A cultural trip to paradise: Honolulu Hawaii

Remember the time when almost no one, whether in the Middle East or internationally, had ever heard of for example Ali Banisadr, Ahmed Alsoudani, Abdulnasser Gharem, Farhad Moshiri, around 10-15 years ago and when no one would have even imagined that the U.A.E. would become a bustling regional hub for the Middle Eastern art scene? In the same vein, who would have thought that art and culture existed in paradise, in the ‘Aloha’ state of Hawai’i, in the cradle of surf, close to the historical and military site of Pearl Harbour and amidst the pineapple plantations? I certainly was not one of them until I met Isabella Ellaheh Hughes in Abu Dhabi, when she worked for TDIC. We were co-project managers for the seminal exhibition Opening The Doors: Collecting Middle Eastern Art, organized by TDIC in collaboration with Christie’s Dubai and that was held at Emirates Palace in November 2010. Half Hawai’ian, half Iranian, Isabella became a close friend and pivotal figure of the U.A.E.’s art scene. She later free-lanced as an art consultant in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and I recall her stating that she was determined to introduce an art fair in her home country Hawaii, literally the other side of the globe. I also remember promising her that if she realized this ambitious project, I would come and see it in person. Well here I am, back from almost 24 hours of flights, having left from Dubai, via Paris and Los Angeles, with a final destination in Honolulu: I wanted to keep my word of visiting the 2017 Honolulu Biennial and its co-founder, being no other than my dear friend Isabella. She had made her dream come true.

‘Aloha!’ is the first word you hear and see when you get off your flight, after having flown above a deep turquoise-blue ocean dotted with volcanic islands lined with white sand and lush palm trees. Welcome to Paradise – Honolulu, the capital of the U.S. state of Hawai’i, located south of Oahu Island. I arrived end of April, so the Honolulu Biennial had already been on since the 8th March and everyone was talking about the exciting closing party on 8th May, that I sadly missed by a few days. I reached ‘The Hub’ of the Honolulu Biennial, located in the city’s ‘Ward Village’, which used to be a large warehouse or sport’s shop and that had now been transformed into the biennial’s vibrant core. A giant Jeff Koons-like shiny pink winged pig, symbol of fortune and affluence in Korea, titled Love Me by Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa (b. 1961) greets guests at The Hub. The colorful signs of the biennial, ‘HONOLULU BIENNIAL 2017: MIDDLE OF NOW-HERE’ catches the eye of every person passing by – and yes, Hawai’i does seem to be in the ‘middle of NOWHERE’ but the biennial precisely demonstrates that time has come to finally celebrate a completely forgotten and marginalized cultural art scene, NOW and HERE in Honolulu. Despite Hawai’i’s geographic isolation, Honolulu has truly become an urban and dynamic city, located at the crossroads of the Pacific, between America’s West Coast and the Far East, and acts as the connecting point for other distant islands and nations scattered across the vast Pacific Ocean. Now why Honolulu? The answer is quite straight-forward and resonates throughout many of the artworks showcased in the biennial: the island’s rich cultural, spiritual and natural facets, combined with the dramatic social, political, environmental and economic issues looming over Hawai’i trigger lively dialogues and striking reactions that artists from the Pacific diaspora have transcribed into visual arts. As a tourist seeing only the cliché of Hawai’i being a glamorous paradise stress-free surfer island, you tend to dismiss the issues faced by these islands, and by many others in the Pacific. They are permanently threatened by climate change, waste, identity loss, dependence on neighboring America or Asia for imports to feed an increasing population, a ridiculously high cost of living leading to more and more homeless people, and in turn producing very contrasted extremes of life standards, and they are used as strategic military bases but also they often tragically find themselves at the center of the stage for dominant powers’ nuclear tests.

The Honolulu Biennial 2017 is an eye-opener to all these issues and epitomizes the cultural exchange between a wide diversity of people that are fully aware that they have to fight the same threats. The founders of this groundbreaking art biennial are of course Isabella as mentioned, alongside Katherine Ann Leilani Tuider and Dr. Koan Jeff Baysa. With an impressive board of directors, the biennial’s sponsors are equally as impressive featuring various foundations, Hawai’ian banks, hotels, magazines and one of the benefactors is the Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah, founded by Sultan Al Qassimi. A very strong team curated the biennial, as the curatorial director is no other than Fumio Nanjo, director of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo and who has curated biennials throughout the globe, from Venice to Singapore, from Taipei to Yokohama, and the curator is Ngahiraka Mason, the former indigenous curator at the Auckland Art Gallery in New Zealand. 33 artists from the Pacific diaspora, or sometimes just linked to it, exhibit their artworks across nine sites spread across Honolulu: The Hub in Ward Village, the Honolulu Museum of Art, the IBM Building in Ward Village, the Honolulu Hale, the Foster Botanical Garden, the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, the Arts at Mark Garage, the Hawai’I Prince Hotel in Waikiki, and the Shangri-La Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures. The artists are American Beatrice Glow (b. 1986); Australian Vernon Ah Kee (b. 1967); Filipino/Australian Alfredo (b. 1962) & Isabel Aquilizan (b. 1965); Chinese Zhan Wang (b. 1962); Mariquita ‘Micki’ Davis (b. 1982) from Guam; Hawai’ians Drew Broderick (b. 1988), Al Lagunero, Marques Hanalei Marzan (b. 1979), Jane Chang Mi (b. 1978), Chris Ritson (b. 1985), Michelle Schwengel Regala (b. 1971), Sally Lundburg (b. 1971) and Keith Tallet (b. 1965), Charlton Kupa’a Hee (b. 1989), Lynne Yamamoto (b. 1961), Andrew Binkley (b. 1979), Sean Connelly (b. 1984) and Kaili Chun (b. 1962); Indonesian Eko Nugroho (b. 1977); Japanese teamLab, Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) and Ken (b. 1971) and Julia Yonetani (b. 1972); Korean Choi Jeong Hwa (b. 1961); Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner from the Marshall Islands; New Zealanders Brett Graham (b. 1967), Lisa Reihana (b. 1964) and Fiona Pardington (b. 1961); Yuki Kihara (b. 1975) and Greg Semu (b. 1971) from Samoa; Taiwanese Lee Mingwei (b. 1964); John Vea (b. 1985) from Tonga; Tahitian Alexander Lee (b. 1974); Palestinian, Iraqi and American Sama Alshaibi (b. 1973) and Emirati Mohammed Kazem (b. 1969).

Hawai’ian artists naturally dominate the scene but the way in which they each interact with the other artists creates a beautiful rich and definitively unprecedented cultural dialogue that echoes throughout these nine art sites. The presence of Sama Alshaibi, represented by the Lebanese/Syrian/Emirati Ayyam Gallery and that of our very own leading Emirati conceptual artist Mohammed Kazem, represented by Gallery Isabelle Van Den Eynde, was a great surprise and a reminder of however distant cultures may be, art is a universal language that can bridge differences. Mohammed Kazem is actually currently living in Honolulu, having been selected as one of the artists to do a one-year long residence at Doris Duke’s prestigious Shangri-La Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures. The artwork displayed at the biennial (at the Shangri-La) was produced as part of his artist’s residence, in which he plays with the geographic coordinates of the artists participating in the Honolulu Biennial. By creating this jumble of numbers and letters, Kazem challenges the cultural, social, political, geographic and religious barriers that are tearing humanity apart. Sama Alshaibi’s video installation, exhibited at The Hub, is from her project Silsilla, titled Wasl, meaning ‘union’ in Arabic. In this work, she denounces the consequences of rising ocean levels and increasing water scarcity, forcing mass exodus of populations, an environmental and social catastrophe that affects areas across the globe, namely in Hawai’i.

Another 20 artists are represented at The Hub: the diversity of media, the richness of meaning and the eclectic cultural references of their artworks make it difficult to talk about every single one in such a short article. However, a couple stood out for me such as the monumental installation work of Filipino/Australian Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, Crossings: Project Another Country (2017) placed right after the entrance of The Hub. It comprises of five real used wooden boats filled up with cardboard boxes and domestic objects/materials piled on top of one another, alluding to the migration of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Filipino sugarcane laborers to Hawai’i when the sugarcane industry flourished from 1803 onwards. Another work featuring a specific historical allusion, namely to colonial expansion during the 1603-1800 spice trade period, is that of American Beatrice Glow, Rhunhattan Tearoom, that includes ceramics, drawings and terracotta from which exudes the aroma of spices such as nutmeg. The textile installation by Hawai’ian artist Marques Hanalei Marzan, A’ahu Kino Lau (2017) pays homage to Hawai’ian spiritual beliefs, as each work is a tribute to the four major gods of the Hawai’ian pantheon, Kanaloa, Kàne, Lono and Kù. Another intrinsically Hawai’ian artwork is the fascinating bio-generative paintings that have literally grown out from corallines in one work, which was scraped off ocean trash found in the Ala Wai canal Oahu, hinting to Hawai’i’s very strict law that only ocean debris can be removed from its beaches. Other works denounce more contemporary political acts, such as that of the impressive multi-media and multi-room installation by Tahitian Alexander Lee, the shapes and symbols of which directly criticizes nuclear testing in French Polynesia (1966-1996). On a similar note, Japanese Ken and Julia Yonetani’s four chandeliers made of uranium glass that glow with an uncanny fluorescent green light in a dark room each allude to a country (USA, Tawian, China and Japan) and their sizes are proportionate to the number of nuclear plants operating there. The last artwork I would like to mention, that was enjoyed by both children and adults, is teamLab’s interactive digital installation, where participants draw an image, scan it in a machine that then projects it onto the floor and animates it, implying the concept of food chain and the law of the jungle.

Amongst the eight other sites of the Honolulu Biennial, my two favorite ones were the IBM building and the Foster Botanical Garden, that I visited straight after The Hub. In the courtyard of the IBM Building, I was caught off guard by the two monumental artworks there: a stainless steel sculpture more than four meters high by Chinese artist Zhan Wang, whose work is also exhibited at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Incorporating Chinese customs into his work, such as the tradition of having rocks in Chinese gardens, Wang creates these large-scale eroded stainless steel ‘rocks’ that also invite the viewer to reflect on what it means to imitate nature and how human activity affects and challenges nature. The other installation is a huge inflatable pink lotus flower by Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa, the leaves and petals of which open and close thanks to an air blower device, as if the flower was breathing, quoting a Chinese saying ‘the lotus comes out of the mud, yet it is never tainted’ – in other words, despite globalization, identity and personality must prevail. Inside the IBM building on the second floor is a mesmerizing installation in two rooms by internationally acclaimed Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Here, she has recreated her own world full of her signature colorful ‘polka dots’, symbolizing the sun and other principles of nature. The viewer is plunged into a completely different world, by walking into two rooms illuminated by UV lights, in which the chairs, table, chests, frames, dishes, bed and other household items have been meticulously covered with multi-colored vinyl stickers glowing in the purple UV light.

Kusama’s work is also prominently displayed at the Foster Botanical Garden with a beautiful installation of what appears as fifteen pink fiberglass shapeless ‘blob’ sculptures painted with black polka dots placed across the green grass. An iconic work by Kusama, Footprints of Life (2010-2016) was initially displayed in the courtyard of the IBM Building in Ward Village as an ‘avant-goût’ of the 2017 Honolulu Biennial as well as being exhibited at the Aichi Triennial in 2011 and the Taoyan Land Art Festival in Taiwan also in 2011. This installation incarnates the central theme of this inaugural biennial in Honolulu, alluding to pink islands scattered in a green ocean, but the shapes of the elements also hints to the Kahuli tree snails, only found in Oahu and which were close to being extinct in the 20th century. Isabella was quoted in an article in the New York Times in March 2016 describing Kusama’s Footprints of Life as ‘particularly resonat[ing] with Hawai’i, because innately, this is a place where we are most attuned to our relationship with our delicate ecosystem’[1]. The setting of the Foster Botanical Garden is truly exceptional for a biennial and the artworks exhibited there have been carefully chosen to blend in harmoniously with the lush vegetation and the historical trees. Hawai’ian artist Andrew Binkley’s Stone Cloud (2017), made of urethane-coated nylon, is suspended from several trees floating above one of the paths, creating a dream-like effect alluding to transcendence, as well as being a nod to the Buddhist concepts of permanence and impermanence. I had a very special treat when I got to the Foster Botanical Garden, as it was the Hawai’ian artist Sean Connelly himself who greeted me and took me around the garden, explaining the concept behind each artwork, including his own, Thatch Assembly With Rocks (2060s) (2017). It was fascinating to hear him talk about his own creation, as he had summed it up later in a recent interview with Margo Machida published online: ‘this installation is meant to be a material study that considers the role that certain island-based materials could play in the future recovery of Hawaiian land systems, primarily the ahupuaʻa (a component of the Hawaiian land classification system that provides the basis of a functional material culture and island economy). It speaks to how the history and future of architecture affects the economy of the islands’[2]. Another artist, whose work is considerably different from the other artists exhibited at the Botanical Garden is yet again a Hawai’ian artist, Charlton Kupa’a Hee, whom I continued to discover when I visited the Bishop Museum. His work Pohue: Storied Gourds (2016-2017) consists in several carefully painted ceramics using the ‘sgraffito’ or ‘scratched’ technique, hanging from the branches of a tree. They are reminiscent of traditional potteries, even of the great Ancient Roman and Greek potteries, yet Kupa’a Hee choses to depict scenes from contemporary daily life, emphasising the cultural relationships between the people and the land.

Although housing only a couple of works, by Emirati artist Mohammed Kazem and Indonesian Eko Nugroho, the visit of the Shangri-La Centre for Islamic Arts and Cultures is truly an unforgettable experience within the Honolulu Biennial. This very unique residence is like a palace in a fairy-tale, overlooking the powerful waves breaking against its cliff. Its architecture and interior design is a melting-pot of the most beautiful features of Islamic and Indian art and architecture, harmoniously brought together on this prestigious property of Oahu Island. Every tile, stucco, wooden door, piece of furniture, textile, glass, marble and mirror was carefully crafted by skillful artisans and decorators from around the Middle East, North Africa and India. New Yorker Doris Duke (1912-1993), the sole heiress of James Buchanan Duke’s fortune, decided to have this residence built in Hawai’i after falling in love with its people, land and culture, purchasing the property at Ka’alawai near Diamond Head in 1936. Honolulu was the last stop of her honeymoon around the world with husband James Cromwell in August 1935. During her travels, she had particularly been besotted with Oriental art and architecture, amongst which the Taj Mahal in India, that inspired the design of Duke’s Mughal Garden and Mughal Suite. From 1937 onwards, she purchased more than 900 Iznik tiles and that same year, Rene Martin and Moroccan workshops created colored-glass windows, wooden furniture, screens and ceilings to ornate her residence. Her trips to Egypt, Syria, Iran and Turkey in 1938 resulted in many purchases and commissions, all destined for the Shangri-La. Travelling to Egypt and Lebanon in the 1950s and 1960s led her to change the design of her dining room, followed by the acquisition of a 19th century Syrian interior installed in her Ka’alawai house, a collection of Qajar paintings and Uzbekistani textiles in the 1980s. Acquiring Islamic art until October 1992, exactly a year before her death, Duke’s residence is a testimony of this American woman’s love for Islamic art and architecture, through which she pays tribute to the unprecedented skill of all the craftsmen involved in the erection and decoration of her beloved home. Duke sought to keep this passion alive for others, hence creating the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art in January 1965 with the aim of ‘promoting the study and understanding of Middle Eastern Art and Culture’ (extract from the second codicil of Doris Duke’s will, 1965).

After reaching the wealthy luxuriant neighbourhood of Ka’alawai near Diamond Head, Isabella and I were warmly greeted by former Smithsonian Director and current Executive Director of Shangri-La Museum, Konrad Ng, and by one of the museum’s curator, Paige Donnelly. As we walked down the private entrance leading to a charming house in which both the museum’s conservation and restoration departments are located, we then carried on through the stunning Mughal Garden, towards one of the other annexes of the museum, a poolside pavilion in which the Educational Programs and Seminars are held, the architecture of which is reminiscent of the renowned magnificent Chehel Sutun palace (c. 1647-1650) located in Isfahan, Iran. This annex overlooks the blue Pacific Ocean and a paradisiac white-sand beach lined with coconut trees, transforming the space into a very unique lyrical structure and almost transcending the notion of time passing. We then moved into the actual house, admiring first the vibrant dining-room, that was designed in the mid 1960s with the intention of replicating the inside of an elaborate and heavily decorated Middle-Eastern tent. This room exemplifies the harmonious combination of a medley of different Middle-Eastern styles, such as 19th century Indian and Egyptian appliqués in the Revival Style juxtaposed to an Ottoman-style fireplace and medieval Persian ceramics, crowned by a majestic Baccarat chandelier, whilst the adjustable curtains covering the walls provide a breath-taking view onto the ocean. The visit continues to the Living Room, the decoration of which was inspired by Moroccan and Andalusian coffered wooden ceilings, stuccos and painted wooden doors, preceded by a stop in the Mihrab Room that mesmerizes the visitor because of its unparalleled architectural tilework produced during the Ilkhanid period (1226–1353). The centrepiece of this room is a luster mihrab (or ‘architectural niche’) dated 663/1265, signed by its maker ‘Ali ibn Muhammad ibn Abi Tahir and originally located in the shrine of Imamzada Yahya at Veramin, Iran, that Duke purchased in 1940. The Living Room leads on to the main courtyard, decorated with a wide range of Persian tileworks, that recalls the typical ‘patios’ located in many examples of Oriental architecture. The rooms that instantly transported me straight back to the Middle East were the Syrian Room and the Damascus Room, that both recreate intricate and intimate Syrian/Ottoman-style interiors, loaded with wooden panels and decorations with raised painted surfaces achieved through the traditional ‘ajami’ technique, covered with elaborate marble and glass patterns and featuring vitrines of Islamic artefacts. The Mughal Suite, including a bedroom, bathroom, dressing and seating areas, is another highlight of the Shangri-La. Decorated with inlaid floral marble and mirror patterns throughout, this princely suite is complemented by inlaid mother-of-pearl Syrian chests and various Islamic, Persian and Central Asian textiles. Even after being exposed to Oriental architecture for the past nine years, Doris Duke’s residence remains a feast for the eyes for any viewer who visits Honolulu.

Although my cultural visit to Honolulu was condensed into three days, there is no doubt that the innovative and interactive art displayed at all the sites of the Honolulu Biennial has permanently impregnated my mind and the Shangri-La Museum that epitomises Islamic and Mughal art and architecture will forever blind me through its beauty. Isabella and her team achieved their goal: they proved to the world that Honolulu is a multi-cultural hub and that it can centralise the artistic scene of the Pacific diaspora, welcoming 97,000 visitors in just two months at this year’s inaugural biennial. I am sure everyone will be thrilled to hear that the next biennial in Honolulu will be opening in March 2019 and its artistic director will be Jens Hoffman, curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Detroit, as well as being the artistic director for several international foundations and biennials. Mahalo Nui Loa HBF![3]

– Valerie Didier-Hess, September 2017

[1]Isabella Ellaheh Hughes, quoted in Paula de Cruz, ‘Yayoi Kusama Debuts Vivid, Whimsical Work in Hawai’i’, 7 March 2016, New York Times (online: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/07/t-magazine/art/yayoi-kusama-hawaii-honolulu-biennial.html?mcubz=0).

[2] Jaimey Hamilton Faris & Margo Machida, ‘Restructuring Place in Hawaiʻi: Jaimey Hamilton Faris and Margo Machida in Conversation with Sean Connelly and Lynne Yamamoto’, 3 August 2017, published online: http://artjournal.collegeart.org/?p=8766

[3]Mahalo Nui Loa’ means ‘thank you very much’ in Hawaiian and HBF stands for Honolulu Biennial Foundation – for more information, please check their website: http://www.honolulubiennial.org


Choi Jeong Hwa, Breathing Flower, 2015. IBM Building, Honolulu