Arts Desk

Hawaiian Punch: Transformer Forges a Rare Smithsonian Collaboration

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A detail of "Kuu era: Polyfantastica the beginning," a 2006 work by Solomon Enos, a Hawaiian artist appearing in the upcoming “This IS Hawai’i” exhibit.

For a D.C. nonprofit gallery, Transformer has always been cocksure. In recent years, Transformer Executive and Artistic Director Victoria Reis and Gallery Manager and Program Coordinator Marissa Long have tested boundaries few galleries or art programs ever approach. The art incubator has swapped shows with Mexico City and hosted art interventions ranging from a lecture by a National Zoo conservation geneticist to a marathon screening of slasher flicks. It arranged a precious collaborative performance between D.C. artists Jessica Cebra and Zach Storm and the Washington Ballet when winter did its worst earlier this year. Dischord Records showed up at Transformer’s project space with a panel and performances last month.

That Transformer is one of D.C.’s most daring art institutions makes it an odd match for the city’s most conservative: the Smithsonian.

But in May 2011, Transformer is pairing with that unlikely ally—specifically, the National Museum of the American Indian—for an atypical goal: to introduce D.C. to contemporary, emerging, indigenous artists from Hawaii.

“It’s a huge accomplishment for us,” says Reis. “It’s a way that we’re building the capacity of Transformer without building a huge physical space that, as we’re seeing in this landscape, is hard to support.”

The idea for “This IS Hawai’i” belongs to Isabella Hughes, an independent curator whose father is from Honolulu. Last September, Hughes (who has since moved to Dubai) pitched Transformer a show of Hawaiian works. Around the same time, the American Indian museum opened “Strange Comfort,” a solo show by contemporary artist Brian Jungen. Reis calls it “one of the major contemporary art exhibits [showing] at the time.” Jungen, she says, got his start in alternative art spaces. After seeing his show, Hughes’ pitch clicked, says Reis.

“Why not approach the museum?” says Reis. “Transformer could do it solo, but [NMAI] would have a greater impact within the city and potentially internationally.”

As it turns out, Transformer had fans at the museum. NMAI Exhibit Manager Jennifer Miller says some staffers were familiar with Transformer. Miller describes the space as a “small organization that really packs a punch” and says NMAI curators envy its grassroots reach. “We have a group at the museum, a contemporary art group, that’s been looking to reach a local audience,” says Miller. “That’s kind of hard to do.”

Transformer’s young, local constiuency has been elusive for NMAI, as both Reis and Miller would admit: Locals know NMAI more for its awesome cafeteria than rotating exhibitions. Miller says the museum sees contemporary art as key to capturing a hipper audience, and to that end it’s devoting space to contemporary exhibits that will flip frequently.

“This IS Hawai’i” will feature four Hawaiian artists: Solomon Enos, Puni Kukahiko, Carl Pao, and Maika’i Tubbs. Tentatively, Enos and Pao will exhibit at the museum, while Tubbs will show work at Transformer’s project space at 1404 P St. NW. Reis describes Kukahiko as the “crossover artist,” whose project will tie the sites together.

While Transformer has much to gain in this deal, Reis says she hasn’t lost touch with DIY. “It went to [NMAI]’s exhibitions committee, and then some other committee, and then some other committee,” she says. “We were just really open to it.”

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