Mikala Tai has recently made the move from Melbourne to Sydney to take on a new role as director at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. As well as being a curator and cultural programmer, Tai has worked in fashion, for the Melbourne Fashion Festival and Council of Fashion and Textile Industries. She has also worked with the National Gallery of Victoria.
Tai’s fixation with contemporary art informs her workday style first, but she opts for prints, patterns and colour over the standard gallery-girl uniform of head-to-toe black. Tai talks about style as a necessary form of personal expression that may not be totally distinct from art. She also discusses her eclectic, thought-provoking icons, and her plans for 2016 and the 20th anniversary of 4A.
Broadsheet: You have a background in fashion, how has that experience influenced your style?
Mikala Tai: I entered the fashion world as a side step from the art world and found myself very out of my depth. I had no idea at all about fashion, and it was a little stressful. But, eventually, I went from being absolutely petrified about what to wear to work to realising I could actually wear just about anything. So I did. Working at Melbourne Fashion Festival exposed me to some of the best creatives in Australia and their work continues to inspire me and influence my style.
BS: Do you think you dress differently in Sydney than you did in Melbourne?
MT: Not at all. But I think I dress very differently now than I did earlier in my career. I was a bit of an “arts-black” girl for lots of my twenties. Then I discovered prints and I haven't really looked back.
BS: Do you think personal style is as important in the art world as it is in the fashion world?
MT: I think personal style is important full stop. It's one of the most basic expressions of yourself, and everyone can do it. A girlfriend of mine in high school used to always say, “Life is better if you have a good top on”. She was on the money.
BS: How are you finding your new role as director at 4A?
MT: I have always wanted to work with 4A, so that I actually get to work here is pretty exciting. I really love being in Sydney and being part of a team that is just as passionate as me about our work.
BS: What are your plans for the centre in the future?
MT: Next year is our 20th anniversary, and we are considering the political climate that we emerged from in 1996, and looking at how it has – or hasn't – changed since then. Ideas of borders, migration and multiculturalism remain contemporary concerns that we are programming artistic explorations of. 4A began as a place to test, challenge and explore ideas that influenced Australia's relationship with Asia and, 20 years later, we continue to help forge closer collaborations with our northern neighbours.
2016 will also see 4A pop-up nationwide. While our footprint remains in Sydney's Chinatown, our work is of national importance and, as such, we are mounting exhibitions regionally and interstate. For our Shop Front Series we will pop-up in retail spaces across the country, and we are looking forward to touring some of our major exhibitions to partner organisations. It is all pretty exciting.
BS: Do you have any distinct fashion memories you can share, either terrible or positive?
MT: Post Romeo + Juliet I wore a Hawaiian shirt for a while. It wasn't a great moment.
BS: Who is your biggest influence, and why?
MT: That's a big question. I don't really have a single overarching influence. It’s probably a healthy mash-up of Hou Hanru, Okwui Enwezor, Bertolt Brecht and Diana Vreeland. They all ask a lot of questions. I like that.
BS: What is your favourite piece to wear?
MT: I bought an adult tutu in January and wore it for the first time last week. It is black, from Comme des Garcons and was prohibitively expensive, but it's fun.