- 7 March 2022
- 4 minutes
Dora Lam is an interdisciplinary artist whose practice uses craft and collaboration to navigate the experiences of East and South East Asian communities in London, and the complexities of diasporic art. After working in technology in the City of London for a number of years, pivoting to a Graduate Diploma in Art & Design at the Royal College of Art enabled Dora to explore and expand her practice, and encounter new opportunities and audiences.
Originally interested in painting, the Graduate Diploma saw Dora work across different mediums from performance and sculpture to moving image and community art, landing her a feature on Grayson Perry’s Art Club.
Using craft as a communal activity with specific communities or family is a central part of your artistic practice. How did you start using this approach?
My initial approach was to use craft as a way of connecting with a distant 'homeland' as it is steeped in rich histories and tradition. Discovering that I had no fixed notion of 'home' opened me up to explore craft in non-traditional ways. I soon realised that it wasn’t the craft itself where I saw true value, but the stories and the people behind it. Communalising craft in this way celebrates the complexity and multiplicity of communities and intersections, while also honouring the differences between individuals. I was also thinking about ways of making which address issues of authorship, ownership and elitism.
“My practice entirely exploded and expanded during my time on the Graduate Diploma.”
Why are you interested in exploring cultural identity in this way? Why do you think art is an effective way to do this?
In my own family I recognised that communication was stunted by deeply ingrained values such as filial piety which dictates that elder members of the family are respected and never questioned. There is a general reluctance to dwell on or revisit challenging times, particularly those of poverty.
I found that exploring cultural identity through communal activity unlocked the potential of participatory art-making as a vessel for meaningful conversation. I realised that situations can be constructed to create spaces for new kinds of conversations, ones which may sidestep the inbuilt dynamics of hierarchical relationships common in East and South East Asian familial culture.
How did your practice change or develop while studying for the Graduate Diploma at the RCA?
My practice entirely exploded and expanded during my time on the Graduate Diploma. I came into the course as a live painter and by the time I graduated from it my practice included performance, sculpture, moving image and social art. Crucially, I connected deeply with my fellow Fine Art artists. We organised our own exhibition in the Summer and have become a bit of a family! The course also teaches invaluable skills for professional practice such as writing about your work and thinking critically. Prior to the Grad Dip I was working in technology in the City – I like to think I am retired from that now!
“It has given me a completely new lens and sense of confidence as an artist.”
How did you get involved in Grayson Perry's Art Club and what was that experience like for you? Has it made you think differently about your practice?
My partner encouraged me to submit work for the show and shortly after I was called to say they loved the Clay Dumplings piece which is a collaboration between my parents and I. The experience of being filmed and meeting Grayson Perry has been fun. Most importantly, it has been very validating that others have found familiarity with and connected to the stories from the artwork. It is also touching that people like my parents now proudly have their names against a piece of art in a gallery which they never dreamed would ever happen (Clay Dumplings is on show at Grayson's Art Club: The exhibition at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery until 4 September 2022).
What are you working on at the moment?
I recently completed an artist residency where I ran some workshops with the Chinatown community [in London] and used the output to design some products which are being sold to raise money for the China Exchange charity. I am currently in incubation mode being on maternity leave. My ideas continue to be grounded in community and working in the social art sphere. I recently became a trustee of Hackney Chinese Community Services so my next works are likely to be situated there. I am thinking of ideas to empower members of the community to create, setting off a chain of creativity by connecting fellow artists to respond to those creations.
“I am passionate about socially engaged work which questions the role of the artist and where art is made, and Contemporary Art Practice seemed like the perfect place for me to continue this.”
In what ways has the Graduate Diploma helped you get to where you are now?
The Grad Dip allowed me to develop my practice and a portfolio of works which has allowed me to seek opportunities which would not have been possible otherwise. For example, I have been able to participate in a group exhibition, apply and win a paid artist residency, be featured on Grayson Perry’s Art Club, continue on an MA and won a QEST scholarship for my MA fees. It has also given me a completely new lens and sense of confidence as an artist. Importantly, I can say I’ve met people along the way who I know I am going to keep hold of for a long time, including some absolutely fantastic tutors.
Why did you decide to go on to study MA Contemporary Art Practice (Public Sphere) at the RCA?
Public Sphere felt appropriate as I aim to operate outside of the more traditional structures of art making. I am passionate about socially engaged work which questions the role of the artist and where art is made, and Contemporary Art Practice seemed like the perfect place for me to continue this. I am hoping to continue where I left off from the Grad Dip – deepening my practice, getting to know myself more as an artist and pushing the potential of art. I will also be seeking ways of embedding myself within other practitioner groups with similar aspirations.
I hope the MA will help me continue transplanting my artistic practice into wider social, non-art contexts and communities in a quest to make art accessible without sacrificing its meaningfulness or potential for effecting positive change. At the same time, I foresee that my aim to fuel better understandings of the lesser-known and more complex nuances of the diasporic experience will be a lifetime’s work.