Manatu  (2013). Dan Taulapapa McMullin at CONTACT 2015. From the collection of Bishop Museum.

Manatu (2013). Dan Taulapapa McMullin at CONTACT 2015. From the collection of Bishop Museum.





CONTACT 2015 Juror


CONTACT 2015 invited artists to reflect on one of the most tragic periods of Hawaii’s history, from the U.S. backed overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i to the illegal annexation, up through the 1930s with placid lei bedecked Hawaiians greeting boat loads of tourists. For me, as a kanaka maoli and one of the show’s co- curators, I initially found it difficult to focus on such a narrow window of time, on a time when so little light was allowed to filter through. Much of the rhetoric of this time period characterized Hawaiians as despondent and destitute, plagued by alcoholism, having been forced off the land and living in urban squalor, such that the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920 was needed to “rehabilitate the Hawaiian race.”

 But just as our ancestors found strength and unity in the face of abject racism, in the face of cultural, social, and political oppression, so too have a generation of scholars brought these very efforts back to light. The work of Noenoe Silva, Jonathan Osorio and others have shown that our chiefs and the lāhui were not mere pawns of foreign desire but were active agents in their own collective destiny. When deprived of nationhood, the lāhui rose in response, taking pen to paper as more than 38,000 Hawaiian citizens signed petitions protesting annexation to the U.S “in any form or shape.” When their flag was taken down, hundreds of women instead sewed flag quilts to show their enduring love for Queen and country. Mele were composed and articles were written, all protesting the actions of the Western American oligarchy and the United States. In the words of Keauiluna Kaulia (as translated by N. Silva), president of Hui Aloha ‘Āina, one of the groups which circulated the petitions and presented them in Washington, D.C., “Mai makau, e kupaa ma ke aloha i ka aina, a e lokahi ma ka manao, e kue loa aku i ka hoohui ia o Hawaii me Amerika a hiki i ke aloha aina hope loa.” “Do not be afraid, be steadfast in aloha for your land and be united in thought. Protest forever the annexation of Hawai’i until the very last aloha ‘āina.”

But History did not come to pass as they had envisioned it, for while the lāhui successfully blocked passage of the annexation treaty, they were not able to stop the Newlands Resolution which annexed Hawai‘i by only a simple majority, an illegal action which is contested to this day. Nonetheless, even when Hawai‘i became part of the United States, Hawaiians recognized the wisdom of participating in a government whose very authority they questioned. Queen Liliuokalani herself, consulted about the possible formation of a kanaka maoli political party in 1900, stated that “We have no other direction left to pursue, except this unrestricted right [to vote], given by the U.S. to you the lāhui, grasp it and hold on to it. It is up to you to make things right for all of us in the future.” (N. Silva, Translations of Articles from the Hawaiian Nationalist Newspaper Ke Aloha Aina). The Independent Home Rule party was thus established and it sent its first non-voting delegate, Robert Wilcox, to Congress. Unfortunately, the fledgling party ultimately did not take root and was disbanded in 1912. Other attempts to secure a measure of social and political control, however, did withstand the test of time, such as the establishment of Hawaiian civic clubs, which continue today.

These Hawaiian scholars, by revealing the words, the wisdom, the strength and the resolve of our own kanaka maoli people, have thus deconstructed false paradigms and raised a new awareness and political consciousness. This imperative role of scholar as critic, as questioner, as one who challenges presumptions that we have lived our entire lives by, is a role that I believe is shared by both academics and artists. As a co-curator of Contact 2015, I thus wondered how the artist, as protester, as prophet, as seer, as spokesperson, might respond to this conflicted, complicated chapter in our history? I was not so interested in whether they were addressing the content of the times but rather the emotionality of it. How do we individually, collectively, and as a nation, respond when our very physical, spiritual, and political well-being is threatened? And is it even fair to place this res(pono)sibility on them? In the end, I remain indebt to these artists for being the conduit through which our ancestors make manifest not only their past pains, but their hopes and desires for our collective future. Through these ancestral remembrances, in word and deed, are we reminded of the inevitability of our nationhood and that the past and the present are but a continuum. It is the artists who have moved me to see beyond the veil, to question my realities, and to understand the kuleana I bear to my family, my home, and my place in this ‘āina.