Jennifer Zhou

Are there any experiences in the contemporary jewelry field or beyond that have impacted or stayed with you?

I’m a person who keeps learning from different experiences and sharing my experiences in the field. I may be critical sometimes, too. My interest is in really enjoying a different place and cultural environment, learning to adapt to it; later, it becomes part of the experience of my life. I’ve been to so many wonderful cities: New York City, San Francisco, London, Amsterdam, and Melbourne. I feel Wellington is the best place to create a cultural harmony, as British or English-based culture and Maori culture have kept a great balance in Wellington, alongside other immigrant cultures such as those from India, Malaysia, and China. I experienced an amazing Maori welcoming ceremony, sharing air or breath through nose touching nose and singing Maori welcoming song together. These different local customs remain in my memories, allowing me to be open, understanding and embracing the world.

A solo exhibition of Bifei Cao’s work in the gallery of the Te Auaha (New Zealand Institute of Creativity)
A solo exhibition of Bifei Cao’s work in the gallery of the Te Auaha (New Zealand Institute of Creativity), 2018, photo: Clare Cummings


2020年国际艺术首饰论坛青年艺术家申请已经开始,针对全世界青年首饰艺术家,最终大奖奖金7500美金,截止日期2020年1月12日。三位著名的评审人分别是Jorunn Veiteberg、Barbara Paris Gifford和2018年艺术家奖得主曹毕飞(今年为了区分国际艺术首饰论坛的另一奖项职业中年资助奖,此奖改名成青年艺术家奖)。在这里,我们来采访这位中国艺术家,了解他自获奖以来的生活轨迹,也了解他在评审此奖时的关注点有哪些。


Amina Rizwan: 对当代首饰艺术家来说,AJF奖给予最大革新的重要点就是:无论是入选者还是最终大奖得主,人和作品都获得新的知名度。随着此奖的曝光率,你自己及你的创作方面有任何变化吗?









这一年,我花费太多的时间在全英文撰写书籍《中国当代首饰》一书,将于明年在美国权威手工艺出版社Schiffer Publishing出版。这本书时间太短,从一个创作者的角度对中国当代首饰的发展和现状做了简要介绍和分析,并囊括六十多位中国当代首饰创作者的简历和作品介绍。我并没有对很多当代首饰现象做深入探讨与分析。这本书也是让我在这段时间更好地去了解中国当代首饰中的材料、过程和传统。



















  • Amina Rizwan

    A recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship, Amina Rizwan is an MFA graduate in metalsmithing from Cranbrook Academy of Art, in Michigan, US. She lives, works, and teaches as an assistant professor in Pakistan.

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