Chinese New Year Zodiac Art Trail: Meet the Artists

In celebration of Chinese New Year and the Zodiac Art Trail, Asian Events Trust (AET) met with many of the artists to talk about their zodiac influences and how it has manifested in their art, now on display on Wellington city streets. 

Organisers of Wellington’s Chinese New Year Festival have added an exciting new component to the 2021 festival. The Chinese New Year Zodiac Art Trail is an installation of specially commissioned artworks by locally and internationally based artists around Wellington’s CBD. 

Supported by Asia New Zealand Foundation and Wellington City Council, the Chinese New Year Zodiac Art Trail features 12 artworks across discoverable sites in Wellington’s CBD and waterfront.

AET's Leah MacLean chatted with four of the exhibiting artists.


T-Wei's "The Sheep" | Photo: Asian Events Trust

Artwork: The Sheep
Location: The New Zealand Portrait Gallery

T-Wei is a born and raised Wellingtonian. His distinctive illustrations have been plastered on Garage Project cans, across Wellington’s buildings, and in video games. A self-professed nerd, he takes inspiration from vintage cartoons and bootleg toys. His latest work is inspired by the Sheep Zodiac and is displayed on the New Zealand Portrait Gallery as part of the Chinese New Year Zodiac Art Trail. 

AET: "You were commissioned to do the sheep installation on the New Zealand Portrait Gallery for the Chinese New Year Zodiac Trail. What’s your Zodiac?

T-Wei: "I’m a snake." 

AET: "So, do you have any connection with Sheep?"

T-Wei: "No… To be honest the sheep was not at the top of my list, but the New Zealand Portrait Gallery was my number one spot to do an artwork, and that area has history tied with sheep*. But the Sheep is a really cool motif and it’s a design challenge if you get something kind of lame like the sheep [laughs]. It’s been a really fun project." 

*The New Zealand Portrait Gallery, located in Shed 11, is a part of the historical Wellington Harbour Board buildings, of which Shed 21 was used to store wool.  

AET: "What’s the story behind your artistic choices and design process?"

T-Wei: "A lot of coffee and a lot of research. I spent a lot of time thinking about this one and doing a lot of back and forth. It’s actually ended up very cute, I didn’t mean for it to be that cute; originally the sheep weren’t going to have faces. 

"The Sheep Zodiac is known as being placid and chill, but it’s also the creative Zodiac. Starting with a swirl motif, I wanted to lean into playing around with abstraction and turning it into different things. For example, there’s a sheep that’s a thought bubble and some sheep that are rainbow clouds and flowers. 

I’m also doing an activity sheet with the gallery, so I wanted to create something to get kids to think more laterally about how they approach drawing things. I think kids are way better at identifying abstract cartoons."

AET: "Do you think that’s because adults can lose a sense of creativity or are more jaded?"

T-Wei: "Maybe. I think as adults you start to build up an idea of what something is meant to be and then if it goes against the grain, it’s easier to say no! that’s not my idea of this thing!" 

AET: "What inspired you to get started in illustration?"

T-Wei: "I’ve always drawn, and I was really into comics and cartoons when I was younger." 

"I went to Massey to study Graphic Design and Animation. But I found myself curtailing the briefs… which is why it took me an extra year to finish the degree. 

"Out of university I was a concept artist for mobile game developers, Pik Pok, and then I got into freelancing and commercial illustration. I decided to start doing my own stuff because it was more creatively fulfilling."

AET: "You’ve got quite a portfolio. You’ve done stuff with Garage Project, Pik Pok, and had other commissions with Wellington City Council. Is there something, you’re particularly proud of?"

"There was a cool one in 2019. I was a comics fan growing up and I have some friends who work at a place called Sideshow Collectibles, they do high end statues of Marvel characters. I got to play around and do a print with them which was licensed with Marvel. That’s the dream project, right? When you have creative freedom to play with something so…."

AET: "Ingrained in pop culture?"

T-Wei: "Yup."

AET: "Back to Chinese New Year and the Zodiac Art Trail. Your parents are Chinese Malaysian, has Chinese New Year been a big part of your life or do you follow any traditions?"

T-Wei: "We’re not really sticklers for it. We’ll have a family lunch and when I was little, we would get little red packets. My extended family is in Malaysia, so here in New Zealand it’s dialled back." 

AET: "Have you spent much time in China?"

T-Wei: "In 2017 I did an art exchange in Chengdu… Spicy food. That Szechuan pepper is killer. It’s so tasty but your mouth is numb all day.

Anyway, that was through my friend who runs Chromacon which is the Indie Arts Festival, usually run biennially in Auckland. We went over there and exhibited at a design expo, hung out in the arts village, and did a few workshops." 

AET: "Did that time inspire you in any way?"

T-Wei: "I think anytime you travel there’s inspiration. I’m a big nerd in terms of how people stylise things and characters. When you look at ancient art you see how they’ve abstracted something without influence, it’s always totally left field!" 

AET: "Do you see your Zodiac artwork having life beyond trail?"

T-Wei: "Maybe. At the moment I’ve gone down a path of making enamel pins. There’s this crazy scene of collectors in the States, so I might make some pins out of the sheep." 


Jade Townsend's "The Rabbit" | Photo: Asian Events Trust

Jade Townsend
Artwork: The Rabbit
Location: Te Ngakau Civic Square

Jade Townsend is a visual artist based in Tamaki Makaurau/Auckland. Her practice has taken her around the world and her work is strongly informed by cultural connection and disconnection, particularly inspired by her own Māori and Pākehā heritage. As an artist she enjoys working with cast-off materials and giving new life to throwaway things. For the Chinese New Year Zodiac Art Trail, using her love for material and cultural intrigue, Jade has depicted the Rabbit in the windows of the old Capital-E building in Te Ngakau Civic Square. 

AET: "Let’s get down it. Do you know what your Chinese Zodiac is?"

"This is quite a cool topic to bring up with people because I think there’s quite a lot of interest in Zodiac signs at the moment. But I don’t actually know mine...*"

*Some Googling later AET learned that Jade is a Tiger.   

AET: "You took on the Rabbit for the Zodiac Art Trail. What’s the story behind your choice?"

Jade: "It’s my son’s favourite animal and I wanted to make a work that tamariki/children might respond to. The Rabbit is a less obvious one to make artwork about, but a rabbit is a big part our day-to-day life [laughs].   

I also think last year a lot of people would say 'we’ve gone down the rabbit hole' and get into conspiracy theories. I wanted to reclaim that saying as a positive space to be in, and that going down the rabbit hole means pure joy, imagination, and fun."

AET: "Talk me through the design and process of creating your artwork."

Jade: "When I was invited into the kaupapa, I felt nostalgic for my residency in Beijing*. I was falling in love with my husband and it was an experimental time in my art practice. With this work for the trail, it was nice to go back and remember how it was so seminal for me.

"First, I wanted to make something that was a physical artwork, then there are a few key things that we [Māori] share with Chinese culture. The colour red is lucky in Chinese culture and is also important in Māori culture, there’s also our herbal teas, and respect for pounamu or jade stone. So, something that was handmade with skill and exploring those connections was important for me. 

The work started off with a hand cut stencil and five different backgrounds which represent the five different elements. All the backgrounds are hand painted on waste packaging – which is a big part of the kaupapa of my art practice. One background is tinfoil that I saved from cake and another is hand painted packaging from my son’s toys. There’s a lot of storytelling through the materiality and lots of mauri restoration; new energy put into the unwanted."

*Jade was the 2015 WARE Red Gate Artist in Residence.

AET: "What draws you to using cast-off materials?" 

"It stemmed from wanting to have a more experimental and sustainable practice. I’m interested in the afterlife of materials and what they can be. I don’t have any waste; everything becomes an artwork. I’m even pretty ruthless with [re-using] my own artworks." 

AET: "Your residency in China involved exhibiting in a Comme de Garcon store. What was that experience like and how has it influenced your work since?"

Jade: "I knew that I would never make work in the same way after being in China; just being around the different aesthetic, materials, history, and storytelling.

Comme de Garcon was my most positive exhibition experience over there. I was lucky to work with an awesome team to make the show, but we couldn’t really talk to each other, we had to use apps. We so desperately wanted to hang out and be friends and talk about our artistic ideas, but we didn’t share a common language. So that project became about translation and the slippage between what we were trying to say."  

AET: "The Zodiac Art Trail is part of the Chinese New Year Festival. Do you have any of your own festivities or hold your own traditions?"

"We’re preparing for Matariki now. As a whanāu we’ve promised to follow that [the Māori] calendar more closely. I’m always happy to start the year again, I’ll take all the new years!"

AET: "What do you want people to take away from your work?" 

Jade: "I hope that it makes people smile. I hope that kids recognise the form and it might be something cool to take pictures with." 


John Lake's "The Monkey" | Photo: Asian Events Trust

John Lake
Artwork: The Monkey
Location: The Seyip Association, 21 Ghuznee St

John Lake is a Wellington based photographer and documentarian who finds inspiration through social connection and following groups and their activities. In 2013 he was selected for the WARE Residency in Beijing. He spent that time following around punk bands and documenting the growing punk scene in China. Drawn to exhibiting in unconventional spaces, John’s work for the Chinese New Year Zodiac Art Trail, the Monkey, can be found in the doorway of the Seyip Association Building on Ghuznee Street. 

AET: "John, do you know what your Zodiac is?"

John: "Year of the Tiger."

AET: "Your artwork is the monkey. What was the inspiration for your piece and your process for creation?"

John: "I was interested in the qualities that the monkey has and the people [under the sign]. A lot of the characteristics align with a punk aesthetic and a lot of the projects I’ve been involved in, in the Wellington punk scene, have a lot of history and location theme. With the Seyip Association I was interested in how their social collective has been going on for over 100 years; they have this connection between two places, Guangdong Province in China and their occupation in Wellington, over a number of generations.

"I had been in in the Seyip building before and I’ve always been interested in the Tung Jung and Poon Fah Associations and how they operate out of social clubs. The Seyip has its own Wiki site and I’m quite a big fan of going through those historical photos and books.

I wanted to keep the artwork simple for the doorway area, but it was a process of going through a whole lot of hare-brained ideas and letting them percolate for a while. Once I had the idea there was a couple of days wandering around Wellington, futilely trying to find a monkey image or figurine. There was lots of op-shopping and trawling, it was amazingly hard to find what I had in my head. In the end I found it on TradeMe."  

AET: "The Seyip Association building is a pretty unique spot. You seem to like exhibiting your work in unconventional spaces. Why is that?"

John: "I just like the idea of art being in public spaces. This sort of work is related very much to the actual location and it could be put in a frame in a gallery, but it would feel detached."

AET: "You spent time in China following punk bands around. What was that experience like?"

John: "I found the whole experience all-enveloping; it was pretty eye opening. I was in Beijing for three months and it was my first real immersion in Asian culture. The punk scene in China is pretty interesting, I mean all punk scenes are interesting in their own way. I think for most people, the idea of a punk scene in China was probably quite at odds with their perception. But China now isn’t what it was 30 years ago. There’s a huge youth market being exposed to Western ideas, ideas that their parents weren’t exposed to and there’s a blending of styles in quite a phrenetic space."  

AET: "Is there something about Chinese culture that you really enjoy?"

John: "The food was amazing. The people were quite honest and easy to deal with. I think there’s certain people in other parts of the world who try to hustle you, but I didn’t find that in China."

AET: "The Zodiac Art Trail is part of the Chinese New Year Festival. Do you have any of your own festivities or hold your own traditions?"

John: "In the punk scene there’s been festivals happening since the 90’s. We’ve been put onto a festival called Neil Roberts Day, which we go up to in Whanganui every year. It’s a bit morbid. Roberts was an anarchist who tried to blow up the Whanganui Computer Centre in the 80’s, but he ended up blowing himself up."

AET: "That is grim. Is there anything you want people to take away from your work?"

John: "That Chinese culture and people are beautiful.

"With the last year there’s been a rise of anti-Chinese sentiment and it’s been spilling into conspiracy theories; people just need to chill out. Chinese have been part of Aotearoa for hundreds of years, people need to stop seeing them as foreigners in New Zealand."   


Erica Sklenars and her work "The Horse" | Photo: Asian Events Trust

Erica Sklenars
Artwork: The Horse
Location: Gelissimo Gelateria, Odlins Plaza

Erica Sklenars (also known as Lady Lazer Light) is a Wellington based artist and designer. Typically found creating performance environments and subverting artistic expectation Erica’s work often traverses new media and installation. In her work for the Chinese New Year Zodiac Art Trail, the Horse, Erica drew from her own personal experience with horses and delved into the world of meme culture and teenage obsession.       

AET: "First question, do you know your Zodiac?"

Erica: "It’s the ox! It’s my year finally." 

AET: "Let’s talk about your work. You have quite a strong connection with horses because you had a miniature horse as a support animal in your childhood. Can you elaborate on that?" 

Erica: "I was diagnosed with a severe form of arthritis as a child and was unwell and in pain a lot of the time. I had a miniature horse called Prince and he was a wonderful support animal. 

I had originally really wanted a donkey and I campaigned my parents with essays and lists and posters with why I should get a donkey. For my 10th birthday, they gave me a huge box with a little voucher my sister had made that said, ‘one free donkey’. We went around different places looking for donkeys, but they were all kind of assholes and I didn’t really bond with any of them [laughs]. Then we found Prince." 

AET: "How has Prince come into your work for the trail?"

Erica: "I’ve wanted to do a work on Prince for a while. I wanted to excavate his bones and do a documentary around my emotions and my family’s emotions in the process, but we didn’t have time to excavate a skeleton [laughs]. 

"So, I’ve focused more on my relationship and memories and that sense of connection, joy, and nurturing, as well as the fantasy that horses seem to create for little girls. Obsessive teenage girls were quite an influence!" 

AET: "The piece is pretty fun and bright. Can you talk to the process and your choices in creating the work?"

Erica: "It was quite daunting. I’m usually all about the video and movement, so creating the vinyl print was quite new for me. 

"I wanted to give it a dreamy feel and I did a lot of research into ‘horse girls’, basically girls and young women who pour all their energy and time into working with or dreaming about horses. I also spent a lot of time looking at wholesome memes and their aesthetic; the idea of wholesome memes started trending in 2014 which was the Year of the Horse! 

"All the images are licensed stock images because I wanted to experiment with sampling and remixing, to create something new. Visual sample is a big part of meme culture. The flowers in the piece are Calla Lilies and Jasmine, which are associated with the Horse Zodiac and they worked well with my research into joy and wholesomeness. I also wanted to use clouds in the work, and they’ve been cut so people can look into the gelato shop, like peering through the clouds!"

AET: "What about your bread and butter? The audio-visual side of the work?"

Erica: "We’re using holographic film on the windows and with that there’s light shining through. The Horse’s element is fire and I wanted to get more into that sense of passion with the Horse as well as the movement that comes from wholesome memes - I looked into the ‘This is Fine’ meme as inspiration." 

AET: "You’ve done a couple of residencies in Beijing and Hong Kong. What are your fondest memories?"

Erica: "One of the main things that inspired me was the underground noise and music scene. The community had been through quite a few venues because they kept getting shut down by the government. But that didn’t stop them at all. I connected with those communities when I got there, and they were having these amazing improv concerts in underpasses. You would get sent a pin on your WeChat map and you had to go and find it.

"From the WARE Residency, I made a music video for a band of three girls who play electronic music, South Acid Mimi. They were quite wild! The music video actually has a similar aesthetic to my artwork for the trail."

AET: "Is there something that you want people to take away from your artwork for the trail?"

Erica: "I’m interested in how people respond to it. But probably just the sense of joy and love and fun; I’ve channeled the hopes and resolutions of a new year into this work. It’s a silly artwork and it makes me laugh!" 

1 – 28 February 2021
Various locations around Wellington CBD & waterfront

Visit chinesenewyear.co.nz or follow Chinese New Year Festival on Facebook for events and updates.

This piece first appeared on chinesenewyear.co.nz and is republished with permission. Jade Townsend, John Lake, and Erica Sklenars all took part in the Wellington Asia Residency Exchange programme, an initiative between Wellington City Council and the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

- Asia Media Centre