Whitehot Magazine

Maikai Tubbs in Conversation with Isabella Ellaheh Hughes




A resident artist at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), the internationally exhibiting, O‘ahu native Maika‘i Tubbs is a relatively new transplant to New York, having first moved to the city to attend Parson’s MFA program.

Currently, you can find Tubbs every Wednesday in MAD's Artist Studios, where he's working on expanding his Stepping Stones — a project inspired by his interest in recycling, repurposing, and the evolvement of "plastiglomerate," a new geological term used to describe the fusion of micro plastic, rock, sand, basalt, coral and wood discovered last year on Hawai‘i Island.

In conversation with Isabella Ellaheh Hughes, Tubbs talks about the impact of his two grandmas on his artistic development, setting new rules for himself to create work comprised out of 80% discarded materials, and the agency he carries as one of the most visible and widely-exhibited native Hawaiian contemporary artists operating today.

Maika‘i Tubbs, Comforts of Home 

Isabella Ellaheh Hughes:You’ve always been innately interested in reworking everyday materials and acutely aware of how this culture of consumption permeates contemporary life. Over the past decade, you worked with a lot of plastic, ranging from forks, spoons, knives and plates, which you bought and then melted and sculpted. However, there has been a shift, with much of your new work created over the past year or so, coming out of salvaged, reused and recycled materials that you forage for. Can you talk about this shift in method and material?

Maika‘i Tubbs: When I first started making sculptures out of everyday materials it was for really practical reasons. For starters, I love everyday objects, specifically obsolete ones or things viewed as disposable. These types of items are unassuming so people don’t expect very much from them. I didn’t have any background in sculpture so I relied heavily on the pre-made object for its form. Moving to New York, I was struck by the amount of trash that littered the streets. I realized that while this was a visible, growing problem, I could use it [trash] as a huge resource.

While the work I used to do relied heavily on small, cheap items that I could use to talk about commodities and consumerism, I realized that I could do the same thing utilizing the increased trash epidemic. One of the rules I have for my current work is that it must be made from at least 80% discarded items, meaning only up to 20% of the final work can be made from new materials.

IEH: You worked professionally for many years in Hawai‘i before moving to New York. Has this change in home-base influenced your practice?

MT: Definitely. The city provides non-stop stimulation of every form. There are so many art venues here and as many amazing exhibitions as there are terrible ones. But moving to New York means that I now have access to all of it. It’s just a numbers game. Hawai‘i is amazing and I owe a lot of my commitment to craftsmanship and the way that art is taught and appreciated back home. New York has that as well, but it also has really raw forms mixed in with performance, technology and video that I had not seen before. And as wonderful as the city is, it is also covered in trash. The constant traipsing through garbage-laden streets made it impossible for me to ignore. It was because of this experience that I committed to using trash in my work.

IEH: Right now you are a Studio Artist at the Museum of Art and Design (MAD), where you're working on a multimedia, sculptural installation project called Stepping Stones. This project is inspired by plastiglomerate, a new geological form that was discovered last year on Hawai‘i Island. What led you to be interested in plastiglomerate and explore it through this work?

MT: I stumbled onto the discovery by accident. Last year I was making small, fossilized sculptures out of plastic clay, rocks, leaves and found bits of hardware. I Googled “plastic rock” and the term “plastiglomerate” came up. It is a newly coined term to describe rocks that contain things like wood, sand and coral, fused with plastic. While some theorize the rocks have been formed by the active lava flow on the island of Hawai’i [also known as the “Big Island”], they eventually found the source to be human. Kamilo Beach has had plastic washing up on its shores for decades from the gyres in the North Pacific.  

Giving them a name does two things: it allows geologists to search for other examples worldwide as they classify them into groupings; and also indicates that plastic has now made its way into the natural environment, therefore blurring the boundary between the artificial and the natural. I am looking at this project as a way to create my own set of future fossils, hybrids of the materials I encounter in my everyday experiences.

    Maikai Tubbs, Dissection of a Seventh Grade Eating Complex

IEH: As I understand, a key component to MAD’s Studio Artist program is enabling visitors to interact with the artist. What is this experience like and have any conversations you’ve had with visitors been particularly interesting or impacted what you're creating?

MT: It’s similar to graduate school, in terms of the amount of critique and references that visitors bring. Some of my most memorable interactions so far have been when: a teen who caught the bus over for a day and asked me to give him honest critique about his paintings he showed me off of his phone; a woman who wanted to purchase one of my Stepping Stones for her daughter who teaches sustainable design at UC Davis; a Columbia University class of Masters candidates in Art Education; and a landscape architect who offered me a place to stay in Palm Springs whenever I get there. 

This residency is not made for every type of artist. You have to be social. It’s half the job. Some may call it a fishbowl with the artist resembling a zoo animal on display, but I love it. You can never predict how the public will respond to your work because it is entirely dependent on the individual. That being said, the more people I talk to, the better I get at crafting how to talk about my work. And that is invaluable as an artist. I love talking with folks and the studio program allows us to have open connections to people we never would have met otherwise.

IEH: You recently returned from Germany where your work, A Life of Its Own has now been permanently installed in the Landesmuseum Hannover, which is divided into three different sections. Interestingly, your piece is not included in the “art” section of the museum, but is installed on the Menschen Welten (Human World) floor. What is it like to be a contemporary artist and have your work exhibited in this context?

MT: I am excited that my work is included in the Human World section. “A Life of Its Own” is an installation of plastic forks, spoons, knives and plates that are transformed into vines to invade a specific space. The work talks about how plastic has creeped into and invaded our lives and camouflages itself against the wall, similar to how plastic hides in plain view amongst us. It takes on the form of the woodrose vine, a vine that was introduced to Hawai‘i and continues to suffocate native plants on four of the islands. An exhibition that talks about the entire human world is no small feat. The Landesmuseum’s permanent exhibition covers everything from evolution, to tools, multiculturalism, and wars. My work is used to talk about the introduction of plastic within the context of global history, as well as a metaphor for colonialism.

 Maika'i Tubbs, A Life of its Own  

IEH: As one of the most visible, globally-operating indigenous Hawaiian artists working today, your work carries a lot of agency beyond being dynamic and disruptive in the broadly obscure field of contemporary art. One can surmise that for your audiences around the world, your work might be the first time they are introduced to an indigenous Hawaiian artist and/or ideas that speak very much to issues that are relevant to Hawai‘i today. Do you think about this a lot when creating work or planning an artist talk for audiences outside of Hawai‘i?

MT: I wouldn’t say I’m the most visible, but I have been extremely fortunate to be included in some very wonderful and visible exhibitions. There are some great Native Hawaiian artists back at home that the world needs to see more of, so when I get a public platform I always try to promote them. Since moving from Hawai‘i, I have realized just how strong of an image Hawai‘i is to other people in terms of an idealized paradise. So I look at my work as a way to talk about this misconception, which lead to my own environmental concerns. While it is specific to my experiences back home, everyone can relate to things like plastic and consumerism. WM


Isabella Ellaheh Hughes

Isabella Ellaheh Hughes is the Artistic Director and Co-founder of the Honolulu Biennial Foundation, in addition to being a curator, editor and critic focused on art from the Asian continent, Pacific and their Diasporas. She's written for a variety of printed and online publications, including: ArtAsiaPacific, Brownbook, Contemporary Practices, Frieze, Harper’s Art Bazaar Arabia and Ibraaz.


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