The story behind Ken Lum’s (b.1956) Melly Shum Hates her Job is just as a compelling as the image itself. Pairing a photograph of a young woman, seated in her cramped office and gazing at the camera, with bold, pulsating text that reads “Melly Shum HATES her job,” the work has deeply resonated with its audiences for decades and has turned Melly herself into an icon for disgruntled workers everywhere.


Ken Lum, Melly Shum Hates her Job, 1989
Courtesy of Ken Lum

Melly Shum Hates her Job is a prime example of Lum’s “photo-text” works in which the artist combines photographic images and texts, often with an element of irony, to reflect upon contemporary issues of class, gender, and race. Internationally recognized for his conceptual works, Lum is interested in creating open-ended images that put the onus on viewers to decipher their meanings. While Melly Shum Hates her Job takes on the visual appearance of an advertisement, it does not actually sell a product. Instead, this visual format emphasizes the disconnect between the text and Melly’s look of quiet disenchantment. This juxtaposition speaks to Melly’s inability to actively voice her frustration, underscoring a kind of social mask one wears while on the job.


In 1990, Melly Shum Hates her Job was installed as a billboard on the exterior of the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam as part of the gallery’s inaugural exhibition. When it was later removed, Rotterdam residents started calling in to protest. The work was reinstalled and has since remained a beloved fixture in the city—so much so that in January 2021, the institution officially changed its name to Kunstinstituut Melly (Melly Art Institute) in honour of Lum’s working-class hero.

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