LOS ANGELES — During the height of lockdown, many of us reassessed the importance of our pantry. Keeping it stocked could help us avoid an extra trip to the grocery store; chefs gave their best recommendations for making something delicious with what you could find at home.
But pantries are not neutral. What we reach for in the back of our cabinets can tell us a whole lot about who we are. Stephanie H. Shih examines grocery store items to talk about diasporic identities, colonization, and more. Her ceramics recreate each item to look at the ways in which Western foods — from Ovaltine to Ferrero Rocher — hold significance for Asian communities. Her first Los Angeles solo exhibition, New World Mall, gathers her careful renditions of products that make their way into Asian recipes and homes. Her selection came from Asian American social media followers, who helped pick the top “Western products which ‘feel’ Asian.”
Shih spares no details in each trompe l’oeil creation, manipulating the ceramic medium to impressively recreate the texture and typography of each item — including a bottle of Heinz ketchup and a package of King’s Hawaiian sweet rolls — even down to a few colorful price tag stickers.
Displayed on tables that form an upside-down U shape, each sculpture is easy to see from all sides. Standing close to them feels familiar yet precarious, knowing each item is fragile in this new iteration — each supermarket classic made precious. Many of the pieces carry tinges of nostalgia — Shih bought an Ovaltine container specifically from the ’90s on eBay.
Because Shih’s work focuses on immigrant communities, I couldn’t help but think of my own family’s pantry growing up. It wasn’t until reading the exhibition’s description that I learned the brand Maggi hails from Switzerland. I grew up with “Sopa Maggi” and assumed that those bright yellow envelopes with Spanish-language labels — always tucked in the drawer near our electric mixer — were a Latinx product.
Shih’s sculptures allow for multiple identities to overlap in every item. On Instagram, she posted a sneak peek of a sculpture portraying Libby’s Corned Beef with a caption that partially read “pre-bisque irish/filipino/uruguayan canned meat.” Someone else commented: “The key on the side is killing me (it’s a Caribbean thing too).”
I wondered what other connections might be sparked if Shih filled an even bigger space with her sculptures, presenting us with foods that mean something different to each person that walks in.
Stephanie H. Shih: New World Mall continues at Stanley’s (944 Chung King Road, Chinatown, Los Angeles) through September 3.