Auckland, where artist Jade Townsend is based, is a city dense with galleries. Stop by Anna Miles Gallery if you find yourself in the CBD, Parnell Gallery, one of New Zealand’s longest standing dealer galleries, if you’re in the suburbs, or Artspace Aotearoa (where Townsend herself did a residency in 2021) on Karangahape Road. It’s no wonder that the city was able to lure a creative like Townsend back – and equally logical that she ended up starting her own gallery there.
Creativity has always been a part of Jade Townsend’s life. Her Māori father was a sign writer who would hand-paint promotional advertising on glass, while her British mother worked at a clothes shop creating window displays. “I think that’s where my interest in consumerism, fashion and art came together,” says Townsend. “[It] explains why I see window spaces as legitimate creative sites and places to promote different ideas and messages.
At the age of 14, Townsend moved with her mother to Liverpool in the UK, where she completed high school before studying fine art at the Manchester School of Art. “I didn’t look like my mum,” says Townsend. “She’s white and has blue eyes. And my dad wasn’t with me. So those five years at high school were a really difficult time of confronting that there was something different about me, in this other geographical space.” Townsend then moved to London in 2007, where she was soon invited by luxury brand Hermes to work as an artist on window displays. “That felt really radical,” she says, “cutting up these beautiful silk scarves. It was like having an exhibition on Oxford Street every month.”
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Townsend moved back to New Zealand in her mid-twenties, to spend time with her whakapapa and give her art “a proper go”, she says. “I was being really creative but hadn’t put my personal enquiries I was interested in as a priority.” After a year spent living with her grandparents and painting, she continued to travel while developing her practice, undertaking residencies in Beijing and at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art in London, as well as collaborating with fashion brands like Comme des Garcons.
While living between Indonesia and Thailand, Townsend’s art practice took a more personal turn. Pregnant and homesick, she started to see the debris she found washed up on beaches as a way to connect back home. She would collect fishing rope, bits of plastic toys and flip flops and shells, and recycle them in her artworks. “These fibres had come from other people’s lives, homes and hands,” she says. “I was reimagining them as contributions to a collaborative artwork or project.”
In her 2019 series All the Rage and 2020’s Homesick/Sickhome, shiny beads are threaded onto red and orange strands from plastic bags, which hang from the bottom of small, square textile compositions. The unravelled fishing ropes are bright, with too many colours to count. They’re sewn together in intricate, mesh-like patterns, with tiny shells and plastic bits embedded in their layers. The process, Townsend says, was soothing. “It was beautiful to be in the flow and at the mercy of what the moana, or ocean, was offering me… [It] made me feel closer to the rhythm of the place I lived in.”
Motherhood also had a profound influence on her work. “I always think about my child when I’m making,” she says. “The visual languages speak to the untranslatable parts of me, and they might be things that he really needs growing up, too.”
For her most recent series, Townsend has been creating “veil works” from discarded plastic beach mats, which “come to life with bodies brushing alongside [them] or a gentle breeze from the back door being left open.” The first beach mat she found was next to a bin on a beach in Ibiza. She took it home, washed it and painted it with multiple layers of pigment. For Townsend, the mats are “a really poignant way to talk about your cultural identity as something you can fold up and carry with you”. She paints dream-like landscapes and seascapes on them, often inspired by the sunsets in Takapuna, Auckland, where she lives. The unravelled threads are then bound together using a bracket made from local wood.
In recent months, Townsend has also taken on a new venture, co-founding a gallery called Season in Commercial Bay with writer and curator Francis McWhannell. (If you find yourself in the area, be sure to also check out the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki and Gow Langsford Gallery. Both are about a 10 minute drive away.)
The seeds for Season were planted last year, when the friends were discussing their love and admiration for the work of storytellers. Season opened in February in in central Auckland, and each exhibition features multiple local artists and furniture makers.
“The space is amazing – it’s all glass on one side so people can see in from the street,” says Townsend. “We’re just trying to be part of an optimism in the city, welcoming people back to their restaurants and waterfront.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Tourism New Zealand. Jade Townsend’s work featured in Sydney as part of Aotearoa Awaits.