A roundtable discussion with Kerry Ann Lee, Kim Lowe & Amy Weng – AAAH2018

The beginning of September marks the opening of the Asian Aotearoa Arts Hui 2018, and a three-week long celebration of diverse Asian New Zealand creative arts. Culminating in a four-day symposium from 20-23 September, the festival brings together some of Aotearoa’s leading practitioners for talks, workshops, masterclasses and more. This year’s line up includes presentations by Alice Canton, Allan Xia, Renee Liang, Simon Kaan and Yona Lee, and sees the return of curator Vera Mey and visual artist Yuk King Tan to these shores.

Ahead of the event, past and present hui organisers Kim Lowe (Chinese New Zealand Artists Hui 2013), Amy Weng (Asian Aotearoa Artists Hui 2017) and Kerry Ann Lee (Asian Aotearoa Arts Hui 2018) caught up to talk about how the hui has developed, what issues remain unsolved, and what hope this year’s event will bring.

Amy Weng: Kim, maybe you could start by talking a bit about how the first Chinese New Zealand Artists Hui came about. What was happening? What were the conversations that were occurring at the time that prompted that first meeting?

Kim Lowe: I guess I had been thinking about meeting and exhibiting with other NZ Chinese Artists since the Poll Tax Apology in 2002, (when Helen Clarke apologised to the Chinese for past racist government policies). I started contacting some of the Chinese artists that I knew of and spoke to people like Simon Kaan, Sharon Ng, James and Eva Ng and Harry and Brett Wong. I made some good contacts but couldn’t take it any further because at that time I became too busy teaching High School and having children.

Then Kathryn Tsui, when she was curator at Corbans’ Estate Art Gallery, curated a show with Simon Kaan and me in 2013, she was really into the idea of running a hui and getting some NZ Chinese artists and creative people together. Also some of us in the South Island often feel like we are left out of the conversation at times. My work is about a New Zealand Chinese identity so it kind of needs to have a conversation with other work in that context so it was also about getting some South Islanders in contact with the north.

The first Hui was really relaxed actually. We had a meet and greet and a bit of a show and tell. We didn’t really have any agenda other than to meet each other, make some contacts and see what would come out of it. We didn’t know if people wanted to take it forward. But look where it’s come now.

AW: Kerry Ann, was that a sentiment that you also felt at the time? That sense of working in isolation?

Kerry Ann Lee: It’s funny thinking that was five years ago and where we were as practitioners then. I was in Dunedin and it was my last year working at the School of Design at Otago Polytechnic. I knew Kathryn and Kim and Simon individually and there was an invitation to come up to Auckland and be a part of the discussions. I think I had to deliver a paper remotely back in Dunedin that same weekend but it was really important to be a part of that initial Hui.

We were just trusting in the process. It hadn’t been done before and at that stage we didn’t know who would come. What we ended up with was a really generous space where people wanted to see what everyone else was up to and try and find some common ground. That was my feeling around the ambition for that very first meeting – to keep up a network of artists in whatever form. I think there was a lot of hopefulness to it and I still think that’s part of the spirit of this and what I imagine our work, collectively, as Hui organisers is all about.

So, Amy, I’m wondering. You came in fresh last year with your organising.

AW: Yeah, it’s been just over a year ago since the hui at Te Tuhi, but I think when I was organising it there were a lot of things on my mind. Some of it was motivated by general discussions around the bicultural/multicultural state of New Zealand, and a heightened awareness of the economic and political interests of China, some welcome, others that seemed to reawaken a lot of anxieties. Yet as artists it felt like we were still being talked about in silos: this is Māori art, this is Pacific art, this is everyone else. This seemed problematic to me as it seemed to suggest as communities we couldn’t relate to each other.

So I was trying to shift that framework of how we think of ourselves and each other. And part of that was recognising that we are Tauiwi. I just wanted to create a space where we acknowledged that relationship to tangata whenua and maybe use that as a starting point to talk about art and its politics. It was really refreshing to see a lot of the students there that had that same understanding.

Secondly, I was interested in how we might work collectively to support each other. I was really interested in what Tautai had done for Pacific artists over the past 30 plus years, in terms of supporting exhibition making and building a robust understanding of contemporary Pacific arts and how that fits within the local context. But inherent within all of that is how you go about defining who you are and what is important to you.

I felt like there was a real sense of urgency, of hope and excitement in what we were doing. There were a lot of practical issues raised in terms of wanting help with proposal and grant writing, or wanting more mentors and curators who are sympathetic to our world view. Then there were the more intangible things, like how do we convince our traditional families to support us in what we do? Why do we see so few artists of Asian descent continue to practice after graduating, given a high proportion of students? And where can we turn to for support? Keeping in mind that for many people, English is a second, third, fourth language.

I think there’s a pervasive sense of alienation being an Asian arts practitioner, regardless of where you are. But I think there was also a resolution to keep meeting, and keep talking, that this was only the beginning. It was so phenomenally empowering to be surrounded by so many people who wanted the same thing. It helped alleviate the sense of isolation that I was feeling at the time.

KL: I really liked the structure of the second hui. It was good to see the ones from the first hui, like Dion Hitchens and Eric Ngan falling into the role of kaumatua, and having Tosh Ahkit there to mix it up and put this sPacifically Asian – Pacifica context on things. Those conversations were really important.

KAL: Yeah, it was really good to have some reinvigoration of those earlier conversations from the 2013 Hui. It’s interesting how some of those issues are quite unshakeable in terms of how do you frame your practice within current context. How does it work situated alongside others and a lot of the practical things too. I think a lot of people were trying to reach out and find solidarity and support, seeing themselves in an art community. I think it’s somewhat trying to socially engineer that but it’s also recognising the work that’s already been done. There’s these really rare moments when we take stock and try to bring people together in one space and I think it’s a really ambitious pursuit to try and do.

The idea to invite and host in Wellington was: let’s see what happens when we shift the location. I was interested in connecting in terms of institutes that I have been working with over the years here, and just trying to get people here because there’s so much here in Wellington in terms of Chinese New Zealand history. There’s also a lot of really good researchers with knowledge that a lot of people are learning from. It’s like connecting these dots with these older legacies and Asian New Zealand history.

AW: Shortly after the hui last year, someone got in contact with me and gave me a debrief of what they thought I did good and what I did bad. I think they were under the impression that I was working from the first hui and trying to continue on from that. A lot of their feedback was ‘it would have been great if there were more opportunities for people to showcase their work.’ And I guess that’s what you are trying to do with this upcoming Hui. So I wondered if either of you were starting to see any threads running through these previous hui or if the work that we are doing is building towards something.

KL: Amy, I’m not sure if you were aware but there was a bit of a hoo-ha after the first hui at Corbans. One or two of the attendees felt that there should be a clear distinction between old Chinese and new Chinese and they felt really strongly about creating an organisation for funding and focussing on specifically a NZ Chinese identity. At the earliest, this discussion came up, whether we should include all Asian or just NZ Chinese (but where do you draw the line between NZ Chinese, other Chinese, new Chinese; or even artists, writers, and other practitioners). And it was a difficult question to ask because while I personally wanted to connect with old Chinese descendants we also didn’t want to limit the conversation to such a narrow band.

But I think at Te Tuhi, there were a lot of people there who needed to talk about their identity and finding their place, their people, their whanau. And others were completely over talking about identity and wanted it to be more of a showcase to exhibit and collaborate. I think the way the second and third hui have developed is just right. There is room for smaller networks to form within a much wider and inclusive arena.   

KAL: After the second Hui, I think we were all thinking if we get the opportunity to do a third one we’ll get on board some bigger sponsors and do some exhibitions and host some events and do something around that moment. This is responding to those earlier Hui but at the same time I don’t want to lose that intimacy we had. I say that now that we have Te Papa on board but it’s kinda got to that level where it’s a festival and symposium, but we’ve always been honest that it’s an artist-run, artist-driven initiative and the people who have come on board so far are down with our kaupapa.

It is a long game that we are playing. It’s not just a thing that will come and go. Let’s start building these proper networks that give people the proper care and respect that they deserve. I’d much rather invest in the people – there are lot of people that can host events, but we’re not just doing that. We’re building a network of potential lifelong friends, collaborators and communities. That’s where my heart is in this third Hui.

We had this existential crisis when we started naming this thing. Like the ‘Asian Aotearoa Arts Hui’ – what even is this trying to say? We’re most of us women. Most of us of Chinese descent. We come from such a bias but we can only acknowledge those biases. But whatever we want to say in terms of inclusivity we have to work towards that. It’s very fraught. Getting out of that is very challenging. I anticipate there to be more hoo-ha this year.

When people ask me about the hui I just say there are two main things. One, to get everybody together in the same room, and for people to share as much as they want or can share. It’s dependant on people’s willingness. And I understand it’s not for everyone. But it might plant the seed.

KL: At one of the meetings we had in January, Kerry Ann, you talked about doing a pepeha workshop which I thought was perfect because I’m a great advocate for identity. What’s that saying about how a person can’t participate in society until they know where they come from and where they stand? I think we still need to make space for those coming to terms with their identity as Kiwi, as Tauiwi, as new/old migrant, it’s even becoming much more important for Pākehā to understand where they fit in as Māori take the lead as mana whenua. It’s a huge issue for some people. We need to make space for whatever place they are in their journey with that.

KAL: There’s a long way to go. This thing will make itself obsolete one day. In an ideal world, right? But in the meantime what we have to go on is our own knowledge, how we like to work alongside one another. There a lot of working out what our practice could be and a lot of hopefulness.

Registrations for the Asian Aotearoa Arts Hui Symposium at Te Papa and Massey University are now open. For the full programme visit aaah.org.nz

This writing was made possible with the support of