IN CONVERSATION WITH CINDY HUANG
The Beaglehole’s Problem by Cindy Huang features a landscape of intricate ceramic vegetables, fungi, and the odd eel or three displayed across the floor of the Meanwhile space. At certain moments, when the sun hits just right, light is thrown from the busy outside to this quiet moment, finding its way through the industrial window frames and throwing shapes between the gaps of Cindy’s hand-weathered wooden market crates, bouncing off bok choy and resting on kumara.
New Zealand’s written history is dominated by Pākehā voices who have told the stories of others from their perspective, imposing their lens, which often skews in favour of a positive colonial narrative. This orthodox manner in which history is written follows the idea of a singular and homogenous history, perceived as impenetrable, permanent, and unquestionable -- leading to a severe lack of written knowledge around Chinese history in Aotearoa, and more specifically Māori-Chinese history.
Cindy’s work draws on her experience as a Tauiwi person in Aotearoa, replicating the aesthetic of a market garden, where within these sites, many Chinese and Māori relationships were fostered and established.
On the opening night before folks were arriving, Cindy was spraying the dirt inside her crates with water whilst asking the room, “Does it smell like dirt?”. Her attention to detail and authenticity is incredible and I was particularly impressed that she and her partner, Taine crafted the crates featuring in the exhibition themselves and upon making them almost too perfect, went about weathering them with dirt and leaving them in the rain.
Based in Auckland, Cindy joined us here in Wellington for the exhibition and a korero about her work and influences. Unfortunately, our original chat was lost - let this be a lesson to everyone on checking your SD cards aren’t corrupted, whoops. Luckily though, aside from being a wonderful artist, Cindy is also a top sport and was happy to answer my questions again!
Anna Persson: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions again. Technology be damned!
Cindy Huang: Kia Ora Anna, that’s no problem at all, technology these days, honestly (haha)
AP: When we chatted, you spoke about your time at Elam and how highly concept-driven art is encouraged. What influenced and inspired the concept behind your show The Beaglehole’s Problem and were you already working with ceramics at the time?
CH: I’d been previously exploring ideas around Chinese identity, assimilation and Chineness-ness in the diasporic context when I accidentally stumbled upon the book, ‘Being Chinese-Māori’ by Manying Ip in the library part-way through my third year of study. I felt a certain affinity to the experience of the families in the book because it kind of paralleled my own experience with my partner, Taine (Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Kahungunu).
It really stuck with me and I decided to further explore that history in my honours year research which led me to another of Ips’ books, ‘The Dragon and the Taniwha’. It suddenly became much more than finding other people I related to, but to highlight these connections and interrogate the effects of constructed histories.
My deep interest in history is totally attributed to my dear friend Nick Jones (Ngāti Tūhoe and Ngā Puhi) who really supported my research for this project as well as my own personal journey with decolonisation while he completed his MA.
Because of the nature of the concepts I was exploring, it felt there was an interesting relationship that could be explored between medium, concept and objects and how they related to certain traditions and memories. It was also important to me to utilise an aesthetic that could be understood by people like my parents.
Because of the nature of the concepts I was exploring I felt like there was an interesting relationship that could be explored between medium, concept and objects with how it also related to certain traditions and memories. It was also important for me to utilise an aesthetic that could be understood by people like my parents.
I’ve been working with ceramics for just over a year now. I started as a painter and for a brief period moved to textile work but now I’ve ended up with ceramics.
Question: In regards to the pieces you’ve created, what was the idea/symbolism behind the specific vegetables you chose to display? And what vegetables/fungi/eels can we see in your exhibition?
CH: I like to think of the combination of objects as a hot pot of ideas, referencing stories in different points of time. Most of the objects have specific stories behind them while others function as signifiers that nod to other ideas. I created each ceramic myself though I do have to admit that my partner helped me with the crates so I can’t take all the credit for that and the kete are made in China which were store bought.
I found that a lot of these connections between Māori and Chinese somehow involved some sort of food, funny enough. The Owairaka Red kumara reference the story of Joe and Fay Gock who received their first Kumara as a gift and later gifted it back to local iwi and farmers when black rot devastated crops and they had a strain that was resistant.
The wood ear mushrooms exist in both China and Aotearoa, it’s something commonly eaten by Chinese and was exported to China from the 1870’s. It was eaten by Māori but it wasn't very common and only really occurred when food was scarce supposedly.
Eels and other kaimoana were often traded for vegetables with Chinese who ran market gardens. The hue or gourd is something that serves similar functions for both Māori and Chinese according to Nigel Borell’s Hawaiki work and it also has an interesting history here.
AP: How long does each piece take for you to craft, like the kumara for example?
The entire process takes at least 2 weeks from start to end, I tend to do them in batches so it’s hard to say, the bok choy especially take a significant larger portion of time to make because of the individual pieces that need to be moulded and glazed while the Kumara are much more straightforward but are super fiddly because all the pieces are hollow.
AP: Being your first time exhibiting in Wellington, how did you find the experience?
CH: It was definitely a special experience having my first show in Wellington, because of the links I have with the area with family and the place my parents first met after immigrating, Meanwhile is in the same building as my Great Uncle Stan Chan’s first studio space. He’s also a practicing artist who inspired me greatly when I was young and was my first mentor. It feels full circle and a bit unreal.
AP: Lastly, what is your favourite fruit or vegetable?
CH: I always think back on my (kind of first) time in China a few years ago (I went once before I was four but does that really count?) and my total obsession with specifically yellow guavas. I also love custard apples, they taste like exactly what you’d expect.
artisttalk, conversation, exhibition