The 2nd Honolulu Biennial Showcases Solidarity and Resistance in the Pacific Rim

Ancestral knowledge and utopian thinking lend power to a sometimes uneven exhibition 

The question has been asked before, but it bears repeating: who are biennials for? Beyond the bromides about community engagement and context specificity, who really gets excited about a new art biennial in their hometown? And – importantly – to what extent should the perceived success or failure of the biennial depend on that answer?

The first Honolulu Biennial, held in 2017, welcomed 97,305 visitors and reportedly had a staggering impact of USD $35,680,000 on the local economy. The second iteration, which opened on 8 March, presumably hopes to exceed this. On my visit, however, it felt like the most consequential experiences were being had late at night in a small storefront space in Honolulu’s Chinatown, where a handful of participating artists were excitedly reconnecting with old friends or meeting new colleagues at an afterparty in New Zealand-based artist Rosanna Raymond’s SaVAge K’lub Heaquarters. Raymond’s peripatetic collective of indigenous artists has set up headquarters before in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and London; in Hawai’i, the K’lub house was decked out with outlandish performance paraphernalia and bold murals. If the Honolulu Biennial 2019 engaged only this small but important audience of cultural practitioners from the Pacific Rim, it would have still been a success.

Pio Abad and Frances Wadsworth Jones, The Collection of Jane Ryan and William Saunders, 2019, 3-D printed plastic, brass, dry-transfer labels, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artists and the Honolulu Biennial Foundation; photograph: Justen Waterhouse

The Savage Club, from which the project sardonically takes its name, is a British gentlemen’s club founded in the 19th century. In Raymond’s spelling, however, the name capitalizes the word , which in Tongan and Samoan refers to the relational space between two people, and also to the ocean – the thing that connects the Pacific’s dispersed island nations. The Pacific Ocean covers a third of the world’s surface, neither East nor West but a centre for those who live beside it. The position staked by Raymond’s project was broadly reflective of the biennial’s more generally: outrage at illegal colonial occupation and environmental exploitation, and joyful collegiality amongst artists from the ‘Ring of Fire’.

New Zealand-based curator Nina Tonga chose the last lines of a poem by Hawai’ian artist ‘Īmaikalani Kalāhele as the subtitle for the biennial: ‘To Make Wrong / Right / Now’. The phrase invokes a devilish playfulness (making wrong) as well as a reparative, pragmatic effectiveness (making wrong right) – principles that were only intermittently foregrounded in the diverse work on display by 47 artists and collectives. Hawai’ian artist Bernice Akamine’s tents made from Hawai’ian flags highlighted the overwhelming homeless problem in Honolulu, but were not meant as useable shelters, despite being installed outdoors. Abraham Cruzvillegas’s similarly iterative abstractions of rudimentary shacks made from wooden posts with corrugated roofing and painted black and red – the colours of ‘unions in strike’ and ‘the anarchist’s duotone’, according to the label – were likewise ambivalent about their status as quasi-functional, quasi-politicized interventions.

Paul Pfeiffer, Poltergeist, 2019, wood, wax, metal, found objects, dimensions variable, installation view at the Bishop Museum, 2019. Courtesy: the artist and the Honolulu Biennial Foundation; photograph: Christopher Rohrer.

Many artists confronted and exposed the iniquities of the past through projects that were primarily narrative. Pio Abad and Frances Wadsworth presented a captivating display of 3D-printed white plastic effigies of tiaras, necklaces and jewels formerly belonging to the Philippine dictators Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. Reconstructed solely from photographs, The Collection of Jane Ryan and William Saunders (2019) takes its title from the false names the couple travelled under when fleeing the Philippines to Hawai’i in 1986; their ill-gotten treasure was confiscated and has since languished in legislative limbo. Coincidentally, another artist with Philippine heritage, Paul Pfeiffer, also used 3D printing technology to memorialize the sad story of the Hawai’ian Prince Albert Kamehameha, who died in 1862 at the age of four, leaving the royal family without an heir. At the historic Bishop Museum, the musty Picture Gallery was reanimated by Pfeiffer’s Poltergeist (2019), an archival display dominated by digitally scanned and carved likenesses of children from the Philippines – playmates for the prince’s ghost.

Florence Jaukae Kamel, FJK Bilum Wear Skin Pik Collection, 2018, woven sisal fiber, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and the Honolulu Biennial Foundation; photograph: Christopher Rohrer

The most exciting works in this biennial were not those that looked like much other international biennial art – the installations, multiscreen video projections and conceptual photography that could have been from any place or time in the last 20 years. Best were the instances in which artists took traditional knowledge and adapted it to ends that seemed not just bracingly contemporary but actually, in some cases, futuristic. In the biennial’s main exhibition space – named The Hub, a rehabbed Famous Footwear store – the show was stolen by two groups of mannequins dressed in striking sculptural garments. Florence Jaukae Kamel, an artist, designer and women’s rights advocate from Papua New Guinea, showed several ethereal dresses made from bilum – woven sisal, usually used for bags – that drew on sources as eclectic as tattoos, the Lord of the Rings franchise and the animated film Moana (2016). Nearby, the Hawai’i-based designer, professor and hula-dancer Taupōuri Tangarō presented a series of garments made from knotted cord. His reinterpretation of the traditional ’A’ahu kaula technique was inspired by an artefact in the Bishop Museum; as with their antecedents, Tangarō’s skirts and sashes are created to serve in the pageantry that retains an important role in Hawai’ian institutions, and – as explained in a wall text – ‘to grow indigenous leadership within the University of Hawai’i ten-campus system’. I have rarely known a place in which ancient knowledge and ancestral tradition feature so prominently in visions not only for fixing the present, but for conceiving a liveable future.

The 2nd Honolulu Biennial is on view until 5 May 2019.

Main image: Demian DinéYazhi’, my ancestors will not let me forget this, 2019, glass, neon, aluminum frame. 106 × 56 × 58 cm. Courtesy: the artist and the Honolulu Biennial Foundation; photograph: Justen Waterhouse

Jonathan Griffin is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and a contributing editor of frieze.

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