- This IS Hawai'i
For the past five years, Kanaka Maoli (aboriginal Hawaiian) and non-Kanaka Maoli audiences have converged in Washington DC to attend the Hawai'i Festival, an event held every May over a period of two days at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). This year's gathering was noteworthy in that it included for the first time a collaborative exhibition of contemporary Kanaka Maoli art at the museum and at the smaller nonprofit gallery, [End Page 214] Transformer. Titled This IS Hawai'i, the goal of the multi-sited exhibition was to dismantle the prevailing notion of Hawai'i as a place of paradisiacal allure and exotic otherness—a perception that has been ardently cultivated through the visual and cinematic arts as well as through touristic marketing practices—by re-presenting Hawai'i from an aboriginal perspective.
Organized by Hawai'i-raised curator Isabella E Hughs, the exhibition featured works by four artists: Solomon Enos, Carl F K Pao, Puni Kukahiko, and Maika'i Tubbs. While Enos's and Pao's creations occupied the NMAI Sealaska Gallery, Kukahiko and Tubbs's site-specific joint installation was showcased several blocks away at Transformer. Kukahiko, functioning as the bridge artist, also created a freestanding sculptural piece—located in the NMAI Hawaiian Garden—that closed the gap between the two geographically separated exhibition sites.
The works presented in This IS Hawai'i comprised an eclectic range of themes and styles, with the artists using a divergent array of materials to articulate their points of view. Pao, for instance, used implements purchased from local hardware and secondhand stores to create his fictional museum, the Post-Historic Museum of the Possible Aboriginal Hawaiian, or PHMPAH. After reworking the bought objects, he incorporated them as part of the "museum's" ethnographic collection, complete with accession tags and tongue-in-cheek display labels explaining their possible functions. Commonplace tools like a garden rake, hoe, and tiller were transformed into instruments of ancient warfare, the artist having carved the terminal ends of the handles into barbed tips. Similarly, feather dusters transcended their humble, quotidian status to become the resplendent kahili (feathered standards) of old, used by Kānaka Maoli nobility to denote their high social rank and lineage. Other faux artifacts in the Post-Historic Museum included a set of carved steak knives (ceremonial daggers for sacrifice); a cell phone masked in a tape stencil and then spray painted to create a stylized face (a device used to communicate with the gods); a carved Styrofoam cooler (a receptacle used to house an ancestral spirit or god); and a tattered piece of yellow legal-pad paper on which a recipe was written (in English), described on the exhibit label as either "a 'cooks' list for cooking or it might be 'the' list of ingredients for cooking 'Cook.'" (Here, the artist was alluding to famous British navigator James Cook, who met his demise at the hands of Kānaka Maoli at Kealakekua Bay on Hawai'i Island in 1779.) My personal favorite was the large Weber barbecue—allegedly an ancient aboveground cooking appliance—that was given primacy of place in the center of the exhibition space (figure 1).
Pao extended the satirical drive of his museum-within-a-museum mise-en-scène by offering his own brand of theatricality. During an artist talk he gave to the public, Pao adopted the persona of the acting director of his fictional museum, drawing on the archetypal characteristics of a know-it-all anthropologist (to view the presentation, go to http://blog.nmai.si.edu/main/2011/06/re-thinking-hawaii-a-virtual-tour-with-carl-fk-pao.html). [End Page 215] As with the faux objects, Pao's performance incited laughter from the crowd; but, like the everyday garden tools in the exhibit, there was a barb to his act. Using humor as a foil, Pao not only criticized the tendency of "experts" in the museum field to objectify Kānaka Maoli and...