Cici Cheng MFA EDA ’20: How to Build a Home

It took Cici Cheng leaving her family in Durham for California to realize her world, and the stories she wants to tell, were at home.

Cheng’s grandparents arrived in North Carolina from China in 1996, settling in south Durham’s Parkwood neighborhood. They opened a small community tailor shop, which they still run today. When Cheng’s parents immigrated to Durham in 2003 to join them, she was six years old. As the only child, and then the oldest child (her brother was born ten years later), Cheng often navigated life in the US for her family.

“Growing up was tough because I saw my parents struggle with the culture change, and not knowing English made it even harder,” shared Cheng. “I had to learn English really quickly and be translator for my family at a very young age. It was scary, because I didn’t want to mess up.”

“This photograph is filled with many different emotions. When I see this photograph, I see my past and present, parts of myself that are in conflict with each other, my memories and parts of my identity.”—Cici Cheng
One of Cheng’s earlier photos, taken inside her grandparent’s tailor shop.

Cheng’s parents started working essentially as soon as they arrived. Her mother took a job as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant, and her father learned building and home repair skills from her grandfather, eventually establishing his own business. Cheng took on part-time jobs to support the family, balancing school with side gigs in restaurants and on campus.

When Cheng enrolled in Durham School of the Arts, she discovered a love for photography that led her to earn her BFA in Photo and Media at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, CA. But as she made photographs of the landscape and architecture in and around LA County, she had trouble connecting to the work.

“When I was at CalArts, I FaceTimed my parents almost every single day. I realized since I was so far away, that they are the most important part of my life.”

“I wanted to start photographing what I cared about the most—and that was my family. I really didn’t have a plan; I would just start documenting around the house or the tailor shop whenever I went home for break. The most ordinary things around my home and at the shop transformed into something new for me.”

Cheng was not finished honing her photography craft or making work. For graduate school, she chose to stay close to home and make work that expressly included her family. She enrolled in Duke’s MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts program in 2018.

How to Build a Home

In April 2019, Cheng’s parents bought their first home: a two-story 1970s house on three and a half-wooded acre outside of Chapel Hill. It needed work. But Cheng’s father saw an opportunity. Here was a home the family could afford, but better yet, they could work together in remaking it into their dream home.

“It’s a really special house, we can’t believe that it’s now our home,” said Cheng. “We’ve been doing renovations and repairs for the last year. We’re still tearing down walls. It’s a slow process since it’s just us and we are learning things along the way.” The family moved into the lower level of the house about a year ago, and Cheng began to document the process of making home, together.

“My parents had the opportunity to buy their first and forever home. This work is a gateway to the moments and changes that my family is experiencing throughout this modification. It is also my exploration of cultural identity and understanding what home means to a person.”—Artist Statement

“In my work, I dig deeper into what ‘home’ means to a person—both emotionally and physically. My hometown in China is home. This house that belongs to us, a space we can all be together in, is home,” said Cheng.

She took the title for her project from the DIY manuals and books she saw around the house when growing up.

Documenting what you are closest to, what is most private and loved, presents unique challenges. Cheng uses medium format color film, and she sets up her images slowly, with care. “I developed a new sensitivity to looking through the lens of my camera. The deeper I was digging into this project, the deeper I was taking photos and getting to know my parents. Even though I already know them well, you still find out new things while you’re making this kind of work.”

“I realized I needed to slow down and really look at all the details while making this work. Details that I often fail to notice because I see them all the time. I look at my Mom all the time, so I have to slow down and really look at her features, look at what she is doing. I think a lot of her has come through in these photographs.” —Cici Cheng

In choosing what to photograph, and what to share with the public, Cheng must navigate intimate questions of what to show of her family and broader issues of representing Asian Americans. Her portraits present individual moments reflection and collective family pride. Cheng makes sure her parents are comfortable with each public image. “I consider them my collaborators for this project, so it’s important for me to listen and hear what they have to say. There are some photos that are just for the family archive,” said Cheng.

When Duke closed campus in response to the coronavirus crisis, she was days away from installing the show in the Power Plant Gallery. Instead, she hung her photos at home, amid the power tools, in the very rooms the images were made. “I decided I’d rather experience the work as a whole with my family in our unfinished home.”

“This work is dedicated to my family, and I am going to keep making it,” said Cheng. “This is still only the beginning of this project. What will change when the house is finished, after we achieve this goal, ‘the American Dream’”?