Courtesy of Sarah Zhang

Stills from "Whanau"

April 10, 2020

Migrant Identities: Interview With BFA Senior Sarah Zhang

Print More

Sarah Zhang (BFA ’20) is an interdisciplinary artist who, despite working mainly in digital media, also makes prints among other things. Her work translates seamlessly across media, tied together by the common thread of her bi-cultural background as a Chinese immigrant in New Zealand.

Her work on migration and immigration feels especially relevant now, as Cornellians and other students across the nation come to terms with the realities and challenges of displacement.

Cecilia Lu ’22: What have you been working on in Thesis?

Sarah Zhang ’20: I have some work from the first semester that was really important — it pushed me into working with New Zealand as a concept.

I painted these tiny landscapes of New Zealand onto a desk calendar and hid racist and anti-immigration quotes from some of our politicians in yellow text. Over the top of each page, I put a yellow translucent film to obscure the text. When you flipped it over, you would see the text embedded into the landscape. I was also thinking a lot about the Christchurch shooting of last year, the date of which I marked on the calendar.

I feel like a lot of people outside of New Zealand think of it as a pristine, peaceful country. (And for a very long time I thought that too.) But if you dig deeper, there are always things going on underneath.

"My Yellow Calendar"

CL: What was the other piece — the animation —that you showed me called?

SZ: Whanau. It’s the Maori word for family.

I was exploring New Zealand — the environment I was brought up in — in comparison to my Chinese heritage. I had all these family photos that my mom sent me Freshman year that I inserted into this New Zealand landscape that I constructed.

Stills from "Whanau"

Courtesy of Sarah Zhang

Stills from “Whanau”


CL: What was the experience of being a Chinese immigrant in New Zealand like?

SZ: When I was young it was really hard. I grew up in an all white neighborhood and was the only Chinese kid in most of my classes. When I was young, I really didn’t like being Chinese — I hated going to Chinese lessons and I would ask my mom to pack me sandwiches for lunch ‘cause the kids would make fun of me for bringing my Chinese food to school. But then as I got older I grew to appreciate my heritage.

When I came to America, I met so many Asian-Americans whom I related to, which was really nice, because I didn’t have this community growing up. That’s what pushed me to explore this part of my work.

CL: Specifically in this piece, there’s also aspects of indigenous New Zealand culture — what is the contemporary cultural landscape of New Zealand like?

SZ: New Zealand has a really big population of Maori or indigenous people. In public school, it was compulsory that we learned the language, culture, and all the myths, stories, songs and everything, so that was an important part of my upbringing.

When I wanted to explore New Zealand in my work, Maori culture is such an important part of New Zealand’s tapestry that I didn’t want to exclude it. And I struggled a little bit cause I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate for me to use this symbolism and imagery. But then I went with it, because I felt it was more important for me to show that than cut it out just because it wasn’t my culture.

CL: Are there any other projects you’ve been working on?

SZ: There was that big cyanotype — I was looking at the migration patterns of the bird (in Maori it’s called kuaka) so the piece is called The Flight of the Kuaka. This bird migrates from Alaska to New Zealand. It has one of the longest annual migrations in the world, and it reminded me of migrating to America every winter break. It takes so long. Nearly three days…There’s also this old Maori myth about how the first people followed these birds because they weren’t seabirds so they had to land — somebody followed them, until they landed in New Zealand.

"Flight of the Kuaka"

Courtesy of Sarah Zhang

“Flight of the Kuaka”


CL: Could you also talk a bit about cyanotypes for people who aren’t familiar?

SZ: Cyanotype is a photo process. It’s very old timey; it’s how they used to make blueprints because it was a fast way of replicating an image. All the chemicals turn it a deep blue color.

CL: Any other thoughts?

SZ: I don’t know. Maybe just that I’m really far from home now. I mean, I could fly home but it would take two big airports and days of traveling. So… It’s difficult being an international student.



Cecilia Lu is a sophomore in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. She can be reached at [email protected]