Kicki Yang Zhang is representative of the new age of multi-hyphenate creatives using their digital know-how to amplify their artistic prowess. The Chinese born, Berlin-raised artist has garnered the attention of 200k followers, who look to her Instagram (@kickiyangz) for experimental make-up looks (and impeccably put together outfits – all of which adhere to a changing colour gradient that is present across her feed). The Face's Asia creative-director-at-large, Margaret Zhang, caught up over a video chat to discuss their shared affinities. Namely: exploring their heritage through art, the ways in which social media has democratised beauty standards, and using digital platforms as a force for good – all while Zhang fashioned up a beauty look inspired by Chinese guóhuà paintings.
Margaret Zhang: Hey Kicki, what's your first make-up look?
Kicki Yang Zhang: This look is inspired by Chinese guóhuà paintings. I live in Germany – and Germans love Carnival – and at Carnival they have all kinds of clown paintings for your face. It's a thing here, especially in West Germany where I grew up.
Which came first: painting or make-up?
Definitely painting. I started painting when I was really little because my mom was always super into it, she does landscape painting.
Chinese landscape painting?
Not really Chinese, she does acrylics, and it’s not really in Chinese style but it’s always something she really enjoyed. I feel like when she went to uni she just wanted to study art. But when you grow up in a Chinese cultural evolution, it’s not really something you can approach, which is really sad. But yeah she gave it up. Instead she did electrical engineering.
My dad is a mechanical engineer. Isn’t that funny?
Oh really. I feel like for our parents generation in China, the math and engineering route was the way to go. My my dad did computer science. He thought it sounded really modern. When you would go to buy food in university, you had to use tickets, so when my mum joined this university in West Germany she didn’t know how to do that, so ad my dad came up to her and helped her.
Cute. I know that my parents don’t fully understand what it is that I do. They were never opposed to it, but they always kind of saw my creative route as a phase. Do you ever get that from your family at all?
Oh yeah sure. When I wanted to move to Berlin I dropped out of university and my parents were still super supportive because they know that I'm in a different place and different time. They said, ”you're over 18”, You have to make your own decisions so make sure you don't regret anything. Last year I was in a big campaign, in stores in Shanghai. I was with my parents and we went in the store and my face was everywhere... my dad was really proud because that was something physical he could see! That as a really cool moment. He actually went up to the to the people who work there and was like, “Hey that's my daughter!”.
Do you have a community of friends or like minded artists around you in Berlin that share your creative interests? Or do you ride solo?
So I moved here two years ago and I have a really amazing group of friends in Berlin. Like everyone that I’m involved with is doing something creative whether they're a stylist or a musician.
So where did you grow up?
When I was a kid I was in Shanghai for five years and I used to be a Chinese citizen, which is something that a lot of people don’t know. Then in 2000, my parents decided to fully immigrate to Germany. All the other kids spoke German and I could only speak Chinese and it was, yeah, really weird. But’s the sick thing about kids, like they kind of know what you mean anyway.
And do you feel like being in Germany has influenced what you do now? For example, I love it when you do Chinese characters on your face...
I'm really thankful for my mom because she always wanted my sister and I to still have a very strong connection to China and so she would teach us Chinese, Chinese writing, and about Chinese culture everyday after school. The weird thing is when I'm in Germany people see me as a Chinese immigrant. They see me as a Chinese person rather than as a German person. But whenever I'm in China they can tell I grew up somewhere else.
I have the exact same.
At one point in my life I had this identity crisis where I didn’t know where I really belonged. There wasn't a place on this earth that I felt represented me. Then I realised it’s totally fine. It’s like the world is my home and I make things my home. Home is not really a physical place, it’s like home is a feeling.
Exploring my identity through creativity has really allowed me to reconcile that crisis, and to be okay with being a global citizen...
Oh definitely. Whenever I paint it’s like I can express the conflict inside me on a piece of paper. Maybe I’m drawing something which seems western, maybe when I draw a person it's about how they dress. But I always have these, you know Asian or Chinese elements in there. My paintings don't have to be one thing.
Is that why you started painting on your face?
I realised my face can be a canvas too. Why limit yourself to to paper? I thought make-up was really fun. It's something you can wear outside. I can't carry my drawings outside! So it's something that you can present to other people. My favourite thing to use to paint my face is liquid lipsticks because they are highly pigmented.
How do you feel about the landscape of beauty standards right now? The internet has really opened up the way that different cultures see and understand beauty...
I have mono-lids, right. So from when I was really small, ignorant people in my family started telling me, “When you're older you should get the double eyelid surgery”. It's really popular. I know it's one of the most common surgeries that you can get. At the beginning I was agreeing, thinking I would get the double eyelid surgery when I was 18! Now that I'm older I think it's really sad that that's this belief in Asia – that the beauty standards leant towards the double eyelid and the small noses that would make us look more Western.
Do you think it’s to look Western? Sometimes I feel like it’s almost to look unreal....
Yeah like more like a doll, you know?
Yeah, I used to think that it was about obtaining what you couldn't have. I thought it was to do with colonialism in Asia, classism – I think you and I are quite tanned compared to the general population of white that young Asian people want to be. But I think now in our generation it feels more complicated, no? There are so many different influences, whether it’s plastic surgery or make-up, or this FaceTuned version of ourselves...
I don't really follow these trends myself because at some point everyone looks kind of the same to me. What I try to teach people in a way, over social media, is just to experiment and really try to be the most truthful that you can be to yourself instead of just following a certain trend.
I feel like it’s everywhere too… mass marketing. People are trained to see things through a filtered bubble of what Google wants them to see, or you know, what their community, or friends want them to look like. How do you feel that the democratisation of that information and the Internet has shaped the way in which you're able to communicate with your audience?
I've met so many amazing people all over the planet because of the Internet, so I'm thankful for my platform. I think what's amazing about it is that you don't need to rely on another person to grow and to build your community, it's just on you. So from day one it was just me. Back then I was an emo kid – I used to out on outfits and make-up and take pictures for fun and I still feel like this is what I’m doing. I’m still the Emo kid from back then. I realised a lot of Asian girls are following me and then I got why, because Asian girls are not really represented that well in mainstream media. People go on social media to find inspiration instead. No one should live outside of beauty standards. When I was modelling I learnt that a lot of make-up artists they didn't really know how to put makeup on my face because I don’t have eye creases. They gave me the weirdest makeup. I was literally looking like a drag queen cause you know they tried to create a crease where there wasn’t one. I tried to teach them. Some of them are really nice and they really wanted to learn how to do it. But then I had experiences on the other hand where they were kinda mad at me. It was like I was telling them that they were doing their jobs wrong. I was like, “No that’s not what I mean,” it’s just that Asian eyes are different.
You created this look so quickly – I'm impressed. Never take it off it's so beautiful.
That’s why I take pictures of it as I know it’s going to be gone in a day!