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Reviewed by:
  • Mele Murals dir. by Tadashi Nakamura
  • David Lipset
Mele Murals. Documentary film, 106 minutes, color, 2016. Directed by Tadashi Nakamura; produced by Keoni Lee. A coproduction of Oiwi tv, Pacific Islanders in Communication, and Downtown Community Media Center, in association with the Center for Asian American Media.

The Hawaiian renaissance, which expresses the larger decolonization movement taking place in settler states elsewhere in the Pacific, gives voice to a notion of indigeneity that is nested in a concept of cultural autonomy. However, as suggested by the revival of the Hale Mua men's [End Page 562] group so beautifully described by Ty Tengan in Native Men Remade (2008), as well as in Brendan Hokowhitu's fascinating work on Māori rugby (Tackling Māori Masculinity [2004]). The movement's answers to modernity in all of its many guises are not straightforward. They cannot be reduced to a single field of vision or a single ideology. Decolonized culture does not simply seek to revitalize an idealized or purified past but rather is informed by a more contradictory disposition, in which voices of a collectivist past contest but also co-opt contemporary genres and values—not to mention contemporary technologies—to create Indigenous voices. Although sometimes contrasting or even contradictory, these voices nevertheless combine one with the other and create new forms of discourse, new institutions, and a new sense of the future—without a predictable shape or outcome. While the historical losses that motivate what might be called the dialogics of decolonization hurt men and women alike, Tadashi Nakamura's documentary suggests that perhaps the pain has at times been more debilitating for men.

Mele Murals tells an absorbing story about the productive agonies of two such men, the well-known, Honolulu-based graffiti artists, Estria Miyashiro and John "Prime" Hina. In voiceovers, photographs, and attractive scenes of the graffiti project from which the film takes its name, the artists' lives and art are recounted. We learn about their childhoods without fathers, their leadership in the burgeoning hip-hop scene in the 1980s—when their art largely consisted of defiant legibility, that is, of writing their names across public spaces—and their eventual mutual recognition that portraying Hawaiian identity through their cans of spray paint was more significant than mere representations of an eponymous self.

Prime recalls the shift: "Hip-hop was a replacement for not knowing about Hawaiian culture. . . . I grew up speaking English. Hawaiian culture was hearsay." Estria, for his part, recalls a similar kind of estrangement. Growing up in a Japanese family, his father was Hawaiian but had left when he was a baby. Later, when Estria went to college in the San Francisco Bay Area, he was criticized back in Honolulu for how little his Hawaiian background turned up in his art.

The centerpiece of the film's narrative is the process by which three murals are created under the direction of the two men. Inspired by songs composed by students at a Hawaiian-language charter school in Waimea on the Big Island, we see the students, their teachers, and the artists undertake field trips to pertinent sites. As one mural is meant to depict the snow goddess of Mauna Kea, Poli'ahu, they all go to the mountain and put their toes into her lake and experience the goddess in her place. For the second mural, Prime and Estria accompany students to a beach where a freshwater stream flows into the ocean. Prime listens to two girls talking about the beach. While he is standing in the shallows, a whale suddenly breaches the water a few hundred yards offshore and he is left with a strong feeling of confirmation that he is on the right track. The third mural concerns the rain goddess, Mana'ua, who is [End Page 563] associated with a rock in the town to which the group goes to honor her with a lei and a hula.

The students paint day and night, as do the two artists. Watching the young people brings Prime to tears. "I wish somebody had sat with me," Prime tells the camera, thinking of his youth. "It wouldn't have taken me so frickin' long...


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pp. 562-564
Launched on MUSE
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