The Honolulu Biennial (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

HONOLULU — Does the world need another biennial?

That’s the question that art critic and curator Isabella Hughes constantly encountered while helping develop plans for the first-ever Honolulu Biennial. After all, there are at least 200 biennials and triennials worldwide. And why in Hawaii of all places, a state that doesn’t even have a contemporary museum to its name? (The only contemporary museum to exist was merged into the city’s official Honolulu Museum of Art in 2011.)

“I curated This IS Hawai‘i in 2011, the first show of Native Hawaiian contemporary art at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian,” Hughes told Hyperallergic in a recent interview. “It was small, just four artists, and whenever I spoke on panels or met people there, the icebreaker was always to ask, where are you from? I’d say Hawaii and they’d ask if there was contemporary art there. Knowing the depth of talent here, it was frustrating for Hawaii to have never crossed their minds.”

Eko Nugroho, “Above The Wall Under the Rainbow, Free Air” (2017)

That frustration fueled co-founder Hughes — along with international business recruiter Katherine Tuider, and art collector and curator Kóan Jeff Baysa — to conceive of a biennial that spotlights work by both Hawaii artists and those throughout the Pacific Rim. The curatorial director is Fumio Nanjo, the director of the Mori Art Musuem in Tokyo, and Ngahiraka Mason, the former curator of indigenous New Zealand and Maori art at Auckland Art Gallery, was appointed to curate the first iteration of the biennial. In the end, it has proved to be a unique one, considering international audiences don’t have much of a chance to see contemporary art from Hawaii anywhere otherwise — neither contemporary works by residents of Hawaii living in the state, nor art by native Hawaiians, the ethnic group indigenous to the Hawaiian Islands.

“I’ve never been to a biennial and seen Hawaii representation,” Hughes said. “Outside of Hawaii, it’s rare to see a [Hawaii] artist or gallery exhibition, let alone an artist dealing with themes relating to here.”

By themes, Hughes doesn’t mean a bunch of paintings featuring beaches. While Hawaii’s primary industry may be the millions of tourists who specifically flock to Waikiki for mai tais and sunburns, there are untold millions who have written off the Aloha State as tacky crap. In these visitor’s minds, Honolulu belongs in the same category as Atlantic City or Disney World. And if you’re talking just about Waikiki, there are probably quite a few locals here who agree. But Hawaii is also at the forefront for some of the biggest issues today, like sustainability, alternative energy, climate change, and rising sea levels in all coastal cities.

Drew Broderick, “Billboard I” (2017)

Brett Graham, “Target Island 1 + 2” (2017)

“Hawaii, what do you know?” it has been recently asked on social media, following a Hawaii judge’s recent ruling against the President’s latest travel ban. The assumption has been that Hawaii knows nothing about the consequences of “invading” foreign presences. But as a cultural melting pot of different ethnicities and races dominated by decades of colonialism and military occupation — not to mention the target of an aerial attack in 1941 that killed more than 2,300 people and brought the United States into World War II — it turns out Hawaii knows quite a bit.

Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, “Crossings: Project Another Country” (2017)

Indeed, the biennial’s theme is The Middle of Now | Here, a challenge to the notion that Hawaii, an isolated population center, is “in the middle of nowhere.” Local artists here have a lot to say. At the Honolulu Biennial, a selection of Hawaii artists are joined by leading and emerging artists from Australia, China, Guam, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, the Marshall Islands, New Zealand, the Philippines, Samoa, Tahiti, Taiwan, Tonga, the United Arab Emirates, and the continental United States. Their works are mixed and spread throughout nine different art galleries and civic centers across the city.

Most of the artwork is located in “The Hub,” a 60,000-square-foot pop-up gallery built (in just eight weeks) in the shell of a former Sports Authority. Works range from those made specifically for the Honolulu Biennial, such as “The Eyes of the Gods” (2017), which features underwater footage taken by divers surveying the wreckage of the USS Arizona and USS Utah juxtaposed with historical archives researched and assembled by Honolulu and Los Angeles-based artist and ocean engineer Jane Chang Mi. Others, like Beatrice Glow’s “Rhunhattan Tearoom” (2015), have made their debut in previous art exhibitions but have significant meaning for a Pacific Rim–focused biennial. In “Tearoom,” a scented Delftware tea set and series of cartographic illustrations depict the horrors of the 17th-century spice war alongside images of Rhun, one of the Banda Islands in Indonesia, as well as Manhattan, representing the New World.

Yuki Kihara, “A Study of a Samoan Savage” (2015) (detail of a larger series)

A number of works in the Honolulu Biennial take ownership of the past to reflect the perspectives of Pacific peoples whose experiences and cultures history may have forgotten or glossed over. For example, artist Yuki Kihara explores the pseudo-scientific forms of anthropometry in the 19th century, when Pacific peoples were often fetishized and objectified as lab specimens and commodities. In “A Study of A Samoan Savage” (2015), Kihara has photographed the Samoan artist Ioane Ioane who poses as the Polynesian demi-god Maui as he’s poked and prodded by medical instruments. Photos taken in studies like these were historically used to lend support to theories of racial eugenics and cultivating genetic superiority. But here, the powerful Maui returns the gaze of the viewer defiantly, reclaiming his image.

Alexander Lee, “Te atua vahine mana ra o Pere (The Great Goddess Pere)”(2017)

Other artists have created works to remind viewers how particular world events, such as the Fukushima nuclear disaster, have affected the Pacific. In a darkened room, Ken and Julia Yonetani have hung four antique chandeliers refitted with depleted uranium glass beads and UV lighting for “Crystal Palace: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nuclear Nations” (2013–2016). Glowing bright green and purple, the chandeliers represent four of the 31 nuclear nations of the world: the United States, Taiwan, Japan, and China. The larger the reliance on nuclear power, the bigger the chandelier. None can match the size of the United States.

Ken and Julia Yonetani, “Crystal Palace: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nuclear Nations” (2015)

The Honolulu Biennial may be small with just 33 participating artists, but the work on display is complex and robust, exploring international issues from a uniquely coastal perspective. The Pacific Ocean covers a third of the planet’s surface and includes over 50 countries, with the Hawaiian Islands right in the center. Hawaii has always been known as something of a bridge between East and West, but the new Honolulu Biennial helps to reveal the tensions in that relationship, as well as the gaps.

The first Honolulu Biennial The Middle of Now | Here continues at 333 Ward Avenue and other locations across the island of Oahu through May 8.

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James Charisma

James Charisma is an arts and entertainment writer with bylines in Playboy, VICE, Complex, Hi-Fructose, Paste, Thrillist, Inverse, and other publications. He is editor-in-chief of Abstract Magazine,...