“This IS Hawai’i” may not be a big show, but as an example of crosstown collaboration, it is a big deal. It’s a two-venue exhibit, occupying not only Transformer Gallery’s Logan Circle area storefront but also the National Museum of the American Indian’s Sealaska Gallery. The show features works from four contemporary native Hawaiian artists, but it feels like — and aspires to be — a much larger survey.
In Washington, dialogue between the local art scene and major museums is rare. Transformer Gallery director Victoria Reis bucks the trend, co-hosting programs with the Phillips Collection, the Hirshhorn Museum and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
Reis made headlines in November by leading local opposition to the removal of artist David Wojnarowicz’s video from the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek” exhibit. With the Hawaii show, she switches from fighting censorship at the Smithsonian to inserting her programming directly into one of its museums.
Independent curator Isabella Hughes turns in an equally impressive performance. Hughes brings together four artists from the island of Oahu, all focused on struggles between indigenous and invasive — but using sharply divergent materials and methods.
At the National Museum of the American Indian, the works of Carl F.K. Pao and Solomon Enos offer opposing relationships to museum culture. Pao presents institutional critique that would make little sense outside a museum setting. Enos is a comics artist, creating works meant to be seen in print by general audiences.
For his “Post-Historic Museum of the Possible Aboriginal Hawaiian,” Pao pokes fun at attempts by Western museum professionals to explain ancient relics. He fills plexiglass cases with modern gardening tools, grilling implements and feather dusters — the handles of which he has carved to resemble faces of gods or ceremonial weapons.
Faux wall texts created by Pao suggest a museum staff completely in the dark. Questions of whether objects are weapons, religious totems or simple cookware are left unresolved: “Here we have a piece that could be used as a ceremonial vessel, where the god spirit or personal guardian could enter,” Pao writes about a cheap charcoal grill onto which he has painted geometric Maori patterns. “Or this might give continued evidence that the possible Aboriginal Hawaiian did actually have the technology of . . . cooking food ‘above-ground.’ ”
The imaginary museum’s ignorance has a sinister aspect. Development regularly threatens Oahu’s ancient open-air temples. The historical significance of sites is often hotly debated, and preservationists and developers use different experts to come to different conclusions. Ultimately, Pao’s work reflects the battle between desires for progress and defense of a rapidly disappearing and imperfectly understood history.
Rather than reconstructing an alternative past, Enos’s “Polyfantastica” imagines a 40,000-year-old native Hawaiian civilization in the future. Through character studies, pages of comic art, epoxy clay figurines and a Web terminal, Enos invites viewers into a stunningly complex fantasy world in which humans wear organic exoskeletons, evolve extra eyes or finlike limbs and use technology to develop collective consciousness.
Enos’s world reflects and extends Hawaii’s ancient animist traditions. Yet readers of his comics don’t need to know the sources of his ideas to enjoy his elaborate fiction.
This is a common strategy for all four artists: Despite exploring serious content, their works are playful, decorative and immediately engaging. At Transformer, installations by sculptors Maika’i Tubbs and Puni Kukahiko refer to plant species on Oahu, but also alter the gallery space and play off of the existing architecture.
Tubbs heats white plastic silverware and plates until they’re malleable and stretches them into shapes mimicking the leaves, flowers and tendrils of the invasive Woodrose vine. The results are glossy white forms that Tubbs intertwines with the gallery’s electrical cables, phone lines and switches. His pieces are slick and decorative but still retain the cheap look of disposable flatware — a perfect metaphor for a decorative flower that’s really an aggressive weed.
Kukahiko’s work is both more traditional and more subtle: At Transformer, she carves fast-growing, fibrous nonnative woods that resist her efforts. The result is a rough pile of wooden disks engraved with taro leaf shapes. While the artist attempts to make peace with this undesirable plant, the material won’t yield: the violence and speed of its growth has produced a substance not suited to carving and oiling.
Kukahiko also has an outdoor sculpture at the Indian museum: “Coming home to our most indigenous selves” (2011). The material is sumptuous; the artist’s treatment of the native kamani wood, carved into a sinuous form resembling a cascade of leaves, elegantly contrasts with the work at Transformer.
But the piece is tiny — so much so that nearby plants threaten to swallow it. This reviewer circled the museum twice before locating what — let’s be frank here — is basically a tabletop-scale piece. While the rest of the show feels bigger than it actually is, here the museum clearly needed to plan for something more visible.
Given that the show was successfully paired with the museum’s annual festival of Hawaiian culture, another survey of Hawaiian contemporary art seems likely. Let’s hope that for future iterations, the scope of “This IS Hawai’i” can grow to match the aspirations of its organizers.
Cudlin is a freelance writer.
“This IS Hawai’i,” at the National Museum of the American Indian through July 4, and at Transformer through June 25. Call 202-483-1102, or visit www.transformergallery.org.