This cutout from Tam’s Chinese Fever series takes its cue from Thomas Nast’s 1870 political cartoon that plays upon the term “celestial,” at a time when China was known in the West as the Celestial Empire. Nast’s depiction, a comet head with a Chinese face and “Cheap Labour” emblazoned on its tail, captured the Sino-phobic mood of this era. White Americans were curious about the growing number of Chinese arriving in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but they viewed with increasing unease and negative feelings those whom they perceived as unfair economic competitors—attitudes being repeated in the present day.
Karen Tam is a Montreal-based artist whose research focuses on the constructions and imaginations of “ethnic” spaces through installations in which she recreates Chinese restaurants, karaoke lounges, opium dens, curio shops, and other sites of cultural encounter. She has exhibited her work and participated in residencies in North America, Europe, and China, and has received grants and fellowships from the Canada Council for the Arts, Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec, Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada, and Fonds pour la formation de chercheurs et l’aide à la recherche.
Tam was a finalist for the 2017 Prix Louis-Comtois and for the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec’s 2016 Prix en art actuel, and long-listed for the 2010 and 2016 Sobey Art Awards. She holds an MFA in sculpture (School of the Art Institute of Chicago) and a PhD in cultural studies (Goldsmiths, University of London). Her work is in museum and corporate collections including the Irish Museum of Modern Art, the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, the Hydro-Québec collection, the Royal Bank of Canada collection, and the Microsoft art collection, and in private collections in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom.