PHOENIX — The Heard Museum recently opened He‘e Nalu: The Art and Legacy of Hawaiian Surfing, an exhibition exploring the culture of Kānaka Maoli, the Indigenous people of Hawaii, through the history and cultural significance of Hawaiian surfing. Curated by Carolyn Kuali`i (Kānaka Maoli) and Velma Kee Craig (Diné), the show includes contemporary artworks, site-specific installations, and historic material made by cultural practitioners.
Centering Hawaiian Indigeneity brings a fresh perspective to this space, given that the Heard Museum shows predominantly traditional and contemporary artworks by Indigenous peoples of the Southwest. Yet, the exhibition feels fragmented, in part because it elevates Native Hawaiian voices without firmly establishing the foundations of Kānaka Maoli storytelling.
Early on, viewers see Papa He’e Nalu I ka Wā Akua (Surfing in The Time of the Gods) (2022), a striking black-and-white painting by Solomon Robert Nui Enos (Kānaka Maoli), which is rooted in the Hawaiian creation story. Here, akua (gods) set upon surfboards convey the pono (equilibrium) that’s central to the human body and the rest of the natural world. While reflecting the nature of surfing as a spiritual and cultural practice, the work only hints at the role of cosmology in the storytelling traditions of Native Hawaiians.
Along one wall of an adjacent gallery, various types of surfboards crafted by Tom “Pōhaku” Stone (Kānaka Maoli) suggest the breadth of surfing practices in Native Hawaiian culture, while calling to the craft and materiality of these objects. Hand-cut paper portraits of Native Hawaiian icons who’ve contributed to the sport and cultural practice of surfing hang nearby. Created by Ian Joseph Kekoa Kuali’i(Kānaka Maoli/’Ndééh (Apache), the portraits counter the marginalization and erasure of Kānaka Maoli even as they frustrate those seeking greater insights into the culture’s unique nature of story.
Featured video works are particularly effective at addressing the complex history of surfing and Native Hawaiian culture, including the impacts of colonization and the glaring cultural appropriation evident in the Southern California surfing scene. With her two-screen video installation Bikini and the bikini (2022), Nicole Naone (Kānaka Maoli) examines both the 23 nuclear devices detonated at Bikini Atoll during the mid-20th century and the bikini bathing suit of the same period, elevating themes related to violence, sexism, and commodification.
The exhibition also includes skateboard art by seven Indigenous non-Hawaiian artists, which reference the influence of surfing on “sidewalk surfing” and other sports. The decks reflect an intriguing array of symbolism and materiality, and suggest the many intersections of Kānaka Maoli with Indigenous cultures in the Southwest. But they also signal a missed opportunity to further elaborate on those relationships.
Even so, He‘e Nalu: The Art and Legacy of Hawaiian Surfing is an impactful exhibition, especially when viewed as a love letter to Kānaka Maoli surfing replete with Native Hawaiian history and language, and as a collective call to deeply consider the ways cultural appropriation is manifest across the broad spectrum of contemporary life—not only within the sphere of surfing.
He‘e Nalu: The Art and Legacy of Hawaiian Surfing continues at the Heard Museum (2301 North Central Avenue, Phoenix) through July 16. The exhibition was curated by Carolyn Kuali ’i (Kānaka Maoli) and Velma Kee Craig (Diné).