Margaret Chen 

(Jamaica, b. 1951)

Born in St. Catherine, Jamaica, into an ethnically Chinese family, Chen excelled at her studies at the Jamaica School of Art, then relocated to Canada to pursue her postgraduate education at York University, Ontario. There she began to experiment with the large-format mixed-media sculptures and installations that have become her specialty. Chen works with a wide variety of materials, wood being the most dominant. As was customary among Chinese families in Jamaica, Chen was raised in the family business—in her case, furniture making—which provided her with a specialist’s background in the manipulation of wood for carving and sculpture.   

 

In her 1980s work, especially the Steppe series (1982 -1989), Chen reflects on her Chinese ancestors, using the Asian steppes as a symbol of their journey. This mixed-media piece uses paper over wood, incorporating elements of Chinese watercolor and traditional Jamaican motifs. This particular work also uses wooden panels in a manner similar to that of traditional Chinese screens of the fourth and fifth centuries BC—before they became folding screens, Chinese screens were made from a single wooden panel, giving them a heavy, monumental presence that can be seen in Chen’s prodigious modern works. Using the language of modern art, these works by Margaret Chen show the duality of her cultural roots. As she describes it, “the whole process became not only an exploration of the passage of time but of my roots—an imaginary, subterranean journey beneath the steppes of Asia—of life that was no more and of what remains, accumulating, layer upon layer, vague shadows, nebulous shapes.”

Chen's work is characterized by her large-format sculptures, installations, and objects that combine wood with mixed materials such as X-ray weaving, bones, canvas, and acrylic. Her production process is ongoing and meditative. Among her exhibitions are About Change (2011), organized by the World Bank and the IDB Gallery in Washington, DC; and her solo show Ovoid (2003), at the Mutual Gallery in Kingston, Jamaica. She currently divides her time between Jamaica and Canada.