The artist's installation, entitled Twin Cultivation, aims to build community by bringing strangers together through conversation and gift-giving.
JEREMY HANSEN You've hand-made an extensive range of ceramic food items – including kumara, boy choy, gourds and yams – that look incredibly cute. Now you're giving all 240 of them away to strangers in an art activation for Matariki entitled Twin Cultivation. Can you tell me about how this project started?
CINDY HUANG Twin Cultivation is a collaboration between myself, Micheal McCabe and Rosabel Tan. It's a participatory public installation work. We have three structures created by Micheal and each station facilitates a stage of the exchange, from introduction, exchange and reflection/conclusion, and some ceramic vegetables I’ve made. People are invited to interact with a stranger, get to know them a little bit and gift each other one of my pieces. And this could be a ceramic kumara, a bok choy, a gourd – there are some options.
JEREMY HANSEN Was this the end point you in mind when you began making ceramics at art school?
CINDY HUANG No. This project started during my final year at Elam [School of Fine Arts], where I was looking at Māori and Chinese encounters. I stumbled across the book by Manying Ip called Being Māori-Chinese: Mixed Identities. That got me thinking about encounters between two minority groups, and how these histories and dialogues aren't really told or aren’t very present in our collective consciousness. History tends to be colonial-centered, and I wanted to focus on other things.
JEREMY HANSEN What made you want to give your food items away to strangers?
CINDY HUANG The ideas that underpin my thinking around this work relate to wanting to build a sense of community. Often communities and relationships are built and reinforced through the exchange of gift. The act of gifting is a social investment with another person, and I feel that’s the strongest way to build communities, especially coming out of COVID and being so isolated from one another for so long.
Most of us are stuck in a set system of work, home or school, and it can be really hard to make friends out of that system. I hope to disrupt that. With a lot of minority groups, and especially new immigrants, they feel more comfortable being within their own group for whatever reason – whether it's because wider society doesn't accept them, or there may be some social barriers. And so Twin Cultivation is a gentle invitation for all sorts of people to connect in a way that they may not typically encounter in their everyday lives.
I really hope that people come out of the experience with, in the best-case scenario, maybe a new friend. Deep down in me I'm hoping that someone meets the love of their life and gets married, and they’ll be like, ‘We met through Twin Cultivation’.
JEREMY HANSEN All of us non-Māori are descendants of immigrants. Does your own family’s migration story show up in this work too?
CINDY HUANG On my mother's side, I've had two ancestors travel back and forth between here and China. I had one come as a gold miner, and one later on when market gardening was more popular. Each time they either returned back to China or their descendants. My Mum's the third generation that has come back. And then with my Dad, he's completely a first-generation immigrant. My migration stories aren't really a part of this work but has informed the aesthetic language I have chosen. I wanted to communicate in a way my parents could understand, and using the visual language of food sculpture was something they're familiar with and could easily understand. In saying that, it was my migration history that prompted me to explore what it means to be tāngata tiriti and has been central to this body of work.
JEREMY HANSEN How did ceramics end up being the medium for these exchanges that Twin Cultivation sets up?
CINDY HUANG I started thinking about how these kinds of cultural exchanges were linked to a lot of food items. It was kind of perfect using clay rendering food items like kumara and bok choy, it tied together well in that they are both materially connected to the land.
It also helps that with the history of Auckland, most suburbs have a history of market gardening, and we don't really see that now, as they’re covered in concrete or buildings have been built on top of. When we look at our landscape now, we don't really think about its histories or what this land has seen in its lifetime. And I like resurfacing these stories.
JEREMY HANSEN You’re staging this at Matariki. What made you choose this timeframe for the activation?
CINDY HUANG It was actually a suggestion by [artist and curator] Nigel Borell (Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Ranginui me Te Whakatōhea). He thought it would be a really nice period for us to do the exchanges in. Matariki marks the end of the harvest and part of the Twin Cultivation exchange is that you harvest one of these vegetables.
JEREMY HANSEN What does Matariki mean to you?
CINDY HUANG This is my first time celebrating Matariki and I don't know a huge amount about it, but I'm hoping after this being a public holiday everybody gets to learn a bit more about it. I’m sort of coming at it from a very Chinese perspective, I guess, because for us, our Chinese New Year has similar attributes: it’s a huge time for celebrating together as a family, as a community, sharing food and sharing exchanges. So I'm sort of approaching it in that same way when it comes to gathering people, and to sharing and gifting.
JEREMY HANSEN People can book themselves into one of these exchanges that you’re setting up by using twincultivation.co.nz. What are the mechanics like behind that? Are you consciously matching people with different backgrounds?
CINDY HUANG The idea is that a whole bunch of strangers will book in a time and they'll meet up at the space of Twin Cultivation. We have a wonderful team of hosts that will be facilitating the exchanges and informing people walking past what the work is about.
Twin Cultivation is at Britomart’s Takutai Square from Monday 4 – Sunday 10 July. Unfortunately, harvesting sessions are booked out - although it is possible to book a session by visiting in person. To read recipes for the vegetables in Twin Cultivation, and essays about the project, visit twincultivation.co.nz.
Twin Cultivation is produced by Satellites and presented with the support of Eke Panuku Development Auckland and the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.