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“It’s a lot like alchemy!”: Maia Conran on Tea, Photography and her Fellowship with London’s Horniman Museum

A person looks towards the camera holding a cup, while another person looks towards them. In the background, you can see other people looking at artwork on the walls.
  • Written byEuan McLaren
  • Published date 01 December 2023
A person looks towards the camera holding a cup, while another person looks towards them. In the background, you can see other people looking at artwork on the walls.
Maia Conran 2023, Maia Conran and Smriti Mehra at Tea’s Times opening event in Camberwell Space

At the intersection of tea and photography lies an unexpected narrative; one Maia Conran hopes to carefully unravel as part of a 3-year Museum Arts Fellowship from University of the Arts London (UAL) and the Horniman Museum, London. Organised alongside the Horniman’s current exhibition, 茶, चाय, Tea, Maia’s Fellowship harnesses photography, film, installation and performance in ways that research tea as a cultural practice, shining a light on the imperial and postcolonial relationships between photography and tea and their respective abilities to create dialogue and social space.

Hailing from North Wales, Maia Conran joined UAL in 2016, teaching Print and Time-based media at Wimbledon College of Arts, before it shifted its focus to become a performance College. Now the Course Leader for BA (Hons) Fine Art: Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, Maia has been awarded several residencies over the years, including at Cardiff Contemporary Art Festival; Glyn Vivian Gallery Swansea, Standpoint Gallery, London, and the National Slate Museum of Wales. Since March 2023, Maia has been engaged in work with the Horniman Museum, through their exhibition on Tea, which is now open until July 2024.

We caught up with Maia to hear more about her artistic practice, experience of the Fellowship and her love of photography and tea.

Image shows a large open room with dim over head lighting and artworks hanging on the walls, including a TV screen. On the floor, there is a rug with a ceramic bowl on top.
Maia Conran, Installation shot of Tea’s Times exhibition at Camberwell Space
Can you tell us your name, your role at Camberwell College of Arts and a little bit about yourself and your practice?

My name is Maia Conran and I'm the course leader for BA (Hons) Fine Art: Photography at Camberwell College of Arts.

I'm an artist that uses lens-based media, installation and performance. I consider photography to move beyond an image on a wall to relate sculpturally to its environment or socially to its audience. I often work collaboratively with individuals and groups on projects which use photography as a starting point.

Can you tell us a bit about your collaboration with the Horniman Museum and what made you apply for the Horniman Museum Arts Fellowship?

I applied to the Fellowship with a collaborative proposal in response to an open call circulated by UAL at the end of 2022. The proposal was made in relation to the Horniman’s current 茶, चाय Tea exhibition and it opened up areas I’m interested in around social space, collaboration, decolonisation and infrastructures. I started the Fellowship with the Horniman Museum in March 2023, and it will run for 3 years until 2026. The length of time and breadth of resources I will have access to, throughout the Horniman Fellowship, to develop this project is really exciting.

Something that piqued my interest early on was finding out that the Horniman’s Tea Company, the profits of which were used to start the Horniman Museum, was founded in the same year as the first photograph, in 1826. This got me thinking about the parallels between tea and photography, each of which are extractive as processes, but there's also a reciprocal relationship that happens with them both, which is much more generous. When people share a cup of tea, they talk and there’s a social exchange. The same is true of photography in that it brings together a social relationship between the person taking the photograph and those being photographed. It is because of these social relationships that I am working collaboratively within the fellowship with students and colleagues at Camberwell College of Arts.

Image shows advertising material for Horniman’s Tea from the 20th century. The words ‘Horniman’s Tea’ is written at the top, and the advert seems to be selling watches, jewellery and other gifts. There is information about each object under a series of images.
Object number ARC_HTC_002__001-R, © Horniman Museum and Gardens, Advertising material for Horniman’s Tea

Another interesting aspect of research I’m interested in is considering relationships between the infrastructures of photography and tea. In photography I look at how we use cameras and dark rooms as infrastructures. The darkroom, for example, is ultimately a series of mechanisms, processes and objects that work together to achieve an outcome or service. As photographic practice develops, we use darkrooms and process photographs in different ways, but their original forms carry a history. I’m interested in how this is relevant to the work I am now doing responding to the Horniman’s 茶, चाय Tea exhibition. Like photography, tea is a lot about a process. It’s produced through a complex infrastructural history rooted in trade imperialism and colonialism and the violence of the tea wars which these instigated in China.

It was my desire to explore the social and infrastructural relationships of tea and photography further that informed my decision to apply for the Horniman Arts Fellowship.

Can you talk us through what the collaboration involves?

The 茶, चाय Tea exhibition is already open at the Horniman Museum and my Fellowship is a response to this exhibition. It has begun with making artwork with the staff, students and alumni of BA (Hons) Fine Art: Photography and co-curating an exhibition called Tea’s Times in Camberwell Space. The exhibition is taking place from 29 November to 2 December 2023. All the artwork is responding to the idea of tea, considered socially, personally, historically, and also to the exhibition at the Horniman Museum. Following on from this, a committee was formed in order to plan a conference in March 2024 which looks at tea and photography and the relationships that can be drawn between them. Members of the committee include Senior Curator of Social Practice at the Horniman Museum, Navjot Mangat, Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at Camberwell College of Arts, Smriti Mehra, former Course Director of BA (Hons) Fine Art: Photography at Camberwell, Duncan Wooldridge, Camberwell’s Interim MA Photography Pathway Leader Francis Summers and Camberwell College of Arts’ School Manager, Helen Whitmore.

Image shows a large exhibition space with glass cabinets, a yellow wall and wooden flooring. The objects in the glass cabinets pertain to Tea, of which the exhibition is focussed on.
© Horniman Museum and Gardens 2023, 茶, चाय Tea exhibition at the Horniman Museum, London

Especially given the imperial and colonial history of tea, collaboration is important to my approach to its context. I feel that it is important to think about it from multiple perspectives. It would feel inappropriate for me to just put my own voice out there without referencing other people or having important conversations about history and other people’s understandings of tea. Navjot made sure that co-curation by community groups was integral to the process of the Horniman’s 茶, चाय Tea exhibition and I think this is effective and important. Equally, the approach of the Fellowship to both tea and photography become more interesting if they are approached in a collaborative, discursive way.

Following this, I will have 2 years remaining of the Fellowship. We will apply for funding to extend the legacy of the 茶, चाय Tea exhibition through a larger project presented at the museum, which will include community workshops and events that look to explore further some of the questions raised by the exhibition and this first year of the fellowship.

What are you most looking forward to with this collaboration?

I'm working on a series of workshops where tea is used as the film developer for the negatives or as a toner for the photographic print. It transpires that you can use all kinds of things to develop negatives for photographs. People use coffee quite regularly. But you can use all different kinds of tea; peppermint tea, black tea, green tea. I think this is interesting in relation to environmental considerations as well. If you're trying to counter the idea of both tea and photography being extractive processes, then being able to develop photographs using tea becomes part of a wider environmental conversation.

Lastly, what advice do you have for other people who might be looking at pursuing research and public engagement?

You need to think about who you are in that moment of interacting with people and who your collaborators are and then how these two things influence the interaction. I think it's really important to reach out to people so that they feel comfortable to take part, then to pay attention to them. Often other people have great ideas that if you take time to listen to, can strengthen the direction that you are going and make a more inclusive space within art practice.