- A MAMo State of Mind:Kanaka Maoli Arts and the Review of Three Concurrent Exhibitions
He wahine no‘eau i ka haku lei hulu.[A woman skillful in making feather lei.]—Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel H. Elbert, Hawaiian Dictionary
I am proud to know that the sculptor had his place in the old life of Hawaii; as did the poet, the genealogist-historian and the hula dancer; that art was as important to the Hawaiians as was their knowledge of the stars, and their skills as fishermen, farmers, canoe makers and house builders.—John Dominis Holt, On Being Hawaiian
When coordinating my first exhibition at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in 2004, I was terrified of the prospect of “cold calling” contemporary Hawaiian artists whom I did not know and engaging them in conversations about their work. In desperation, I started with a family friend, Imaikalani Kalahele, who put me in contact with another artist, who in turn made other recommendations. From this process grew E Kū Mau Mau: The Return of Kū, which featured nearly a dozen Native Hawaiian artists all creating work around a temple image of the Hawaiian deity Kū, who was due to return on exhibition after a brief hiatus. What this experience taught me was that indigenous art exhibitions are [End Page 959] about relationships—formed, (re)forged, shaped, and (re)imagined. As artists creating work within a continuum of time and space, allusions to people and places from the thinly veiled past to the future unfolding is a constant reality. References to the emasculation of Kū images, the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, or the decision making of current state legislators all represent Hawaiians engaged at multiple levels, activating and responding to our realities.
Growing up on O‘ahu, my mother, a true hippie of the 1960s, would often take me to community events—anti–Vietnam War protests and rallies to stop the military bombing of Kaho‘olawe Island and to halt the evictions of residents of Sand Island. I was surrounded by the sites/sights, sounds, poetry, and artwork of the time, all infused with a vibrancy of political purpose. But somehow, as time passed, while the social and political movements continued, and Hawaiian music and hula proliferated, the visual arts all but disappeared. Gone was the heyday of patrons such as John Dominis Holt, whose largesse supported a generation of native visual and literary artists, or corporations like McDonald’s and Burger King, which commissioned Hawaiian artwork for their fast-food franchises. By the time I started at Bishop Museum in 1999, Hawaiian contemporary art shows were the work of a dedicated handful of people. Once prolific Native Hawaiian arts organizations were fractured and few. Maoli Arts Month, or MAMo, was thus born out of this stillness and quiet.
Established in 2006, and led largely by PA‘I Foundation, Maoli Arts Month “is a broad community-based effort to celebrate the depth, breadth, and diversity of the Native Hawaiian arts community. MAMo promotes economic opportunities for Native Hawaiian artists and cultural practitioners by increasing their presence in museums and galleries” (www.maoliartsmonth.org). Based loosely on Native American art markets in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, MAMo sought to raise awareness about and appreciation for Native Hawaiian visual artists—both traditional practitioners and contemporary artists. Scores of Native Hawaiian visual artists continue to gather every May under the auspices of MAMo to participate in gallery shows, an art market, and a wearable art show. Now in its tenth year, this is a foundational moment—when a movement either takes hold or...