Inside The Inaugural Biennial
Fresh out of grad school, Isabella Ellaheh Hughes curated an exhibit called This Is Hawaii in Washington, D.C., in 2011, depicting works by contemporary Native Hawaiian artists. But when they walked into the exhibit, people kept asking the same question: Where was all of the Hawaiian art?
“People were expecting hula girls and sunsets and all of that,” Hughes recalls. “I was frustrated that people came in and they wanted this really sanitized, problematic, postcolonial voyeuristic lens on Hawaii.”
That frustration only grew as Hughes went about building up her career as an art critic and curator. Her work took her all over the world, and when colleagues found out that she was from Hawaii, they’d always ask if there was any contemporary art in the Islands.
“The representation of talent here in Hawaii is not at all reflected in what is going on in the global contemporary arts infrastructure,” Hughes says. “I was really impassioned to ensure that Hawaii’s contemporary arts scene and our artists are no longer excluded, that they are a part of the conversation and that they are recognized.”
So Hughes teamed up with international development consultant Katherine Tuider and physician and curator Dr. Koan Jeff Baysa to do something about it.
Now, after nearly three years of planning, their inaugural Honolulu Biennial kicks off March 8 and runs through May 8. Themed MIDDLE OF NOW | HERE, Honolulu Biennial is a curated contemporary arts festival with work by 33 artists from an array of disciplines. Featuring local artists alongside internationally known ones, Honolulu Biennial seeks to garner global recognition for the local arts scene, while also introducing the arts to new audiences.
“After three years of working toward just an idea, it is incredible to be able to have something tangible to show people, and for people to see what this will do for our creative community,” Tuider says.
Here are a few things to know about Honolulu Biennial.
It’s modeled after biennial events around the world.
When Baysa, Hughes and Tuider were initially discussing the idea to promote local arts in the global scene, they settled on a biennial for both the structure and the prestige that come with such a festival.
“There is weight to the word ‘biennial,'” Hughes says. (So much so, in fact, that the minute the founders announced the inception of the Honolulu Biennial Foundation back in 2014, they attracted attention from some pretty big names in the art world.)
The oldest is the Venice Biennale, which was established in 1895. The idea gained substantial momentum in the 1990s, and now there are hundreds of biennials and triennials that take place throughout the world. While each biennial might vary in format, they commonly incorporate various venues throughout the city, as does Honolulu Biennial.
And in line with other global biennial events, as its name implies, Honolulu Biennial will take place every other year.
It takes place all over Honolulu.
MIDDLE OF NOW | HERE is comprised of sites throughout town, ranging from, as Hughes puts it, “where one would expect to see art” to others where you typically wouldn’t.
These include nine exhibition sites (including both paid and free locales), the more traditional of which are Honolulu Museum of Art, Shangri-La Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, The ARTS at Marks Garage and Bishop Museum. Others are Hawaii Prince Hotel, Foster Botanical Garden, Honolulu Hale and the IBM Building.
The main exhibition site, dubbed The Hub, sits at the former Sports Authority on Ward Avenue, which Honolulu Biennial Foundation has completely revamped to house 22 installations for the event.
It features a range of art.
The 33 artists selected come from around the world: a third from Hawaii, a third from the greater Pacific area, and a third from Asia and the Americas. Pieces were selected by curatorial director Fumio Nanjo, director of Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, and curator Ngahiraka Mason, formerly a curator in New Zealand who focused on indigenous art. It’s hard to pinpoint a type of art present in the MIDDLE OF NOW | HERE because it’s so widely diverse in terms of media — there’s paintings, sculptures, video installations, live animation and more.
Similarly, the topics that artists address are varied. But what connects the pieces, the organizers feel, is that they deal with issues that are “locally resonant and globally relevant,” tackling topics from climate change to colonialism.
“The issues are incredibly relevant, whether it is about the environment, about how do you preserve history and culture, about family, about sustainability,” Hughes says.
One piece, for instance, by Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa, features plastic buoys that were collected by local nonprofit Sustainable Coastlines and transformed into a sculpture. Another piece by Marshallese artist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner melds video and spoken word to comment on the relationship between the Marshall Islands and the U.S. In one painting, local artist Chris Ritson utilizes algae that he’s gathered from ocean trash; the algae will continue to grow throughout the exhibit. An installation by husband-and-wife duo Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, originally from the Philippines, features a series of boats they’ve collected locally; it’s a contemplation on the dislocation that comes with migration.
“Biennials, what is so distinctive, is that they highlight local alongside international, on the same platform,” Hughes says. “The idea is putting them on the same platform to offer our residents here the ability to have a cultural exchange without ever having to leave the island.”
It supports local artists.
In line with their initial goal, Honolulu Biennial Foundation aims to support Hawaii-based artists.
“I am really excited for local artists to be able to make new connections with all of the international and national artists,” Tuider says. “We really hope that this is an opportunity for international collaboration.
“I am also really excited for all the museum directors and curators from other countries and from our national museums to come to Hawaii and see all of our local artists’ work — and hopefully put them in their future shows. The idea is that we have a lot more exposure and coverage for local artists.”
To that end, Honolulu Biennial has a program called Umeke Umbrella, where any creative group (dance, performance art, visual art) can submit information about their event occurring during the biennial time frame, and Honolulu Biennial will list the event on its website.
“Our artists here are so talented, but you go to any major art city and ask curators and art historians to name just one artist from Hawaii and the room goes silent,” Tuider says. “And it shouldn’t be that way.”
“(Hawaii) has really interesting perspectives to share with the world, and art is such an incredible vehicle to share those messages,” Tuider says. “There are so many lessons that we learn as an island that I think are especially relevant right now, whether it is messages about sustainability or tolerance.”
Opening week is not to be missed.
Honolulu Biennial is stocked with events and programs throughout its eight-week run, and opening week looks particularly exciting.
(It actually kicks off with a series of preview events, beginning at 5 p.m. March 3 at The ARTS at Marks Garage, where guests can get a sneak peek at an exhibit by Mohammed Kazem.)
The official opening date, March 8, offers back-to-back discussions with artists starting at 1 p.m. at the IBM Building, followed by the opening party from 5 to 9 p.m. at The Hub. The party features a fashion show by Marques Hanalei Marzan, displaying new wearable art pieces that represent
Hawaiian gods, along with a one-time only performance by performance artist Al Lagunero. Tavana also will be playing, and food trucks will be available in the parking lot fronting the venue.
The rest of the week is filled with various talks, panel discussions, film screenings, keiki workshops and performances.
It aims to make art accessible to a wide audience.
As Hughes puts it, “art is often seen as elitist or removed from reality.”
“We wanted to make art approachable and accessible to all,” she says.
Part of this effort was keeping admission prices low to ensure that cost was not a barrier. Venues with pre-existing admission fees retain those; other venues are free; and The Hub costs just $7 for kamaaina, free to those 18 and under. They’ve even offered free transportation to schools.
That’s one of the reasons they have exhibition sites throughout town — to present art in places where people might simply come across it in their daily life.
“We have art visibly out in the public … you might just stumble upon art,” Tuider explains. “It’s putting art in unexpected places where people go every day, and hopefully, they will engage with it.”
And the reason why this matters, Hughes and Tuider say, goes back to the fact that the pieces in MIDDLE OF NOW | HERE address important issues.
“Art is not just pretty pictures,” Hughes says. “It’s not some airy-fairy, irrelevant thing, nor is it something that only a certain group of people should appreciate or have access to.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION AND A FULL LINEUP OF EVENTS, VISIT HONOLULUBIENNIAL.ORG.