Rachelle Dang

Botany is ancestry: I trace my family’s history in Hawaii to the mid-1800s and the transoceanic movement of people and plants across the Pacific during that period.  American sugar planters needing laborers in Hawaii sought out a local botanist with connections to China – he could send for both plants and people on the same ship.  Hawaii’s troubled history of settler colonialism and ecological devastation is part of a story that productively shadows all of my work.

My goal is to excavate source material from the past and reinterpret its significance in the present through art.  I merge history with the contemporary through acts of appropriation and material exploration, creating conditions for the viewer to grapple with colonial legacies in an affective and poetic space of visual experience.

Since moving to New York three years ago, I began to ask how I could make Pacific stories matter to an Atlantic audience.  How do I locate and transform my work in New York?  How are my concerns tied to this region, including the East Coast, the Caribbean, and Europe?  I began to look at early European contact in Polynesia and how the Pacific became a testing ground for Enlightenment science.  I have focused on objects that represent the accomplished projects of science working on behalf of empire, and how these objects connect Polynesia to other colonial territories.

In my recent installation, Botanical Cage and Perimeter Wall [fig. 1-5], I rebuilt a shipping carrier designed in 1774 for the ocean transport of breadfruit saplings.  After encountering this fast-growing, nutrient-rich fruit in Tahiti in 1769, the British believed it to be a superfood from paradise, the most useful plant in the world.  These carriers were designed to move breadfruit saplings from Tahiti for research in England and eventual cultivation in Jamaica – from an island of imagined utopia to an island of bondage.  These structures were part of the failed mission of science and empire to rectify issues of famine and environmental catastrophe from deforestation and monocropping sugar in the Caribbean.  In my installation I surround this failing cage with rotting breadfruits cast in clay.

I rebuilt the shipping cage 48”h x 38”w x 20”d, with wired windows, shutters, and a ventilation roof, closely matching the original design.  It appeared as an embellished prison or mysterious coop – a seductively beautiful yet frightening forms.  The material treatment communicated time and natural processes.  The wood structure was covered in copper, a material that relates to ship building, botany, and commerce.  The variegated patina created from salt and vinegar alluded to ocean voyages and raw skin.  The sensually rotting fruit forms challenged the rigid monumentality of the cage by evoking renewal, regeneration, and change.

I constructed a masonry wall and situated the copper cage four feet in front to allow viewers to circulate, but also to create a feeling of uncomfortable compression.  Within the bottom rows of the wall, I embedded two wood boxes with the same dimensions of the cinder blocks.  These wood boxes resemble the vegetable and fruit crates of our own era, with ventilation “peep” holes that echo the portal windows of the cage.  They refer to something alive yet doubly entrapped: inside the box and inside the wall.

In Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique (“The Native Peoples of the Pacific Ocean”) [fig. 6-12], I reconstructed French colonial wallpaper panels depicting Tahiti and Hawaii through digital collage.  I wanted to expose glitches, gaps, and mismatched layers to refer to tactics of appropriation and compositing used by Dufour et Cie in 1806 to construct this ideological image.  27 hand-built ceramic figures, figure groupings, and natural forms were arranged in frieze formation on a high concrete wall enabling viewers to walk around and see everything at once, layered upon each other at eye-level.  Each form is a distressed and hollowed version of its counterpart depicted in the wallpaper imagery.  I wanted to disrupt the aesthetic harmony of the image and challenge the way its romantic aesthetics cloak a colonialist ideology.

The objects depicted in my photographs, Carrier (North Atlantic) [fig. 13] and Carrier (Hudson River) [fig. 14] were cast in clay from a small wood box that I built to resemble 18th century breadfruit carriers, and to also resemble traps, cages, and luxury containers.  I asked a swimmer to guide my objects into New York’s waterways, inviting expanded readings about trade, migration, and labor.  I selected photographs where the body is submerged underwater and completely hidden.  The forms appear as mysterious orphans, perilously adrift in cold Atlantic waters.

In Botany is Ancestry [fig. 19-20], I rebuilt part of the foundation of my family’s home over the concrete floor of my New York studio.  I wanted to align and acknowledge two very different worlds.  This hybrid platform enabled me to ask how historical projects are literally brought home, how they can be actualized in my world and in the viewer’s presence.  Copper boxes were positioned like mysterious columns; ceramic cast breadfruits stood in for absent occupants.  Viewers entered an environment situated between growth and decay.

My future work is based on two maquettes titled Seedling Carrier and Flowering Fence [fig. 16-18].  This project connects 18th century botany and historic colonial gardens with issues of migration and displacement in the present.  These seedling carriers, resembling coffins and houses, are both womb and tomb.  I will surround the carriers with sculpted seedlings and plants, creating a protective bed-like space for reclamation and redemption.  The fence covered in porcelain flowers echoes this paradox of violence and beauty, captivity and protection.

My work proposes dialogue about interwoven histories as a gesture towards empathy and interconnectedness.  I want to acknowledge the generative possibilities of engagement with the past through aesthetic form and critical questioning.  What is the price for one kind of vision of the world imposing itself over another?  How can we suggest other ways of being in the world?

Born Honolulu, HI.  Lives and works in New York, NY.



M.F.A. Hunter College, New York, NY (2018)

B.A. Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA (2001)


Awards and Residencies:

Sculpture Space Residency, Utica, NY (upcoming 2018)

Shandaken: Storm King Art Center Residency (upcoming 2018)

Cooper Union Artist-in-Residence (upcoming 2018)

Dedalus Foundation MFA Fellowship Nominee (2018)

The Studios at MASS MoCA Artist-in-Residence (2017)

Hunter College Kossak Travel Grant (2017)

Hunter College MFA Mid-Program and Scholarship Awards (2015-2016)

Vermont Studio Center Residency (Scholarship Award), Johnson, VT (2015)

Wellesley College Friends of Art Prize for Excellence in Studio Art (2001)



Motel, Brooklyn, NY (upcoming Sept. 2018)

Nathalie Karg Gallery, New York, NY (group exhibition, 2018)

Cooper Union Artist-in-Residence Exhibition, New York, NY (2018)

205 Hudson Gallery, Hunter College, New York, NY (2018)

SPRING/BREAK Art Show, New York, NY (2018)

Sleep Center, New York, NY (2017)

TAG Gallery, Santa Monica, CA (2015)

Korean Cultural Center, Los Angeles, CA (2015)

Gallery 825, Los Angeles, CA (2015)

Gallery 825, Los Angeles, CA (2014)

Hawaii Pacific University Art Gallery, Kaneohe, HI (2013, two-person exhibit)

Honolulu Museum of Art, Honolulu, HI (2012)

Honolulu Museum of Art, Honolulu, HI (2011, Artists of Hawaii Biennial exhibit)

Angelika Film Center, New Filmmakers Series, New York, NY (2005)

Sarah Lawrence College, Experimental Film & Video Festival, Bronxville, NY (2004-2005)

Brooklyn Academy of Music, BAM Rose Cinemas, NextNext Films, Brooklyn, NY (2004)



Hyperallergic, “Laughter and Tears in Hunter College’s MFA Thesis Show,” Zachary Small, May 2018

Whitehot Magazine, “Stepping into Spring Before it Was Warm Outside,” Daryl King, May 2018