The Honolulu Biennial Debuts in the Pacific
By JAMES CHARISMA, APR. 2017
The first ever Honolulu Biennial debuts this month in Hawaii with 33 participating artists showcasing work at nine different galleries, museums, and civic centers across the island of Oahu. Presented by the Honolulu Biennial Foundation, a nonprofit arts organization which hosts public programs and educational workshops throughout the city; and Ward Village, a planned mixed-use retail and residential development project in midtown Honolulu owned by the Howard Hughes Corporation, the Honolulu Biennial is the first of its kind for the Aloha State.
“Our closest cousin would be the Asia Pacific Triennial [in Australia],” says Honolulu Biennial co-founder and director Isabella Ellaheh Hughes. “Their focus is Asia, the Pacific, and Australia. Our geographical focus is about the countries and continents that are linked by the Pacific Ocean in the Ring of Fire, including the Asian Continent and North America.”
Art for this year’s inaugural biennial is centered around life along the Pacific Rim, recognizing cherished histories of indigenous culture and exploration as well as the struggles—colonialism, militarism, weapons testing, and foreign occupation. “We’re a compelling exhibition site for artists to create new works that are often in dialogue with issues related to Hawaii and on a larger scale, about many of the perils that islands are being impacted with,” Hughes says.
In a 60,000 square foot pop-up gallery (astonishingly converted from a former Sports Authority in just eight weeks time), “The Hub” houses a majority of the Biennial’s artwork; a mix of massive mixed media sculptures, prints, paintings, photographs, and experimental video and digital art.
On a big wall facing the front entrance, a 12-by-24-foot billboard created by Hawaii artist Drew Broderick takes an enlarged section of George Carter’s historical painting, Death of Captain James Cook, and adds “VACANCY” burning in molded neon letters that stick out from the canvas. In A Study of A Samoan Savage (series, 2015), artist Yuki Kihara explores pseudo-scientific anthropometry in a series of photographs that depict Samoan artist Ioane Ioane as the Pacific demi-god Maui, poked and prodded and “measured” as a lab specimen. Taking up a large space in the center of the room, a half-dozen used boats are packed to bursting with luggage, woven baskets, cardboard boxes, and domestic items like pots and pans, blankets and stuffed animals. Assembled as part of Crossings: Project Another Country (2017), it’s the compiled work of husband-and-wife team Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, representing the struggle of migrant sugarcane plantation workers of Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean descent who came to Hawaii in the 1800s.
“We wanted to have a third of the art from the [Hawaiian] islands, a third from Asia, and a third from the Pacific,” says Biennial curator Ngahiraka Mason. As former indigenous curator for the Auckland Art Gallery in New Zealand, Mason guided the team selecting pieces for the Biennial under curatorial director Fumio Nanjo, director of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo.
“In my experience, in the last ten years of working with contemporary artists, typically we tend to look out into the world and comment on what’s happening in other places, even if we may not be directly affected by them. We talk about how it affects somewhere else,” Mason says. “The world is so small and we think our local issues aren’t important, but they only become important if we show care. Many of these artists are commenting on their own space. This is very personal. A major highlight for me was recognizing the freshness of the differences of artists here.”
In addition to the exhibition, over a dozen lectures and workshops are scheduled throughout the Honolulu Biennial’s run. They include a talk by Jens Hoffmann, former deputy director of the Jewish Museum in New York City; a children’s program where kids can create their artwork using recycled items inspired by South Korean installation artist Choi Jeong Hwa, who has a massive breathing lotus flower sculpture as part of the Biennial; and a panel discussion on the “State of the Arts” in Hawaii with local exhibition curators and Jasper Wong, founder and director of POW! WOW!, the international mural festival happening annually in cities around the world.
It’s a lot for a first time event. Especially one that was started not by an institution, but individuals and grassroots volunteers. But the point is for Hawaii to make its mark on the world’s biennial stage. “In the contemporary arts, Hawaii tends to not be on the map. We very consciously knew the weight of the name that ‘biennial’ carries. If we called this the Honolulu Art Festival or the Honolulu Contemporary Festival, we’d probably get more foot traffic because it’s very explanatory,” Hughes says. “It’s an event for all, but by virtue of using the term ‘biennial,’ it calls to the global arts community. The goal is for Hawaii to be included in the bigger conversation on contemporary art. I think with the Honolulu Biennial, we’ve helped to open that door.” WM
James Charisma is an arts and entertainment writer based in Honolulu. He is the editor-in-chief of Abstract Magazine, an award-winning collectible print publication; associate editor of Summit, a nationally distributed 180-page quarterly journal of arts, business, civics, and literature in the Pacific; and contributing editor of HONOLULU Magazine, the oldest American publication west of the Mississippi. He is also a contributing writer for Playboy, Paste, Hi-Fructose, Inverse, Thrillist, and others.
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