MengCheng 梦城团 Collective: An Invitation to Be

How MengCheng 梦城团 Collective builds community around art, friendship, and food

A typewritten letter, a familiar pattern on bedsheets, an old photograph, a potluck—to MengCheng 梦城团 Collective, these things are to be considered art. 

“Eat together, dream together” is not only their tagline, but a part of their process. The collective believes that artmaking need not be a solitary pursuit, one where a piece is born to an artist to exist, unmoving and unchanging, within a gallery space. For them, art is not merely a product to be observed, but a process to be lived. When our everyday lives, shared experiences, and communal connections are interpreted as forms of artistic expression, we find ourselves taking pride in the quiet, unpolished parts of ourselves.

MengCheng 梦城团 Collective: An Invitation to Be
MengCheng 梦城团 Collective: An Invitation to Be, courtesy the collective

MengCheng 梦城团 Collective formed only a year and half ago, in a Zoom meeting between Neena Wang, LiLi Nacht, Yidan Zeng, and Thandi Cai. The group originally met in Memphis, where they spent their formative years before venturing their separate ways. While the group is currently spread out internationally—Los Angeles, Berlin, Philadelphia, and Chicago, respectively—they very intentionally carve out time to meet remotely, where they hold space for one another to share their unique ideas and experiences, process emotions, as well as plan their future as a collective.

LiLi Nacht explained, “I think it’s crucial to acknowledge how special it is to be individuals in the cities where we are working now, while still having this shared experience of being from the same place, in the south, in Memphis. That has informed each person’s trajectory.”

MengCheng 梦城团 Collective was born out of Nacht’s idea to connect the four childhood friends, who all chose what Neena Wang described as a “rare career path” for members of the community they grew up in.

“I am really interested in using our human forms to suggest future ways of being.” – Thandi Cai

As individuals, their art practices are multidisciplinary, fluid, and oftentimes indistinguishable from their vocational jobs and activism: drawing, painting, writing, film, photography, textiles, design, performance, organizing, and education, just to name a few. 

Thandi Cai elaborated on this, adding, “I think we’re all interested in answering that same question; What can we identify that’s unique among us in the experiences we’ve had, and how can we use that to our advantage and share that with others?” 

While they explore many similar themes and concepts—such as identity, culture, heritage, and belonging—in their individual practices, their work as MengCheng 梦城团 Collective unites their mediums, expands the conversation surrounding these shared themes, and sets the table for community involvement and storytelling.

“A lot of what we talk about and what we want to uphold are often what has not been traditionally given significance or value by mainstream culture. Through our work, we want to celebrate practices that we’ve grown up with in our own communities, done by our parents, like potlucks, that are oftentimes not seen as big, fancy traditions, but they were actually the lifeblood of what happens behind the scenes,” spoke Yidan Zeng. “How can we create opportunities to learn together in all the messy ways?”

MengCheng 梦城团 Collective’s summer 2023 residency with Crosstown Arts was their first major project, and the first time the group had been back in Memphis for any meaningful amount of time. 

MengCheng 梦城团 Collective show, courtesy the collective

An excerpt from their collective artist statement reads, “Through an art making process centered around food, ritual, and gathering, we create spaces to involve the Southern Chinese-American community in their own archive making, healing, and resource building.” And that is precisely what the collective did during their residency.

Their show featured a broad variety of works: large paintings, cyanotypes featuring MengCheng 梦城团 Collective’s families and communities on quilted fabric, vibrant risograph prints, a family photo wall, large, whimsical sculptures, and a hand-typed spatial poetry series. The centerpiece of the show was a table with 12 handmade place settings, designed, built, and painted by members of the collective. Around this table, they hosted 8 weekly potlucks, inviting the community to eat together, dream together, and exist as themselves within a shared space. 

“I’m really drawn to creating spaces and opportunities for vulnerability and conversations that otherwise we would not have a safe space to have, and to change and grow together collectively.” – Yidan Zeng

The potlucks were intended to be participatory, collaborative works between the artists and the community, held to demonstrate our commonalities and connections and overcome the unseen boundaries that divide us. “My whole life, I’ve struggled to connect with people on a really deep level, so from a young age I was always trying to find creative ways to bridge those gaps,” Cai spoke. “It can be really transformational when you invite people in every aspect of themselves.”

In speaking with the members of MengCheng 梦城团 Collective, I found that their stated intention was overcome by what they actually accomplished during their time here. The four shared stories of interactions with guests at their communal potlucks. Generational gaps were bridged. Cultural barriers, torn down. There were tears, there was laughter, there was recognition. There was a profound sense of being seen, heard, and embraced completely.

A perfect example of this is an experience Nacht had after one of the guided meditations she led. Nacht shared, “A woman arrived without knowing much about who we were or what we were doing. At the end of the meditation, we were checking on everyone, and I noticed this person was completely in tears. I went up to ask if she was okay, or if there was anything she needed. She mentioned that day was the anniversary of her father’s death.” 

MengCheng 梦城团 Collective: An Invitation to Be, alter image provided by the collective
MengCheng 梦城团 Collective: An Invitation to Be, alter image provided by the collective

An ancestral altar was erected at each gathering, and guests were invited to light a candle for a member of their community that made them feel a sense of belonging. 

Nacht continued, “I think for that person it really was an immediate healing experience to be there with us and to have that space at the altar. Despite variations in how different cultures approach ritual practices, I think everyone can benefit from  acknowledging what came before and remembering the people who are no longer with us anymore who are still tied to the present day and the future.”

When asked if the group’s feelings about the city they grew up in had changed having shared so many moving experiences with guests at their show, Zeng responded, “I remember feeling like I couldn’t ever call Memphis my home, or that it wasn’t fully mine. But last summer  was a really powerful reminder of just how loved and welcome we were at every turn. We were supported by the Memphis community.”

So many of us understand what it feels like to be othered by society— for what we do, who we love, where we come from. 

MengCheng 梦城团 Collective show, courtesy the collective

“Being Chinese in Memphis always made me feel a bit alienated. Being queer in my family made me feel alienated. Being a woman in arts made me feel alienated. I never felt like there was a home that I could exist in as my full self until MengCheng 梦城团 Collective. I felt, maybe for the first time, that this is a home where all the aspects of me are embraced and celebrated and loved,” Wang shared. 

“I think all of us can relate to this sense of existing Between Worlds.” – LiLi Nacht

This very candid admission reminded me just how important it is to be radically compassionate, and how essential it is to create and maintain spaces that invite community healing, dialogue, and connection. If we continue to put in the work, Memphis could very well be that place. 

Wang commented, “In every city I’ve been to where I try to do art, I’m met with skepticism and barriers, and people are not trying to help you. In Memphis, it feels like anything is possible with the support we have from the community.” 

Memphis shows up. We give generously of ourselves. We are proud of our city, warts and all. “I think there is this spirit of open and limitless possibility in Memphis,” Nacht said. “I really think there’s very few cities like Memphis left.” 

Before my interview with MengCheng 梦城团 Collective, the idea was to center this story around their sense of pride as queer, Asian-American artists. What I realized after speaking to them is this: Pride can be represented as a constellation—an image we dream up from a cluster of stars, each little point of light a small part of ourselves, a vertex, extending its arms out to reach another and become whole. 

MengCheng 梦城团 Collective: An Invitation to Be, by Jesse Butcher
MengCheng 梦城团 Collective: An Invitation to Be, by Jesse Butcher

We are constellations, suspended in a galaxy full of other constellations, illuminating a common sky. Together we tell a story. 

“Our art is our life,” Wang said. And when we think about it that way, doesn’t it inspire us to live more authentically, vulnerably, bravely, fully embracing the love and pain and mess and joy of it all?

Don’t miss these events!

天地之间,我们安家: Between Heaven and Earth, We Make Our Home
AAPI Heritage Month show group exhibition.
Saturday, May 25th 4-8 pm at UrbanArt Commission, special performance at 7pm.

Bluff City Chinese
Thandi Cai’s upcoming documentary premieres at the Indie Memphis Film Festival, November 14-17.

Follow MengCheng 梦城团 Collective at on Instagram for updates.

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