Words by
Kirsten Nagel

In Conversation: Jessie Wong, Ashleigh Taupaki and Micheal Do

In a construction site of Grand Designs proportions that will soon become our Newmarket Lounge, we unveiled a very special project: a work by Ashleigh Taupaki commissioned as part of our partnership with Auckland Art Fair. Read below a recap of the Artist Talk event we hosted - a conversation between Yu Mei founder Jessie Wong, artist Ashleigh Taupaki and curator Micheal Do.

Ashleigh and Jessie outside Yu Mei Newmarket

Suspended from 'squid-like' wooden structures in hammock beds of muslin cloth rests sand from four beaches of significance to Ashleigh Taupaki, an emerging artist of Ngāti Hako descent. In partnership with Auckland Art Fair, Yu Mei commissioned this work under the Fair’s Projects 2021 - an annual exhibition of early-career artists curated by the articulate and engaging Micheal Do. We invited artist and curator into our Newmarket Lounge where the work was proudly unveiled, for a conversation on the value of our land’s resources, caretaking and the exchange economy - concepts central to the shared values of Ashleigh and Yu Mei.

Ashleigh’s works explore kaitiakitanga and connection to place through the use of natural materials - in this case, considering sand as a lens of history. Oriented from the celestial north to south points, Ashleigh arranged the suspended sand structures in the order in which they geographically appear. From Opoutere to Onemana and Whangamata to Whiritoa, these are the same sands her iwi inhabited as the earliest settlers of the Hauraki region. “All of my work is about place and placemaking, understanding Maori concepts of relations to the land. I named the work ‘One’ [pronounced oh-nay] because one translates to ‘sand’ and one is also what the first woman was made out of, so I was speaking to that direct connection to place and sands,” explains Ashleigh of the deep spiritual connection with her ancestral lands that informs her practice.

"I named the work ‘One’ [pronounced oh-nay] because one translates to ‘sand’ and one is also what the first woman was made out of, so I was speaking to that direct connection to place and sands,” - Ashleigh Taupaki

One (2021) by Ashleigh Taupaki

A view of the Bunny Tail grass Ashleigh foraged for use in her topographical sand installation

By happy accident, Micheal curated the 2021 Projects exhibition entirely of works from women artists. He explains that, “In a way, the exhibition talks about care and repair after the 2020 we’ve been through, but it’s also told through female subjectivity and it’s a celebration of these lived experiences.” Care and caretaking are traditionally seen as feminine traits and, aptly, Ashleigh recalls memories of her Maori Grandmother shaping bulbous puddings from muslin cloth in her home at Whangamata. “That’s the fabric I’ve used here, because of the connection to my Maori side. The sand is making the shape by its own weight. It’s got its own agency and if it falls through, that’s the result of its collaboration with the materials I’ve chosen,” describes Ashleigh of her work that considers natural materials as objects of themselves, rather than commodities - something Micheal recognises as elements of care within the work.

During our Artist Talk event, Micheal relays an earlier conversation between Ashleigh and himself about the treatment of objects in a museum setting. How artefacts are taken from their context in nature and from culture, and treated in a dehumanised way, being placed in a locked glass box atop a sterile plinth. This discussion informed Ashleigh’s desire to celebrate these things - often precious taonga - in a gentle and caring way. Of her plan to rehome the sands following the exhibition, Ashleigh states, “returning the sand to the beaches they came from is sort of my revolt against colonial exploitation of the land. Rather than taking it for my own individual gain, I take it back because this sand has history. There are photos of my great-grandma growing up in front of these beaches - it’s cool to think about the continuation that she was there and now I’m here on those same sands.” Where traditionally art is viewed as a commodity, the care Ashleigh takes of the materials sacred to her prompts us to consider these materials in a new way. The sand is no longer an irritation in our shoes, it’s a collection of stories that forms a body of history. Something to take care of and treasure.

Ashleigh and Micheal in conversation

A glimpse of Ashleigh's work through the front window

Yu Mei x Auckland Art Fair 2021

"Returning the sand to the beaches they came from is sort of my revolt against colonial exploitation of the land. Rather than taking it for my own individual gain, I take it back because this sand has history." - Ashleigh Taupaki

Guests at the event, wearing Yu Mei naturally! Shop Scrunchie Vi

Micheal gave each Projects artist a provocation this year: to exchange something of value for an idea or promise, replacing the traditional commodification and commercial exchange with an exchange of ideas. “[Art] is about connection, it’s about conversation, it’s about invisible labour and it’s about this deeper, higher order yearning for something else,” says Micheal. For One, Ashleigh printed an A5 poem for each viewer to take away from the exhibition. The text is arranged in an inverted triangle shape, informed by the structure of her whakapapa and looking at the word structure of whakataukī (Maori proverbs). “You start at the beginning of creation and go down to the creation of lands, to your ancestors, your iwi, your mum and dad and then you’re at the bottom of the triangle because you’re in the present. The triangle shape has three lines representing each era - creation, my ancestry and all the way to me at the bottom, which is water, wai, and who you are.”

The conversation then turns to the exhibition context. Compared with a traditional gallery setting, exhibiting and installing the work within a store space is a vastly different proposition. Micheal asks Ashleigh about how the work interacts with other objects in the space. Referencing the colour of her newly acquired Doeskin Suki Clutch, a gift from Jessie, Ashleigh muses, “when I first came in and saw the bags I thought, oh they completely suit my work! I installed something a while ago in a gallery and you feel the pressure to be very clean and there’s all these constraints about getting paint on the floor or you can’t do this or that. I met Jessie and she was very chill about what I could do.” To this, Micheal graciously adds that “the team at Yu Mei have really empowered us to do what we want. It’s a wonderful feeling to have free reign and it’s certainly not the case of all commissioning partnerships.”

Yu Mei is honoured to have presented Ashleigh’s work, and credits Micheal for pairing us with an artist whose practice resonates with our values of regeneration and care. Thank you to Ashleigh, Micheal, and Auckland Art Fair for the opportunity to support the arts, and in particular the work of young female artists.

The Yu Mei team

Our Newmarket Lounge opens mid-April. We cordially invite you to pay us a visit and connect with the artworks in the space at 8 Kent Street.

View Ashleigh’s works here
Visit the Auckland Art Fair here
Images by Jono Parker.