Zodiac Art Trail goes down the rabbit hole

In celebration of Chinese New Year and the Zodiac Art Trail, Asian Events Trust (AET) met with many of the artists to talk about their zodiac influences and how it has manifested in their art, now on display on Wellington city streets. In this Q&A they chat with artist Jade Townsend.

Jade Townsend is a visual artist based in Tamaki Makaurau/Auckland. Her practice has taken her around the world and her work is strongly informed by cultural connection and disconnection, particularly inspired by her own Māori and Pākehā heritage.

As an artist she enjoys working with cast-off materials and giving new life to throwaway things. For the Chinese New Year Zodiac Art Trail, using her love for material and cultural intrigue, Jade has depicted the rabbit in the windows of the old Capital-E building in Te Ngakau Civic Square.

Jade was the 2014 Asia New Zealand Foundation/Creative New Zealand WARE artist in residence at Red Gate Gallery in Beijing.

Two girls looking at Jades rabbit artwork

Jade: " I wanted to reclaim that saying [down the rabbit hole] as a positive space to be in, and that going down the rabbit hole means pure joy, imagination, and fun."

Let’s get down it. Do you know what your Chinese Zodiac is?

Jade: This is quite a cool topic to bring up with people because I think there’s quite a lot of interest in zodiac signs at the moment. But I don’t actually know mine...*

*Some Googling later AET learned that Jade is a Tiger.    

You took on the Rabbit for the Zodiac Art Trail. What’s the story behind your choice?

Jade: It’s my son’s favourite animal and I wanted to make a work that tamariki/children might respond to. The Rabbit is a less obvious one to make artwork about, but a rabbit is a big part our day-to-day life [laughs].    

I also think last year a lot of people would say 'we’ve gone down the rabbit hole' and get into conspiracy theories. I wanted to reclaim that saying as a positive space to be in, and that going down the rabbit hole means pure joy, imagination, and fun.

Talk me through the design and process of creating your artwork.

Jade: When I was invited into the kaupapa, I felt nostalgic for my residency in Beijing*. I was falling in love with my husband and it was an experimental time in my art practice. With this work for the trail, it was nice to go back and remember how it was so seminal for me. 

First, I wanted to make something that was a physical artwork, then there are a few key things that we [Māori] share with Chinese culture. The colour red is lucky in Chinese culture and is also important in Māori culture, there’s also our herbal teas, and respect for pounamu or jade stone. So, something that was handmade with skill and exploring those connections was important for me.  

The work started off with a hand cut stencil and five different backgrounds which represent the five different elements. All the backgrounds are hand painted on waste packaging – which is a big part of the kaupapa of my art practice. One background is tinfoil that I saved from cake and another is hand painted packaging from my son’s toys. There’s a lot of storytelling through the materiality and lots of mauri restoration; new energy put into the unwanted.

*Jade was the 2015 WARE Red Gate Artist in Residence. 

What draws you to using cast-off materials?

It stemmed from wanting to have a more experimental and sustainable practice. I’m interested in the afterlife of materials and what they can be. I don’t have any waste; everything becomes an artwork. I’m even pretty ruthless with [re-using] my own artworks. 

Your residency in China involved exhibiting in a Comme de Garcon store. What was that experience like and how has it influenced your work since?

Jade: I knew that I would never make work in the same way after being in China; just being around the different aesthetic, materials, history, and storytelling. 

Comme de Garcon was my most positive exhibition experience over there. I was lucky to work with an awesome team to make the show, but we couldn’t really talk to each other, we had to use apps. We so desperately wanted to hang out and be friends and talk about our artistic ideas, but we didn’t share a common language. So that project became about translation and the slippage between what we were trying to say.

The Zodiac Art Trail is part of the Chinese New Year Festival. Do you have any of your own festivities or hold your own traditions?

Jade: We’re preparing for Matariki now. As a whanāu we’ve promised to follow that [the Māori] calendar more closely. I’m always happy to start the year again, I’ll take all the new years!

What do you want people to take away from your work?

Jade: I hope that it makes people smile. I hope that kids recognise the form and it might be something cool to take pictures with.