100 Cups of Tea, 2013
Materials used: pages from a manuscript of a novel, flour, water, white acrylic paint
MEMORY + TEA
The distant sound of a tinkling bell yanked my thoughts away from the world I was immersed in – without a moment of hesitation, I tossed the book aside and ran towards the sound of the bell. The maid stopped ringing the bell as everyone stampeded into the dining room. The smell of sweet baked goodness made my mouth water. The warmth of the chai rose up to my face as I bent over my cup to take a small sip.
What is a cup of tea but hot water poured over some dried up crumpled leaves? And yet, for me, a cup of tea tops my list of foods that mean warmth, care, home. Every cup of tea that I drink is infused with memory. When I was growing up, my family did not practice the ritual of afternoon tea. We drank chai in the morning before school, a thick, milky sweet tea my mother learned to brew from the locals soon after we moved to Nairobi, Kenya from Seoul, Korea. And while that adds to my memory of tea, the one that remains the strongest is of a time when my mother was largely absent, when she was very ill and had to remain in bed for weeks, when my brother and I were cared for by one of my mother’s friends.
We lived at this friend’s house until my mother got better – two weeks, perhaps a month? It is hard to say now. I was eight years old and felt terribly alone in a strange house. I thought I was expected to carry on with my life but I had lost my footing completely and didn’t know how to get back up. There were plenty of toys for me to play with and stacks of books that were new to me, but they couldn’t get rid of the horrible feeling in my belly that persisted every day. That silver bell saved me. Every afternoon, the sound of it would make me jump up with happiness, knowing that there was something delicious and warm waiting for me at the table. I could stop worrying about my mother and smile, sometimes even laugh at something someone said. My mother’s friend seemed to understand my need for this special afternoon ritual she had in her home – she made sure to bake the cakes that I liked most and always, there would be pots and pots of chai for everyone.
It was at afternoon tea that my mother first got out of bed and joined us at the table.
Note: This is an installation piece of a hundred papier-mache teacups. Each teacup is freestanding and can be stacked or hung, depending on the space the cups will inhabit.
Over the years, I accumulated stacks of manuscripts—I am a writer as well as an artist. These stacks of paper inspired me to make something with them so I started exploring papier-mache. Around the same time, I wrote a short piece about tea (written above). I borrowed from friends their grandmothers’ teacup collections and started making papier-mache cups from them. Each teacup differs in form, not only because I have made them from different teacup collections, but also because of the warping that takes place during the drying process. I used the simplest form of papier-mache paste—flour and water—because it gives the cups a matte finish.
You can see more photos of the teacups at Installation.