It was a crowning event of Maoli Arts Month (which actually takes place throughout the course of three months—April, May, and June—every year). A recently held art exhibition at the Honolulu Museum of Art School prompted artists to define Hawaii’s sense of place before, during, and after Hawaii’s first moment of contact with colonists from the West. More specifically, the selected art pieces questioned how local artists interpret and engage with this pivotal moment in Hawaii’s history.
While closed now, Contact, a juried exhibition sponsored by the Maoli Arts Alliance, presented an assortment of contemporary works referencing Hawaii and the peripheral time around contact, and what that represents. And it’s still knocking around my mind. It’s about a sense of place, but also something more. The two-week exhibit was way too brief, however the collection of works, selected by Hawaii artists Lawrence Seward and Jon Staub, made a lasting impression.
When I saw the 90-plus pieces in the show, I was immediately drawn to something labeled #83, a piece consisting of a set of three carved vegetables submerged in a clear liquid substance in transparent, cylindrical forms. According to the item list, the real title of the work is Preservation, by an Oahu-based artist Jordan Souza, a 2014 piece made with carrots and sweet potato soaked in vinegar.
It immediately recalled Andre Serrano’s controversial 1987 artwork Piss Christ, in which the artist immersed a miniature plastic crucifix in his piss and photographed it. The appearance of Preservation also presents itself as an object of scientific study that you might find in a mad scientist’s laboratory or a collector’s cabinet of curiosities.
I admit that I first dismissed Preservation as another kitschy tiki piece, adding to the overwhelming amount of works being produced that analyze the commodification of the paradisiacal image of Hawaii and the co-opting of Hawaiian culture as an economic good. However, on closer observation I interpreted the carved carrots and sweet potato not as kiʻi (the Hawaiian word for Maori’s tiki), and toggled with the possibility that they might serve as representations of large-scale Kū figures, only three of which are known to exist in the world.
Although carved and used in cultural practice in Hawaii, the last three Kū images were separated due to various reasons attributed to Hawaii’s contact with the West, but were reunited once again for the first time since being separated more than 150 years ago for the Bishop Museum’s 2010 exhibition, E Kū Ana Ka Paia: Unification, Responsibility and the Kū Images, held as a collaborative effort between the three institutions to which they belong. One of the Kū is kept at our very own Bishop Museum, while the other two reside in the collections of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and the British Museum, in London. Experiencing this revelation reminded me of the title of the piece—preservation—severely jolting my interpretive process of the work, due to the fact that the three Kū statues are currently under preservation by these museum institutions and rarely on display for the sake of their protection as a cultural “artifact”.
In a serendipitous meeting, I had the opportunity to talk story with Souza outside of 808 Tattoo in Kaneohe. Souza told me he received his BFA in Sculpture from the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Department of Art and Art History and continued his education at UHM, earning a Master’s in Pacific Island studies and choosing to focus on the Pacific Island studies rather than solely specializing in Hawaiian studies. In addition to being a practicing artist, Souza is a Hawaiian Studies Lecturer at the Windward Community College, where he instructs classes on Kalai La’au, or traditional Hawaiian woodwork.
After listening to my interpretation of it, Souza said that the idea behind Preservation “was not so much preservation, or dealing with repatriation, but it was more about the preservation of the practice and the culture. And then there’s that play on ‘preservation’, like the preservation of vegetables,” he said.
While addressing museum studies-related issues involving repatriation and conservation may not have been Souza’s intent, titling the piece Preservation was both clever and thought-provoking. The practice of preservation hearkens to the important issues of cultural stewardship; who deserves and reserves the right to care for cultural objects, especially objects belonging to cultures that are not of one’s own? The Kū are heavily integrated into Hawaiian culture and mythology, so why should they be preserved in places far away from their cultural origins?
“What defines a culture is the ability to adapt and adjust with the times,” Souza said when asked to comment on the most ethical practice to preserve Hawaiian culture. “Culture is never defined as being stuck in a glass box. That’s why I don’t like the term ‘artifact’, because ‘artifact’ implies a dead culture. And we are very much alive.”
In and of itself, Preservation is a humorous and fascinating literal interpretation its title suggests, but it also sheds light on the critical questions of how and why we go about selecting certain aspects of culture to preserve, and for whom, exactly, are we preserving them?