Feel Enchanted By This SF Artist’s Filipino-Inspired Embroidery


Charlene Tan in her studio

Charlene Tan creates many 3D pieces, including oversize wall hangings.

Charlene Tan recalls being enchanted by the piles of shells and strands of freshwater pearls, beads and rhinestones beckoning from the stalls at one of Manila’s sprawling indoor markets. Although born in Houston, Tan lived with her maternal grandmother in the Philippines for three years. When she returned to start kindergarten in San Francisco, where she still lives, she found herself caught between two cultures. “I missed the foods, the smells, the closeness—all the sense memories—but I was told to forget Tagalog and just assimilate,” Tan says.

The artist adds small beads to a canvas.

Items such as pearls and shells bring texture and dimension to her work.

A container of purple pigment.

Powders are used to add vibrant colors to her work.

A large work in progress.

A work in progress shows how the artist maps her work.

The artist in her studio.

Tan works on an oversize wall hanging.

A work table in the artist's studio.

In Charlene Tan’s studio, artworks inspired by traditional weavings from the Philippines fill the space.

Tan’s lola (grandmother), a seamstress and embroiderer, is the inspiration behind “Research and Remembering,” her ongoing body of three-dimensional work. An exploration of weaving traditions from around the Philippines, the project is Tan’s way of reclaiming a cultural language and connecting to her roots. Scouring digital databases and old books to discover regional textile patterns and their unique symbology, Tan’s quest is not to replicate or appropriate but rather to interpret them through her own artistic language by incorporating materials she remembers from her youth. 

Tan embarks by photographing a weaving or scanning a found image and reinterpreting it in black and white. Once the print is scaled up in size, she mounts it to a wooden panel and begins the labor-intensive process of tracing the patterns with pearls, shells, iridescent abalone nacre or Filipino food products, such as ube powder or in the case of Researching and Remembering, Pink Tapioca, SIP, thousands of tiny pink tapioca balls. Pearls from her grandmother’s favorite bracelets were the impetus for Researching and Remembering, Freshwater Pearls, a piece based on motifs from a pis siyabit—a headcloth handwoven by the Tausug people of the southwestern Philippines. Tan considers it an homage to the woman who nurtured her in her early childhood.

“Post-assimilation, you can feel the culture isn’t yours anymore, because you looked away—you chose to be Western,” says Tan, who is relearning Tagalog. “This process of interpreting traditional Filipino weavings helps me to decolonize my own mindset. My heritage is beautiful, and I’m so happy to have found a way to reclaim it and create something of beauty at the same time.”