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Chun, Ka‘ili (on native art)

Melehina Groves, Ken Ordenstein
April 2006

The following was written by Jennifer Saville for Calendar News of the Honolulu Academy of Arts:

"Ka‘ili Chun was recently named the ninth recipient of the prestigious Catharine E. B. Cox Award for Excellence in the Visual Arts. Known for her large-scale installations addressing issues related to Native Hawaiian affairs, Chun will present a body of new work in the Henry R. Luce Gallery, mounted in association with the Academy's fifty-sixth presentation of Artists of Hawai‘i (June 22–July 30, 2006).

Born on O‘ahu in 1962, Chun graduated from Kamehameha Schools before earning her BA from Princeton University and MFA from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa in 1999. First a lecturer in the art department of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa (1997–2004) and a lecturer at Kapi‘olani Community College since 1999, Chun has also participated in numerous exhibitions—solo, group, and juried—in Hawai‘i, Washington, Alaska, and Germany. Her work is included in Changing Hands 2: Art Without Reservation; Contemporary Native North American Art from the West and Northwest organized by New York’s Museum of Arts and Design. In addition to the Cox Award, Chun was selected by the Hawai‘i State Foundation on Culture and the Arts as a recipient of an Individual Artist Visual Arts Fellowship in Conceptual Art (2000) and Folk Arts Apprenticeship Awards for three consecutive years, 1999 through 2001. Together with her formal studies in Western art traditions, Chun also apprenticed from 1996–2003 with Wright Bowman, Sr. A Native Hawaiian canoe builder and wood worker, Bowman is a revered creator of the voyaging canoe Hōkūle‘a.

As an artist, Chun draws on both the Western and Hawaiian heritages with which she is familiar, considering Hawaiian history and culture and the changes wrought by Westernization. Composing installations with objects that range from industrially produced to carefully handcrafted, incorporating family heirlooms as well as recently created traditional Hawaiian cultural objects, and deepening the impact of her work through the literal and metaphorical meaning of imagery both Hawaiian and Western, Chun creates installations that are elegant in design, subtle yet provocative in conception, rich in multiple layers of content, and finely crafted."



These days, Ka‘ili Chun spends much of her time at the Honolulu Academy of Arts preparing for a show scheduled to open this June or at Kapi‘olani Community College teaching art—but Ka‘iwakīloumoku was lucky enough to share some of her time and gain insight into the meaning behind her work. Said Ka‘ili, "I’m just a vessel for the work itself to come through. The more people who share in my work, the more it reveals itself. To me, that’s the exciting part . . . it clicks and you see it in a different light."

MG:     Would you like to talk a little bit about your background or education?

KC:      Sure, I’m a Kamehameha graduate, and a graduate of Princeton University, with a degree in Architecture. I also have an MFA from the University of Hawai‘i. Here at the University of Hawai‘i, there’s really no representation of Hawaiians teaching in the art department. Maybe a decade ago, we didn’t have the credentials, we weren’t masters of fine arts. Now we are, lots of people have come out of the program . . . but we still aren’t recognized! If you look at all the Ivy League schools, they hire their own. I have no idea what UH’s policy is—it’s like they graduate you, but they don’t really value you. In my experience, it’s just like anywhere else, you can come into our home, you can serve us, dance for us, you can entertain us, but to be on equal footing is a different story.

Education in that sense is very important. It seemed like once I got home from Princeton, that’s when my being Hawaiian was legitimized by others. "Oh, maybe she has something, look at that degree," you know? "Maybe she’s intelligent enough." I found myself in a position where I didn’t want to show my education off, but I wanted to use it here and there, when it was necessary. Like when someone sees what you look like and won’t even acknowledge your presence, but when they hear "Princeton," then all of a sudden . . .

That’s where education is very, very important for us, when we’re in a population that doesn’t necessarily value things Hawaiian like they do other types of things. I also have to say that it was very, very important for me to learn from Mr. (Wright) Bowman. That was my first time learning as a Hawaiian person from a Hawaiian person, even though I graduated from Kamehameha, it was a different type of learning.

MG:     Did you meet him at Kamehameha?

KC:      No, no I never had him as a teacher. He was retired before I came up. But my dad had him. Uncle Wrighto—Wrighto is the son, Wright the father—they were good friends and so I knew Mr. Bowman through my parents. I was only with him for eight years but I happened to be the last one, so that’s why I’m able to be here. He was very generous, and I’m very, very grateful. And it’s important for me to continue helping others the way that he helped me, giving to others. 

This was Mr. Bowman’s home and shop, all of this equipment was his. This is where I work when I’m making ‘ō‘ō and paddles, these rocking chairs, whatever he taught me. Whatever he could teach me, because it was during his later years. It was just a privilege to work with him and I feel grateful for what he’s given me, because it’s given me a chance to live.

MG:     It must be so peaceful to work out here.

KC:      Oh yeah, and near the stream, it’s nice down there. It’s so pleasant. This is just like a little oasis. This is where Mr. Bowman and I used to hang out, his favorite time was the twilight hours.

MG:     Did you study under him for a long time?

KC:      Well, actually not really that long. Again, eight years is relatively short in regard to the grander scale of time. This really is what helps me to put food on the table, that’s really important. Certainly teaching alone doesn’t do it! [laughing]

MG:     Speaking of your other work, would you like to briefly explain the piece you’re working on for the June 22 exhibit opening?

KC:      Sure, OK. The exhibit is called "Nāu ka Wae." There is a lele at the center of the whole thing—a type of piko. The lele is a triangular stone, three sides, and I’ve polished two "edges" into it. The lele is the focal point. There are actually three piko in the exhibit that correspond to our three piko. For me, three also represents the Trinity. It’s that integration . . . I’m a Christian, but I have respect for these pōhaku as living, breathing beings. They have life like we do, they have purpose in existing and a contribution to make. They’re gonna last longer than us! 

There are also two pathways, one is made out of the solid, dense basalt that comes from the core of the earth, when they’re highly polished they can reflect images—a loosely applied term can be aniani. The other pathway will be the pukapuka, the more volcanic-lava type rock or pōhaku pele. Each path starts at the lele and extends out to opposite ends with a basin at the end of each. The two basins are the other two piko. One basin will be filled with water, with wai, and the other with pa‘akai ‘alaea (red salt). It’s an interesting concept in that you can’t have one without the other. You need both. It’s like good and evil, you don’t know good with out the evil and vice versa. It plays on the theme of duality, man and woman, sun and moon, darkness and light . . .

MG:     The theme of balance and duality is a really strong Hawaiian concept.

KC:       Exactly. Balance, with a foundation in the piko of things. It’s not just Hawaiians, but it’s a universal kind of application. Trying to maintain balance within ones environment and through the context of ones life. In "Nāu ka Wae," I’m not deciding for you which path to take, because that’s not the point. I’ve put my mana into this but now I want people to touch it and to experience it, too . . . you know how you have sacred stones in every culture? Every culture, like the wailing wall, people put their prayers in it, touch it . . .

KO:       That allows those of us who don’t actually create these things to still contribute something, to put our mana into them.

KC:        Right, right. Then surrounding the two pathways are 40 pōhaku—surge—if you want to call them that. From a Western point of view, they’re pōhaku used to create concrete and gravel. That’s another thing, these pōhaku are violently taken from the earth, and we needed to ask for permission for their use in this way—I think they came pretty willingly.

So these 40 pōhaku will have images inside and text written on an alahe‘e piko . . . the idea I’m offering will be just like the alahe‘e fragrance and how it will hit you or it won’t; you can either see it or not see it, not smell it, not get it, not feel it, or you will. And some will get it more than others, there will be that in-between area, too.

Within the pōhaku, in the piko, the images will be of Pauahi, Ka‘ahumanu, Kūhiō, Lunalilo, Kamehameha, Queen Emma, Queen Kapi‘olani, many of our ali‘i who have left so much for us. Take a look at Queen’s Hospital, Kapi‘olani Park, Kapi‘olani Medical Center, Lunalilo Homes, Lili‘uokalani Children’s Center . . . all our ali‘i, they not only set up things for their own families, but for all of Hawai‘i. If you look at the missionary families, they kept it "in-house," you know, Castle, Damon . . . very keen to the idea of keeping the wealth in the family. But if you look at our ali‘i, they’re not only helping Hawaiians, but everyone. Even at Kamehameha Schools! We don’t just educate Hawaiians, we educate children of Filipino, Korean, Popolo, Haole, Japanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese ancestry!

MG:     That’s a really interesting juxtaposition which I never thought about before, comparing the ali‘i trusts to what other wealthy families left.

KC:      Hopefully when people look at these 40 images, what I see when I look at them will be communicated . . . they should be honored. We cannot forget what we have today because they’re the ones who gave it to us. They’re our ancestors, they gave us the world . . . we would be in really bad shape if not for them. It seems to me that America is still trying to wipe us out. This is America and everybody has individual rights, but you know, I guess individualism is a different philosophy. It’s a great way to conquer and divide. It’s all about conquer and divide.

MG:     Community versus individuality.

KC:      Right. I see this exhibit as the beginning, not the end product. For me, the work starts to get life through what I give it, but it’s so much more than me! Look at them! These are Hawaiian pōhaku, these are from the core of the earth. All of it, from the rough outer skin to the polished surface. This is us, these pōhaku, they’re us. We’re from the core, just like them, and we’re from the surface.

MG:     How did this idea for "Nāu ka Wae" come to you?

KC:      Well, they notified me that I had a year to come up with a show. The hard part is the idea, for the longest time I couldn’t figure out what I was going to do . . .

MG:     What do you most hope that people will come away with after experiencing this exhibit?

KC:      I’m hoping to create dialogue. I’m hoping to create an appreciation and instill in people the idea that they should value Hawaiian people. We are valuable and worthy of being. We are worthy of evolving and contributing to this place, and to the world. We’re in Iraq fighting their war, and they’re trying to take away our education! To me, that’s really messed up. Here we are, helping America and yet America is trying to take everything away from us, including education. You know, where are these people coming from?

We’re not a stagnant culture, and we are worth helping. The nēnē goose, the Hawaiian snails, the Hawaiian monk seal, the sea turtle, all these things people fight to protect, that’s who we are too, we’re a part of that world and we need help from this American community that resides here in Hawai‘i.

MG:     Instead of challenging us and ripping everything apart.

KC:      Right!

MG:      When I first saw this exhibit being prepared, it initially hit me that these are like the stones gathered together when we’re getting ready to build an ahu. This made me think about these stones in a figurative sense—all of the images inside the stones representing our ali‘i, or people who have contributed to our lāhui more recently, they’re sort of the figurative stones that have laid our foundation, or formed our ahu. Maybe your exhibit isn’t forming a physical ahu, but it’s the same idea, in my mind.

KC:         Right . . . like a contemporary form of an ‘ahu . . . that’s what makes the piece even stronger is when there are several interpretations. Sometimes . . . I’m not that familiar with certain things or aspects of the culture, but I know I just have to follow where I’m led and when things reveal themselves it reinforces the fact that I am on the right path, and I am Hawaiian.

I’m just a vehicle through which things happen, but it’s important for me and the way I work to consult others, because I don’t know it all. I think the more people that are involved, then the more knowledge that can be put into the piece. I think it’s important for me to talk about it, because then it’s more of a collaboration instead of an individual making the piece. I like to hear other people’s interpretations of the work, because there’s much more to it than what I see, like with the wood, the alahe‘e. I tried all these different things first but there it was, waiting. I am discovering things through this process. It’s a really interesting progression, because you’re really delving into two worlds: the one where as an artist you’re the "creator," but you’re not. You’re really not the creator at all. I’m just a vessel or vehicle through which these things come up in. When I talk to people, more things come out. To me, that’s the exciting part, this thing revealing itself . . . it clicks and you see it in a different light.

MG:     And it reinforces what you’re doing.

KC:      Right! It does reinforce it. I don’t speak the language, I’m not involved with a hālau . . . I grew up without those kinds of things, but I know deep down inside that I grew up Hawaiian. This is my participation—not my expression—but my participation in trying to create relationships with these pōhaku and with the community that are Hawaiian in their nature, relationships based on a Hawaiian foundation. That brings my family into it . . . these pōhaku are my family, family is not just immediate relations. But my mother and father are very integral to my work. I talk with them. I first started out making weapons—the anger that I had saw that as one way . . . these weapons can be used to kill somebody, it was powerful. But my mom always tried to tell me to tone it down a little bit [laughing]. It’s like with the language—you can be subtle. You don’t have to say it directly. There are many, many different connotations to mentioning a flower. And my mom is the one that is always directing me to look into that more subtle approach, instead of "in your face," shoving it down your throat type of thing.

I appreciate this way a little bit more because it seems to bring more people into the dialogue. To use an example, when I put the American flag on the ground and put a pololū (spear) on it and burn the phrase "Ka ‘ai a Kaia‘upe" (‘ŌN 1268 – An expression used in any kind of treachery) into it, the reaction is much stronger than someone stopping and thinking, "Oh, what’s this?" you know? When we put those 40 around this lele, and people are able to look and read and look inside the piko and see the images—just like with the alahe‘e, they’ll either get it right away or they may not. Or they’ll look at it from a different perspective. 

MG:     Do you feel like that’s a part of your maturing as an artist? You started out with that raw energy and anger, and honed it.

KC:      I think so. It was good for me to experience that because it’s taken me a while to get to this point. I’m proud that I graduated from Kamehameha, I really am proud now. I can contribute positively to our community, and it’s because of Kamehameha. I’m so proud that I am part of Kamehameha. We need that. People need to see that. If you look at the Hawaiian artists that are out there on the forefront, a lot of them are Kamehameha graduates. Kapulani Landgraff, Sean (Browne), Kauka (de Silva) . . . so many.

When Mr. Bowman went to school at Kamehameha, it was embarrassing to go there. One—you were poor, two—you were an orphan, three—you were Hawaiian, four—you weren’t gonna grow up to be governor, or a lawyer, you know? Now we’re in a time where we have a bunch of leaders that have come out of the school.

MG:     Do you feel it’s hard to find serious apprentices in your work?

KC:      Yes, I started with three guys. I sat them down, here’s the deal, you’re coming to my house now—this is not KCC’s art department. It’s a different kind of learning. Different rules. This guy, this student from Tennessee, ended up being the one. He came in and he really helped me. He’s got his mana in here, too, and I welcome it. He didn’t do it the way he saw it, he was there to learn, redoing things over and over and over, no complaints. It’s all about the choices that we make.

MG:     Would you like to talk about some of the other pieces you have displayed here?

KC:      Sure . . . this piece actually wasn’t on display like this, it was done for the Biennial, but it was arranged differently. Each one of these sat on a white pedestal and they were in a long hall. I got tired of putting myself in the box, I’d been dealing with vitrines, which are essentially containers . . . and I got tired of putting myself in the box. We’re always going to be in the box, someone else’s box. So I put the Western system—the Western system of epistemology of knowing and understanding the world—into the box. See these are all little figures, little human figures . . . essentially I’m just commenting on the fact that no matter what you put in the beakers: all white, all black with one white, or all black, all white with one black, or brown, it doesn’t matter, it all comes out the same. This end product is actually cleanser . . . so it’s literally speaking of how this system of knowing and understanding the world is a form of ethnic cleansing. Look at what clothes we’re wearing, look at what language we’re speaking.

This piece over here . . . this was in the last show I did at the Contemporary Museum, but I was also fortunate enough to send it to New York. They had a show at the Museum of Arts and Design, so I sent three of these. They’re in pairs, six total. These first two are kukui oil torches—referring to the knowledge, enlightenment, illumination, the wisdom—one has been burned and passed on and the other hasn’t been burned, it has yet to be passed on, referring to my life and my responsibility.

This pair right here . . . basically my premise was, how in this 21st century can we be in the state that we are? We are continually being challenged . . . you would think that in the 21st century these Americans would understand what they’ve done to us in terms of their contribution to our state of being. The highest incarcerated, the worst health statistics, we know all of that . . . but the fishing net is a metaphor for the question, "How are we going to sustain ourselves?" In terms of feeding our families, our communities, and making our communities well. We can use the fishing net and catch anything we want, any time we want, because we have the technology. We can fish out the seas—we’re already doing that—but we need to use this tool responsibly and use it properly and not just because we can.

Similarly, this tool here (the Cross) we need to use it the same way . . . the first missionaries that came over, they came over with good intentions. They had their values and they were trying to spread the word. They were trying to share, and there are shared values between Hawaiian culture and Christian culture. However, some of them chose to use this tool improperly and for the wrong reasons. Some of them chose to resign from their missions because they saw the opportunity for capital gain here in Hawai‘i. More so their children and their grandchildren are the ones who—under this ideology—completely rejected it, and used it as a tool that would destroy things instead of grow things!

In this pair, we have one with a kāhili and one without anything in it, and this door is open. When our system of organization, of social construct, was destroyed and dismantled, what were we left with? Nothing, right? But the door is open. We’re not going to go back to a "kingdom" at this point in time. We will have that (kāhili) as a connection, as a link, to our foundation, because this doesn’t just recognize ali‘i, it recognizes the form of social organization that we lived. But now, being 20% of the population here in Hawai‘i, we need Hawai‘i’s non-Hawaiian population to help facilitate putting this back and valuing us as a people with a rich, viable, and dynamic culture that is essential to the future of Hawai‘i.

So this open door is my invitation here, come in, help us. Help us become healthy again, because if we become healthy, Hawai‘i becomes healthy again. There’s also a little place here (on the top) . . . there’s a little hidden place for us. We’re always on display, "Come, entertain us, be in our collection." We live in two worlds, but at least . . . like this is a very Western design that these are displayed in, it’s that Western design element, that containment element . . . so yes, we occupy this space, but I made a little part for us . . .

MG:     For what we keep.

KC:      Yes, and it’s not locked, it’s not kapu, it’s just here. It’s a place where we can go. I put in ‘awa, a sponge, in relation to absorbing knowledge and keeping that knowledge, pa‘akai . . . this is my great-grandmother’s bible, Bina Mossman—I am a Christian, so it’s about how to be Christian properly. Just trying to be by the time I die someone who has contributed to our people, in a humble way, not in an arrogant way. That, to me, is my approach.

This being "in the box" kind of idea was central to this effort . . . the other boxes I designed were six feet tall, made out of koa, but I put lei in them. Fresh lei . . . I put nine and had the boxes in a crucifix form, with squid glass boxes around. One was suspended up so that you couldn’t look through it, one was at a level where you were welcome to look through it, the other you had to get down on your knees to look through, and it was looking at these nine vitrines, eight for the main islands, nine for Lō‘ihi. I know there are many more islands but these represented the main ones. One had my great-grandmother’s Ni‘ihau pūpū lei. They’re real old and real fragile, and those were the hardest for me to put in because, you know, that’s my family, and I had to recognize that we were in there, in that box.

Over time, the lei inside the koa vitrines shriveled up and died. This outcome acted as a metaphor for us. It looks at how we are "contained" within the confines of Western society’s institutions such as museums and private collections, which tend to "preserve" our culture in a stagnant way.

Each of the other lei corresponded to the flower of each island. Even Maui with the rose—yes, it’s not from here but we make it our own just by putting it into lei. Orchids are not from here, but we make them our own. If you use bobinga wood to make ihe, it’s not from here but we make it our own, we’re using the material that we have. That doesn’t make it any less Hawaiian. We can embrace new things with that Hawaiian perspective. So I’ve been dealing with those kinds of issues. It’s a different way of relating and interacting with new things, of learning from them.

It’s also a response to what’s happening now, I think that’s a very Hawaiian thing, too. We did oli, mele, hula, we did other forms of visualizing what was going on, but they weren’t just recordations, they were also interpretations and responses to the times, too. I’m just using the materials that are here and available, although sometimes I question my choices! [laughing]

MG:     While you’re working?

KC:      Well . . . I mean, try lifting one of those stone slabs! [laughing] I have to have help just to lift them! And these are lighter than those! Those with the pukas are heavy.

MG:     So you work in lots of different media? Painting, wood, stone, feathers?

KC:      [laughing] No feathers! Those kāhili were Aunty Paulette’s (Kahalepuna) Leave it to the experts! [laughing] For me, it’s about putting together things to think about and recording history in terms of what’s going on now.

MG:     Because someday we’ll be the history!

KC:      Exactly! [laughing]