Asian artists share their inspiration

By Claire McCall
Artist, graphic designer and illustrator, Jun Arita. Photo / Babiche Martens

The Asian star has risen, that much is clear. And the trend has filtered through to the world of design. It's no co-incidence, for instance, that the past two winners of the Pritzker Prize for Architecture have hailed from the East – Japan's Toyo Ito (2013) and China's Wang Chu (2012).

In New Zealand, where almost 20 per cent of our population considers themselves of Asian ethnicity, the effect is not just cheaper and more flavoursome food but art and design that has the same fabulous vibrancy.

The younger generation, whether born here or under Oriental skies, are looking to their roots to anchor their creativity and lives. They have learned how to combine centuries-old Eastern heritage and traditions with Western funk and fashion sense. And the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Viva spoke to three 30-somethings to see how they are turning back to their roots to pave the way for the future.


Superheroes and storybook characters became the best friends of twin brothers Jun and Ryo Arita when they were growing up in the Japanese city of Kishiwada.

"We were really close. We knew what the other was thinking," says Jun.

The boys loved to draw and spent long, intense hours creating their own comic strips and painting. For Arita, this love of art has never died and he was lucky enough to be able to attend the only design-focused high school in his hometown.

"At my first exhibition, my teacher told me my colourful art would possibly be more appreciated by foreigners than Japanese."

Fortunately, Arita had always wanted to travel and he arrived in New Zealand six years ago, determined to pursue a career in art. He had a good start.

At Fashion Week 2007, he entered a public competition to design a T-shirt for breast cancer – and won. "From 400 people, they chose mine," beams Arita.

Perhaps it was the positivity imbued in his work that won him the commission for the Glassons-produced T-shirt. He is a big fan of bright, happy colour: "I want my art to make people smile."

Although Arita believes his work has become more "Kiwi" since his move here, the 30-year-old still has a contemporary Pop-art style that is intrinsically Japanese in nature. He may now include buzzy bees and jandals in the graphics, but there's no getting away from his early influences.

"I think since I've lived here, I've become more proud of my heritage," he says. "I want to remember our traditional art. My favourite artist is Hokusai Katsushika."

This printmaker and painter, who lived from 1760 to 1849, was obsessed with Mt Fuji, and his most famous art is a series of woodblock prints including The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

Though Arita's graffiti-like images are a long way from this, he often references the traditional in the shapes he uses to outline his works. Samurai, geisha and Kanji (pictograms that have Chinese origin but have been absorbed into Japanese language) all feature.

Through his exposure with the Glassons work, Arita was commissioned for a diverse number of other jobs including painting the transformer power boxes for the former Rodney District Council and, for three years, designing the front cover for eCube magazine, a publication aimed at students and tourists from China, Korea and Japan.

His T-shirt work has continued. He designed a "Year of the Dragon" graphic for musician Tiki Taane and a drawing, Tiki Matrix, for an inside page of the King of the Dubs' CD album Tiki Flux.

Fusing Kiwi icons with Rising Sun culture has become Arita's trademark. When an earthquake struck Japan in the same year that Christchurch city was rocked, it was natural for him to design a T-shirt to help. "It featured the words 'Japan NZ' and had a heart-shaped sun in the middle of it."

Street art in the form of murals for AUT University and "live painting" exhibitions for Red Bull have kept his painterly passion moving forward, but Arita still sticks to his original reasons for pursuing art. He enjoys doing digital or hand-drawn portraits in coloured pen, and his main aim is to see the eyes of kids and adults alike light up.

"My motto is 'never give up'. It's something my mum always used to say to me."


Growing up in the Auckland suburb of Mt Albert, Tiffany Singh barely gave her links to India a thought. Her father, whose paternal roots are in the state of Punjab, was brought up by his Samoan mother's family, so it was only years later, when Singh was studying at Elam School of Fine Arts, that her mentor, Max Gimblett, encouraged her to visit the sub-continent.

"I only truly discovered my ethnicities as an adult," explains the 34-year-old. "Up until then, I really didn't know what I wanted to say through the vehicle of my artwork."

As a volunteer in the white deserts of Gujarat, Singh experienced a kind of homecoming. The spirituality that overlaid daily life in India seduced her completely: "In the West, we don't share sacred space; it's a very personal thing – we go to a church, marae or fale to feel it. In India, the sense of devotion permeates the street."

Those belief systems had resonance for the young Singh, whose work now embraces several Buddhist principles.

"While I do like my art to be part of people's homes, I also like it to have a sacred side. The participatory work should have function – and generate change."

For the past five years, at least, this has been Singh's credo. Her philosophies are vibrantly expressed in installations such as the Fly Me Up To Where You Are project for this year's Auckland Festival. Here, 5000 schoolchildren wrote their dreams and hopes on a Buddhist flag at Aotea Square. "Some were really sad, especially among the lower socio-economic kids. They asked to be safe, warm, for food on the table, and for their parents to have more money so they'd be less stressed and more able to spend time together."

Although Singh deals with weighty subjects, her work is by no means maudlin. Usually it's colourful, kinetic and on a large scale. The wax deities and Samsara temples (boxes reminiscent of puppet theatres) that she made for a recent exhibition at Melanie Roger Gallery in Herne Bay exude a calm beauty. The figurines are symbols of the connectedness of people from East to West. "While religion is an outdated construct, about doctrine and institutional control, I use the Buddhist icons to show we are a lot more connected than we think. We have a global economy; we eat food produced from around the world."

This was Singh's first solo exhibition at a dealer gallery and she used it to send a subtle message about sustainability. The kauri tablets on which the boxes were displayed speak of the dieback now marching through our bush. Copper vessels that formed part of the 3D scenes reference how fibre optics are replacing this once-treasured metal as a means of communication; the wax, dripped and dipped, symbolises the dire plight of honey bees. "They are all materials that are going through a hard time at the moment."

In San Francisco on an international arts residency, Singh is working on her latest installation – her version of a spiritual pilgrimage entitled Bells of Mindfulness. A thousand Indian bells, crafted by the women she volunteered with all those years ago, will be suspended in a tree at the Montalvo Arts Center. People will be invited to take a bell and hang it in a place that is their favourite spiritual home. The bells will be tracked and shown on an online map. There's one catch – they can be moved by other people at any time. For the participants, it's a lesson in non-attachment. For Singh, it's about letting go of control.

Asked whether she considers herself a Kiwi or Indian artist, Singh says: "I don't really care. I just do what I do and am what I am. In 2013, I think we are beyond those dualities; we draw from everything."

In India she feels like a New Zealander, but back in her Mt Albert studio – well, she's Indian, of course.


Like any typical teenager, Thai Sasaya Burana dug her heels in when her mother suggested she follow in her father's footsteps and enter the textile business. She wanted to be an architect.

By then, Burana was already studying at The Bartlett (University College London).

"I was having such a good time and it was easy to be inspired there. The V&A Museum was my favourite haunt."

Born in Bangkok, Burana's maternal grandmother had worked at Jim Thompson locally and her father was chief financial officer there. "As the first granddaughter, I was so spoilt," she admits. At 9, she was sent to boarding school in England but some of her earliest memories are of her mother's collection of rich brocades, antique sarongs and ikat – patterned fabrics created by a centuries-old resist dyeing process.

Burana earned her degree, even though from the first year she already knew architecture wasn't for her. For a while she tried art. "I was good but not great."

And by the time she had finished her master's degree in management, she began to feel a little like a lost soul.

"I realised I was an Asian girl who didn't know Asia."

As is often the case at these crossroads, her past held out a comforting hand of welcome. Travel to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and her native Thailand became her balm. She steeped herself in the creativity of her culture, visiting villages where traditional weaving – an exquisitely detailed textile craft – was handed down through generations.

Thus the groundwork was laid. When the subject of working at Jim Thompson came up again, and she was offered the role of international sales and marketing manager, how could she say no?

Burana was in New Zealand recently to touch base with the company's local distributor, Atelier Textiles, and to launch the new Himma Gardens Collection, a range inspired by Hindu-Buddhist mythology and an imaginary forest filled with exotic plants and soothing scenery.

It's plain to see she's found her calling.

She describes Jim Thompson the man as a cross between Indiana Jones (collector of artefacts) and James Bond, and is captivated by his story. Here was an American who fell so in love with Thai silk that, in the 1940s, he relocated his life to the country, set up production and built one of the finest homes that still exists in Bangkok. That he disappeared in 1967, when out on a walk through the forest, and was never found despite an extensive manhunt, only adds to the intrigue of his story.

Today, part of his legacy includes a raw silk farm set on 93ha in the Isaan region of Thailand. Here, 1000 hand-weavers make the cloth that is famous throughout the world.

Antique Thai houses rescued from demolition are brought to the eco-property, where a mulberry plantation ensures the continued survival of the silk worms that spin their fine-thread cocoons. In the workshops, the air is alive with the click-clack of the hand-looms as the magic of silk production takes place in a tableau that is ancient and increasingly rare.

"The technique of ikat, in particular, is dying because no one wants to learn it," explains Burana. "Country girls want to be city girls and work in a factory that creates microchips, not textiles."

In her own small way, this globetrotting ambassador, who has finally rediscovered her history, is playing her part in keeping that culture alive.

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