Tauranga Art Gallery’s gradually unfolding masterpiece is no ordinary exhibition.

WORDS SAMANTHA WILKIE / PHOTOS SUPPLIED

Tauranga Art Gallery’s 2019 signature show, Mega World: The Expansive Universe of Illustration, transports you to an unknown landscape populated by strange creatures and unlikely heroes. From February through to July, you’ll be amazed by its five exhibitions that celebrate contemporary illustration in some of its many forms: cartoons, comic books, animation, sculpture, science fiction and contemporary art.

February saw the opening of the first exhibition, Anti-heroes: The Art of Conscious Cartoonists & Comic Book Creators. Curated by visual artist Craig McClure, it showcases cartoonists from around the world, including the Australasian premiere of Dash Shaw’s animated film My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, which features voiceovers by some pretty famous names – Susan Sarandon, Lena Dunham and Jason Schwartzman, to name a few.

From now until June 23, when you walk through the doors you’ll be greeted by the work of street artist Ahsin Ahsin. His skater life in Hamilton has infiltrated his art, and some visitors will recognise the Transformer-style characters and graphic symbols they doodled on their own schoolbooks.

Ahsin Ahsin’s installation in progress at the gallery.

For his Mega World work, Neon Utopia, Ahsin has taken us on an intergalactic voyage, transforming the gallery’s entrance into a battlefield, complete with a robotic croc, lightning-bolt symbols and a towering Autobot. Many Bay of Plenty locals watched Ahsin’s imagined universe unfold as he painted directly onto the walls for this site-specific installation. We sat down with him to find out more about it.

UNO: Ahsin, what did you think when you first saw the gallery atrium?

AHSIN: When I came and looked at the space last year, I thought, ‘Wow this is huge, this is a big deal’.

UNO: This is the only large-scale indoor mural you’ve ever created – what has that experience been like?

AHSIN: Doing stuff outside is a different vibe. Working in the gallery was like being the polar bear at the zoo, having everyone watching me. One guy came in every day to watch my progress. But it’s all good.

UNO: How would you describe what you’ve created for Mega World?

AHSIN: Something fun, something fresh, something new. I like sharing the stuff I like with people. If you recognise some elements that you can relate to, like the ‘s’ symbol we all drew as kids, then that’s something we can connect over.

UNO: There are a lot of ’80s and ’90s sci-fi references in your work – what’s your favourite sci-fi movie?

AHSIN: The Transformers: The Movie [1986] was pretty epic. When they released Transformers in 2007, I was like, “Oh my gosh, my childhood dream has come to life – this is messed up!” 

UNO: So, where did the robotic crocodile come from? He features a lot in your work.

AHSIN: I’ve only just recently changed him into a robot, a cyborg, to put a different spin on him. He’s just another take on a crocodile character I always do, who has a hat or beanie on. He actually started as a dinosaur first – his snout was a lot shorter. There are lots of different versions of him. I’ve liked dinosaurs and Transformers since I was a kid, when we spent a lot of time watching cartoons. There was lots of good stuff in the ’80s and ’90s, so those influences have stayed with me and I’ve been able to express them through my art.

UNO: What’s something that’s unique about Neon Utopia?

AHSIN: There are little hidden gems in the work. If you know, you know, if you don’t, you don’t, but I’m not going to tell you where they are! Some people find them and point them out.

UNO: How do you hope people will interact with Neon Utopia?

AHSIN: “Wow, what’s that? Let’s get a selfie!” Because when the show is over, it’ll be painted over. I like that idea. It’s the same with street art – it’s not going to be there forever.

UNO: Where did your @ushy_ushy Instagram handle come from?

AHSIN: It’s a nickname. My mate’s little brothers gave it to me – it was how they pronounced my name. Ahsin Ahsin is my dad’s name, and his dad’s name. I’m of Cook Islands decent, so it’s traditional as the firstborn son to have my father’s name.

UNO: What advice would you give to your 16-year-old self?

AHSIN: “Just keep doing your art, bro – it’ll take you somewhere.” I didn’t believe in my art when I was growing up – I was just drawing doodles. I started working as a tradie, house painter and roofer, but I decided to give that up and go to art school.

Quasi by Ahsin Ahsin, 2016. Pictured at the top of this page is Kaiji, 2017.

UNO: What is it that drives your creative process?

AHSIN: Being able to express myself in an artistic way. When you’re given opportunities like this, you’re more confident and less afraid of critique.

UNO: You’ve been living in the Bay of Plenty while completing Neon Utopia – what would you say you’ve enjoyed most about life here?

AHSIN: I’ve been staying at my grandad’s at the Mount. I’m enjoying the weather and living at the beach – I’ve been going to the beach every day. I used to stay with my grandad in the holidays when I was little [and when] I did a stint at Mt Maunganui Intermediate in ’95. Grandad has been coming in and watching me work – he thinks I’m crazy and doesn’t know how I do it so fast.

UNO: So what’s next? Will you be heading back to Hamilton?

AHSIN: I’ll see how this exhibition goes. I had a few street art festivals lined up but they’ve been delayed, so I might take a break and spend some time with Grandad, maybe take a few commissions.

Mega World is on until July 7. For more information, visit: ARTGALLERY.ORG.NZ