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The Artist Who Uses Yarn as a Subversive Force

By Hillary Kang

Lim lounges on a giant octopus beanbag that she crocheted herself in her cosy studio, which is packed with nostalgic knick-knacks and her own offbeat creations. “Crochet is very technical and mathematical,” she says.
 
Katherine Ang
Lim lounges on a giant octopus beanbag that she crocheted herself in her cosy studio, which is packed with nostalgic knick-knacks and her own offbeat creations. “Crochet is very technical and mathematical,” she says.

For the greater part of her career, artist Kelly Lim has been defined by her hair. On her Instagram — where she is better known as Kelly Limerick — she curates her hairstyles under the hashtag #kllylmrckhair. There, Lim uses her favoured material, yarn, weaving it into her hair to create elaborate hairstyles which often garner hundreds, if not thousands, of likes.

But perhaps Lim’s most distinctive look consists of florid woven yarn dreads — a look that catapulted her to mainstream attention, thanks in part to a viral ad campaign by Apple in 2018. As a lifelong hobbyist knitter turned professional crochet artist, incorporating yarn into her own hair seemed a natural transition. “I had a lot of scrap yarn that I didn’t use, and I wanted to do something with it — so I just took it and braided it into my hair,” says the 30-year-old. “Back then, I never thought about the cultural sensitivities surrounding my hair.”

Katherine AngOnce known for her multicoloured dreads, Lim has since stopped wearing them because she was concerned she was unknowingly “hurting” the Black community. But she still continues experimenting with her hair and incorporating it into her body of work.
Once known for her multicoloured dreads, Lim has since stopped wearing them because she was concerned she was unknowingly “hurting” the Black community. But she still continues experimenting with her hair and incorporating it into her body of work.

With the increased public attention from social media came the reckoning. Lim soon began receiving scathing comments and messages accusing her of cultural appropriation, of profiteering off an oppressed culture. She was indignant — not least because none of the commenters were actually African- American — but because she felt stifled by the concept of appropriation. And though she received several messages of support from Black women (“Thank you for showing that dreadlocks aren’t something to be looked down on... It should not be disgraceful,” said one), Lim became disturbed by the idea that she could have been unknowingly “hurting” the community that she’d been borrowing from for so long.

“It became very heavy on my heart,” she says. “I thought to myself, if there might be some people out there who really feel this way, then I should stop doing it.”She would eventually stop wearing her distinctive dreads in 2019. But that didn’t mean she was done experimenting with her hair and incorporating it into her body of work. More than another canvas to showcase her talents, Lim’s hair became a vital way to explore notions of femininity and societal expectations. For a recent work dubbed the “hairness”, Lim braided a harness around her face and chest with her hair, in a look reminiscent of the Japanese art of rope bondage, shibari. Of the work, Lim says: “This braided harness isn’t physically strong, yet it exudes a soft power — a protection.  It represents being bound by that which protects us.”

As Lim explains, she enjoys toying with what’s considered feminine, or normal — and what isn’t. “Crochet has this image of being for old grannies, of being very homely and feminine,” she says. “But through history, fibre art has carried a lot of messages about women fighting for their rights — precisely because of that image of being soft.”

Her 2020 exhibition at the Esplanade, “Home Kitsch Home,” best embodies the duality. On the surface, the installation seems to be a look into a housewife’s musty home, filled with curios and an overabundance of knitted goods, but a closer look reveals a note of eeriness, overlaid with melancholy — best seen in the collection of teaspoons topped with baby doll heads and a haphazardly crocheted tea cosy with a disembodied rabbit head. “It was about a housewife, about why she works on these little crafts around the house, because she doesn’t want to think about why she is alone at home,” explains Lim.

“I feel like it is my role as a creative to reinterpret things,” she adds, “And not to just accept something wholesale, as it is.”

That same element of subversion is present in the rest of Lim’s otherwise placid, cottage- core aesthetic. In her intricate works, she weaves disembodied baby doll heads into jewellery cases, also using them to top Gothic-looking teaspoons
while creating other peculiar, multi-limbed creatures. Lim also runs a digital store that sells interchangeable braids and dreads for the Blythe doll, a cult-favourite doll that some observers have termed “too scary for children”, but which Lim adores — “like a child,” she jokes.

Her distinctive aesthetic has garnered her many fans over the years. Any time Lim puts up a photo of a new hairdo or crochet creation on Instagram, the comments sections are almost always awash with heart emojis and supportive comments. “You’re truly one of a kind,” coos one user. “You’ve been my fashion and crochet inspiration since I started,” enthuses another.

As with all art, Lim’s aesthetic is not without its detractors either, who think it macabre. After installing a commissioned piece several years ago, a woman disturbed by Lim’s art (which she saw as a baby doll being strangled by a sea of yarn), petitioned the curator to have the work removed. The curator acquiesced and the piece — which they termed “offensive” — was taken down, much to Lim’s chagrin. “I didn’t take it very well,” she says. “If an artist is not allowed to express what they feel, then there’s no point for art. Art is here to create discourse — to express things that we cannot express in certain ways. To self-censor is a very sad thing for an artist.”

It is also why, despite having some 15,000 followers on her Instagram account, Lim remains doubtful about social media. She maintains that “the social media wave won’t end well”, despite acknowledging how it has helped artists like herself be seen and known globally. And though platforms like Patreon and Ko-fi — crowdfunding-style websites where artists provide exclusive perks to subscribers who pay them a monthly fee — can provide a vital lifeline to creators whose earnings have been impacted by the pandemic, Lim is adamant that she will not join such platforms.“On social media it’s very easy to be pushed around by what people, your followers, want you to be like,” she says. “Artists become so scared to lose their audience. They start creating content for their audiences, instead of for themselves.”

The emphasis on social media virality has also been a particularly persistent bugbear for Lim. She disagrees with what she sees as an undue emphasis on “Instagrammability” and on measurable metrics: “The words ‘Tik-Tokable’ and ‘Instagrammable’ keep popping up as requirements,” she says. “A good piece of work can be both Instagrammable and meaningful at the same time. But people don’t yet realise they can be the same thing. And by making all the exhibitions free, the public will just see these art pieces as something to take a photo with — they will never see it as art. It devalues the work.”

She adds: “Singapore needs the sort of public art that isn’t just Instagrammable, but isn’t inaccessible, either — not the sort [where] you have to go to the gallery and pore over a complex artist statement, but also not the sort of public art that you just Instagram and walk away [from]. But for now, there’s no in-between in Singapore.”

Lim has tried remedying this over the years with her works: Through yarn bombing — the act of spontaneously incorporating a piece of woven yarn art into an urban landscape — and through numerous public installations, like the series of works commissioned by the National Heritage Board in 2017. Titled “Unlikely Dwellers of the Urban”, Lim took to three cultural centres to create yarn interpretations of fabled creatures and other stories from each culture. At the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, for instance, Lim created a whimsical lion head that viewers could don, and a trio of tigers inspired by traditional Chinese motifs from ancient China. Each of these exhibits provided a simple entry point for both children and adults alike to learn more about the meaning behind the work — and made for charming photo ops as well.

For all her gripes about social media, Lim admits that she is not immune to its pressures. As a crochet artist, Lim’s main body of work lies in her textile pieces, and less in her hairstyles or the outfits she wears — yet she acknowledges that these posts are the ones that often garner the most attention on Instagram. It is why she confesses to being worried that her selfies were “doing a disservice” to her work.

“I was getting known more for my face than my work,” she says. “It bothered me a lot. I felt like I needed to step out of the spotlight, in order to put the spotlight back onto my work.” Later, Lim says she began to reconcile the two concepts: That she didn’t need to be “quiet” to be a good artist — that she didn’t need to justify every facet of her aesthetic to people who might potentially take offence.

“People really tend to do this, especially to women,” says Lim. “Like, ‘Oh, she’s a fashion girl, she can’t be an artist.’ People just cannot accept that someone who dresses up can also do art, or that this is all just a ‘brand’ I am putting on for Instagram. But I’m not a brand, I’m a person. So why do I have to be sorry for who I am?”