“This Is Hawai‘i,” a contemporary art exhibit co-produced by D.C. art nonprofit Transformer and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, has got a lot of people feeling like they’ve made it. For Transformer, the collaboration is no less significant than David partnering with Goliath: D.C. artists and curators don’t have many entryways into the museums on the National Mall. The show is the National Museum of the American Indian’s third big contemporary art exhibition, another bid in the institution’s unlikely but engaging effort to capture a younger audience. And for the artists and independent curator Isabella Hughes, it’s a show at the Smithsonian, a serious get for any U.S. up-and-comer.
It is somewhat less epic than all that. The four native Hawaiian artists in the show—Solomon Enos, Puni Kukahiko, Carl F. K. Pao, and Maika’i Tubbs—bring with them a range of interests and media. For a modest group show, “This Is Hawai’i” offers some fascinating glimpses into native kanaka maoli culture, in some cases inadvertently. Yet for all its virtues, it’s a stiff exhibit that reflects the challenges of placing one show into two contexts: native Hawai’ian culture and contemporary art.
Pao’s work is presented as an almost archaeological collection of discoveries attributed to a bureaucratic organization called the Office of Possible Aboriginal Affairs. It’s a twist on the cabinet-level ministries established by colonial governments from Canada to Australia to liaison with indigenous populations. Pao has positioned himself as the director of the Post-Historic Museum of the Possible Aboriginal Hawai’ian; his artworks comprise artifacts ostensibly bagged and tagged at site surveys by this Smithsonian-style institution. The parody flows from there, and as it’s on display in a government-sponsored historical museum, it’s a potentially cutting satire.
As any good bureaucracy will, PHMPAH generates a lot of paperwork. In the context of this show, that means explanatory text—lots and lots of it. Pao’s art labors under its weight. One of his pieces—a Weber charcoal grill painted in a tribal design of black and white chevrons (an attractive pattern called niho mano, which means “shark tooth”)—earns the title, “S32 #17: Possible ceremonial vessel or ‘above-ground’ cooking device.” As a spoof of the pop-cultural depiction of all Hawai’ian cooking as kalua-style, the title alone should suffice. But the wall text for Pao’s works goes on and on, over-elaborating the conceit (there is talk of a “Lack of Recognition Virus”). The juxtaposition of a Motorola flip phone in a museum (labeled as a “possible personal ceremonial god object”) speaks plainly enough to the disconnect between ancestral and contemporary native life and art. Presented merely as the straightforward readymades they are, Pao’s pieces would have been downright biting.
There’s nothing more thrilling in the exhibit than the surreal drawings of Solomon Enos, a graphic artist whose “Polyfantastica” serial was published by the Honolulu Advertiser between 2006 and 2007. His gouache paintings are character profiles of dozens of invented godlike figures. Enos’ maoli-punk drawings borrow from H.P. Lovecraft, Tolkien, Jack Kirby, and Mad Max—but owe a debt to none of these. For Enos, it’s almost as if the context was too bizarre to even explain: There’s no curatorial explanation connecting Enos’ personal mythology with the kanaka maoli gods who appear to have inspired him.
As best as I can tell, the “Polyfantastica” series spans 40,000 years divided into four epochs. Each of Enos’ avatars represents a millennium within ones of these epochs—so “Nu’umealanj,” a feminine figure wearing coral armor and bearing a staff that emits plumes of volcanic ash, is the millennial lord for Kuu 10,000. The legend might have made more sense in the context of its alt-weekly run, like Prince Valiant penned by Cthulhu. But here, the figures’ narrative significance is severely limited, if not lost entirely.
It’s not so much that Enos’ work lacks context: There’s wall text galore, and even an interactive terminal spotlighting his work. But the buttoned-up presentation—from the frames to the wall labels to the digital-educational treatment—seems all wrong for stoner art about Pacific monarchs and oceanic golems. For the show, a small run of his comics were reprinted—and that might be the only format that truly suits this work. But there’s no bridge for crossing the gap between Enos’ self-invented gods and his seemingly literal sculptural depictions of Mo’o—chaotic-neutral monsters said to protect fresh water in Hawai’i.
Maika’i Tubbs’ installation appears at Transformer alongside sculpture by Puni Kukahiko, who has also installed some work in the museum’s garden. These artists’ works are fairly conservative: Tubbs recreates an invasive vine species by melting down white plasticware, whereas Kukahiko carves stumps from the invasive albezia tree. The pairing at Transformer is as simple and uncluttered as the work itself, allowing viewers to draw conclusions without necessarily needing to know about kanaka maoli anything.
Is that necessarily a good thing? It will come as no surprise that Transformer’s installation is the more successful half of “This Is Hawai’i”: It’s a space designed for site-specific installation art that doesn’t worry about educating the family of four from Idaho. Transformer has given Tubbs and Kukahiko a venue they can’t easily find at home. Even Hawai’i’s own Bishop Museum, a collection dedicated to native art, only began showing contemporary native art alongside ancestral art a few years back, when a much-admired program manager named Noelle Kahanu joined the institution.
Historical museums often have a handicap when it comes to showing contemporary art, which has its own material history that spans continents (even if those continents are primarily Europe and North America). In explaining a work’s identity context, a museum necessarily limits the extent to which it can talk up a work’s art-historical significance. Which is fine. Indigenous contemporary art from Hawai’i does not succeed or fail in spite of its geographical remove; it’s simply work that participates in two different conversations.
Where “This Is Hawai’i” succeeds is in using two institutions to tease out two contexts. American Indian could borrow a few pointers on setting up an exhibit space that lets these works breathe a little better. (The museum’s ongoing exhibition of its contemporary native art collection, “Vantage Point,” seems to do fine.) Or fewer artists—even just one artist—could put identical works on display at both.
The best thing the museum could do? Put on a native Hawai’ian contemporary art show next year—and the year after that—and simply let the art build its own history.