This spring, the Honolulu Biennial made its debut on the global art stage with a multi-venue, two-month-long exhibition featuring both established and emerging Pacific artists, including [End Page 254]a contingent of Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) and Hawai'i-based artists. The exhibition also included a number of Southeast Asian artists, a few East Asian art stars, and two Middle-East-based artists, giving a first impression that the exhibition sought to emulate the "expanded regionalism" of the now well-established Asia Pacific Triennial (Queensland, Australia). Yet, at least for this first iteration, there was a clear curatorial focus on the importance of Pacific contemporary art.
The exhibition privileged photography, video, and installation pieces that revolved around a few primary themes: ongoing processes of land and cultural appropriation, the loss and revitalization of indigenous knowledge, the militarization of the Pacific, and environmental degradation. Visual conversations across these interrelated issues were framed by the title "Middle of Now | Here," which played on the common trope of Hawai'i's position "in the middle of nowhere." Parsing that phrase another way ("now here"), the exhibition at once critiqued continental-centric perceptions of the Pacific and celebrated Islander presence. In all, the Pacific-centric focus—clearly the hallmark of curator Ngahiraka Mason (formerly the curator for Māori art at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki before her move to Hawai'i) along with the curatorial advisory board—is what kept the exhibition from becoming simply another globalregional biennial event.
Walking into the primary venue space, called "the Hub" (a sixty-thousand-square-foot former retail space in a soon-to-be-rehabilitated area of downtown Honolulu), visitors were immediately faced with invocations of Hawai'i's colonial history. Artist Drew Broderick's Billboard I. (The sovereignty of the land is perpetuated in righteousness)(2017) featured a detail of mist and palm trees appropriated from George Carter's Death of Captain James Cook(1783) blown up to billboard size. The visual and conceptual void suggested by this detail acted as a backdrop for a vintage-looking neon "vacancy" sign. The acerbic visual and verbal play of the piece created a bridge to understanding contemporary tourism as a continuation of the colonial fantasy in which Hawai'i continues to be seen as an enchanted and inviting "empty" space.
The exhibition then opened to installations by Beatrice Glow and by Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, both of which established another important thread in the exhibition that put Islanders from Southeast Asia in direct conversation with those from Oceania. From the far back wall, the voice of Marshallese poet and activist Kathy Jetnīl-Kijiner beckoned. Islands in a Basket(2017) is Jetnīl-Kijiner's first video installation. Her three videos seemed a bit disjointed and tried to do too much at once to relate the dire problems of Micronesia (militarism, a polluted and toxic environment caused by US nuclear testing, capitalist-induced climate change, and a population seeking refuge, reparations, and health care). But the poet's spoken word and subtle demarcation of space with lauhala (pandanus) mats suggested intimacy. Visitors were invited to walk barefoot across the mats to look at photographs of Bikini Island's devastated landscape and read [End Page 255]related texts. The images and documents were cradled in a number of banonoor (small coconut-leaf baskets with two handles) in the corner, just below a video that focused on the process of making the baskets. At this moment, the layered meanings of the creation myth referenced in the title, the customary practice of weaving the baskets (which are commonly used to share food with others in the community), and climate justice issues of the here and now all came together in a powerful way. The complex weaving of form and significance resonated in a number of other works throughout the biennial—the textile installation by Kanaka Maoli artist Marques Hanalei Marzan, a documentary film by Micki Davis tracing the revival of Chamorro navigation, and Sean Connelly's material study of loulu (Pritchardia)palm thatching...