Mengna Tan, Her Story so Far

In the late eighties the Chinese government, who had opened itself to Western nations, sent some students to study there. Mengna’s parents are some of them. They lived in Mainz until they finally moved to Berlin, when her father continued his further education in physics at Freie University. Mengna remembers growing up in Spandau as a good memory, there were many other People of Colours there. Her German became even better than her parents’. But after years of living here, it was still hard for her mom to integrate to German society. So in the early 2000s a decision had to be made: were they staying here, or should they move back to China?

They did eventually move to China. But things then became harder for little Mengna. At that point she was already more comfortable to speak German than Chinese. Kindergarten in China was such a struggle for her. After some consideration, they decided to move again to Germany, find another job, and make a living here. For Mengna.

Since the family couldn’t afford many new books, Mengna spent a lot of time in the library. There her interest towards German literature and science fiction began to grow. To pursue the best education for her, her parents chose to move to “Charlottenburg/Wilmersdorf/Steglitz-ish”. It was another big change for Mengna. A difficult one, as she was only one of the few asians in her new school. It was in a rather conservative area, and she doesn’t remember relating much to her peers. But she didn’t think that she was different at first because she was fully German socialised.

Other students started commenting on her, and she started to notice how they reacted differently to her. In the 10th grade it got even worse. The boys teased the girls horribly and there were a lot of racial slurs. She thought “okay, it’s not normal, let’s change my own image.” It was an unexplainable guilt to be herself and she was forced to asimilate to survive. She recalled, “I didn’t want to be very asian at that time. I was practically pretending – or let’s say cosplaying – to be white. It was tough.”

Young Mengna and Her Lunchbox

During lunchtime in the primary school, Mengna found joy that was her lunchboxes. Her mom would make her fried rice, bāo zi (Chinese steamed stuffed bun), chilly oil, and more. “Best lunchbox on earth!”, she recalled. But in the middle school, people would gave her looks when she opened her lunchbox.

Other students would bring typical German lunchboxes filled with bread, cucumber on the side, cheese, and maybe some sausages. Everything was very handy and hadn't strong fragrances. Mengna never thought that those were fun. But nevertheless, she tried to fit in.

“That was a huge moment for me, because after that I started to make my own lunchbox. I asked my mom to buy the same bread as the other kids had. It didn’t taste as good, but at least I wasn’t embarassed. I fit my lunchbox to all the white people’s lunchbox.”

Looking back, she took the time at school as a good lesson. It helped her grow a though skin. But still, when school was finally over, it was one of the best time she could remember.

Like many other parents, Mengna’s parents wanted her to study something that leads to a stable career. “The narrative was: we moved here so that I can study something that I can live from.” she explained. She choose to study philosophy with the combination of information technology. She laughed, “I liked the idea of studying IT to become some kind of feminist hacker.” But it was very though for her, since she didn’t excel at math. She was very unhappy with it and had a semester-long break, which her parents disagreed with. “Fuck it!” she thought to herself, “just do something that you like!”

Growing up in her family, Mengna didn’t engage much with art and cultural activities when she was little. At school she had some art classes which she found pretty enjoyable. One of her friends that started painting at school sometimes inivited her to go to galleries and museums. However those first deeper contacts with art weren’t necessarily comfortable experience. “At the time, I thought that the museum experience was very exclusive. You have to know the context. I really didn’t know how to behave in the museum,” she said. Again, she cosplayed: this time as an intelectual artsy kid. She would stand in front of a painting and just gazed at it for a long time. Even though she didn’t really think about anything. She just wanted to be seen that she belongs.

“I thought art was something that was too big (for me)” she remembered, “after school I really didn’t think about going to art school. I simply didn’t have the confidence.” She was also a little bit afraid, as a PoC, to study art. It was such an exclusive white bubble from her point of view. But one of her friends, who study in an art school herself, showed her how things work in there. She felt empowered by her encouragements. She thought, “this is so great. This is important” and she gained the confidence to apply to an art school. But most importantly, she finally allowed herself to be part of this constellation.

Like many other art school in Germany, Universität der Kunste Berlin requires the students to go through a foundation year in which the students can experiment with different media and ideas to make art. At the end of that, they have to apply for a class by making a presentation to introduce themselves and their work. The class that Mengna managed to apply to wasn’t her first choice and it wasn’t enjoyable. Each classes are led by an establisshed an artist as their professors and “some aren’t aware of how to make a safe environment for people to develop their own voices. I had the feeling that the way of teaching was very narrow, in a way that not doing what you want, but the thing that the teacher finds good instead.” She wasn’t feeling safe in that class and after a few years she gathered some courage to go through the process of applying for another class. Now she’s studying under Prof. Christine Streuli. “I always love this class, which is led by a woman. It is very important to me as a person who’s doing a feminist art, to have a tutor who’s a feminist herself,” she said.

Along the years Menga experimented with different mediums. In the early semesters, she worked a lot with oil painting to create figurative paintings. She still thinks of it as a good way to practice, but it’s not what she wants to do now. After taking some pause and really thought about what was interesting for her, she fell in love with textile work. She pointed out, “I think textile work has bad connotation. Because women do it, it was seen very girly. But I don’t care. I really love to play with stereotype and ‘reclaim’ them.” She now focuses a lot on embroidery, which is quite distinctive in a particular way: with oil painting, the impact of creating was very immediate. Each brush stroke affect the work right away. But with embroidery she has to embrace the slower pace. “I like the way embroidery makes me put some time into the artwork,” she said.

Mengna Tan, Untitled, 2021. 70 x 52. Wax, steel, embroidery on canvas.

In the exhibition Kein Schlaraffenland, Mengna showcased some of her works. They were embroidery on canvas that depiceted anime characters. For her generation anime is indeed a really relevant mass media. Her first introduction to anime was when she was in China. She was obsessed and watched a lot of anime (Detectice Conan was the first). When she went back to Germany, this enthusiasm was carried along. “(Watching anime) was a very calming thing to me because I miss china a lot. Anime depicted east asian environment, so it was a way for me to connect back to it,” she said.

During art school, she delved deeper into science fiction and cyber punk themed animes, which are more philosophical. Many people assume that anime is a shallow form of entertainment. But she rebutted, “people think that animes are very black and white, childish. But it’s really not. It has a complex artwork and they also deal with a lot of philosophical questions.” Back when she was young, animes like Akira and Ghost in the Shell captivated Mengna through their artwork and atmosphere. As her curiosity grew, she begann to explore the ideas behind them. She discovered how a feminist author called Ursula la Guinn and her manifesto inspired those animes. This further obsession had led her to write her Bachelor thesis on cyber punk animes. She is well aware that cyberpunk itself has a lot of problematic aspects like sexism and toxic masculinity. But she added, “I think in the core (of this genre) there’s a feminist approaches that can be very empowering.”

Mengna in front of her latest works in her atelier.

Nonetheless, through her works she continues to explore the aesthetics as well as philosophical themes of anime, cyberpunk, science fiction and feminist utopias, while also being influenced by East Asian narratives and traditions. After all, “I still have a strong Sehnsucht (desire) for Chinese culture. I haven’t been to China again because of covid. I always have the feeeling that something is missing. And I think this is why I engage more to my identity and origin, which is a way of healing for me.”

Although she speaks chinese to her family, Mengna realised since 4 years ago that her chinese was getting worse. She joined a course to learn chinese again. It was hard for her, because in a way, she is admitting that she is some kind of a foreigner to her own culture and heritage. But she conceived, “This is very important. I’m diving more not only into the asian culture itself but also its history. It’s a big (one), but im trying to catch up.”

Follow Mengna here.

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Not an artist, nor a musician, Azhari orbits around the amazing people in Berlin. Translating his admiration towards them into words.