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Kukahiko, Puni (on native art)

Camille Naluai
February 2004

Many artists would tell you that it is hard to define their work. Puni Kukahiko is no different, constantly changing the type of art she does depending on what her naʻau calls for. What can be said is that her work reflects the triumphs and struggles of the Hawaiian people, or as Puni puts it, multimedia Hawaiian culture–based art. Her art has been showcased at exhibits across the island, and she is currently working on her Masters of Fine Arts at the University of Hawai‘i, Mānoa. With two young children, Puni continues to voice her concerns on the fate of her people through her artwork.

Camille: What is your name and tell me about your family and how you got started in art?

Puni: My name is Puni Kukahiko, Kukahiko is my married name, I’m a Frietas. My dad likes to make things and I guess it rubbed off. That’s pretty much how I understand it now. Although when I was going through college and high school and even before that, I didn’t associate the two until now. Not until I was an adult did I really appreciate that.

Camille: Are you saying you didn’t appreciate it then?

Puni: It was just part of how you build things and make your house and make things stand up.

Camille: Did he build your house?

Puni: No, he did a lot of carpentry and building and so I didn’t really associate that kind of making with art. I pretty much started here at KS. I was on Ka Mō‘ī, the student newspaper, I was the editor for a couple of years. I learned some skills on the computer that I kind of took for granted. Then, when I went to college, I realized that I was the only one in my community that knew those skills well enough to be able to use them in an artistic way. So it was utility and art.

Camille: So, KS helped foster those artistic skills?

Puni: Absolutely, Jan Becket was my advisor. That was years ago. I learned a lot. I still use really basic computer and design skills that I learned when I was a student here. From there I went to college in Hilo and we did newspaper articles and newsletters and curriculum materials and various things.

Camille: When did your naʻau start calling for art?

Puni: That’s the whole thing. I see art as creative problem solving. I guess at that time, even in my first bout through college, I didn’t even consider it art: I just knew how to creatively problem solve. Eventually it started to be not just something of function or a matter of just filling someone else’s need, it started to be that it would have my own needs. I was able to implement basic skills, whether it be the computer design thing or drawing or painting or carving or whatever. I guess it was the same as someone having a need and fulfilling it, except now the need was my own to express and to fulfill that need.

Camille: How would you describe that art?

Puni: That’s so hard. I guess the easiest way to describe it would be that it’s multimedia Hawaiian culture–based art. That’s my attempt in one phrase to label it. But I paint and assemblage, installation, those types of things. I experience many types of media. I don’t feel tied to one. So often I’m a mix. I’m not real concerned with the traditions of Euro-American art history so I often go outside of those boundaries.

Camille: When do you start feeling the need to create?

Puni: Well I guess that is kind of private and I’m kind of embarrassed . . .

Camille: Don’t feel like you have to share.

Puni: No, no I can see that it’s important, just the concept of me being able to talk about it will probably help other people. I have these dreams and sometimes they’re not really dreams but rather they are awake dreams. Sometimes they are full stories. Sometimes just a color or sometimes they’re just a texture or something. I guess that’s when I realize it’s important for me to create. Sometimes I ignore it because I’ve been taught. Sometimes I’ll ignore it for a long time then the dream becomes a haunting. I’m learning more and more, and as I get deeper into the Masters of Fine Arts program at UH, that the more busy I am and the more stuff I cram into my life, the less aware I am of those dreams and the easier it is for me to ignore those hauntings. I’m trying really hard to respect them. I don’t mean to say the art that I do is not really what you might think of as real intuitive abstract, touchy-feely–type art, it’s really most often politically based or it has to do with really specific cultural paradigms. I like to think that the process of my work challenges, if anything just in my own mind, cultural paradigms that belong to both American and Hawaiian culture. Even though the hauntings and the dreams belong to an intuitive mind, the actual work and the way I go about producing it involves quite a bit of research and the symbols that I use are pretty specific.

Camille: Do current events ever shape or affect your work?

Puni: Definitely, I find myself going really far in and really far out, like introspectively really back and forth as far as my efforts, being really outward and in the reverse of that, where all I can do is think and think and think and make things that have to do with my thinking, so current events or my life events. I do work with teaching art with kids. I worked with Hālau Kū Mana for a little while and I do outreach type of things with other artists from other countries, so that kind of work to me is more out work. There are times when I go more inward. But as far as current events, all of my work, whether it be outward or inward, is influenced by what’s going around in our community, and even if I’m in that really inward stage, where I’m not really participating actively in the community, the experiences still influence my work. That’s really hard for me because I think relationships are really important, and in order to be really true to what I want to do with the art or really true with how I want to make it. I sometimes have to pull away from relationships that I value. That’s something that I’m struggling with right now. As far as overall themes, I go really far. I tend to be kind of schizophrenic with what I make. I’ll make something really visceral and earthy and then I’ll make, like this painting that I’m working on right now is called glitter pox, so it has glitter and it’s pink and it’s really extreme from one to the other, but it’s always the experience of our Hawaiian community that flowed through all of the work. Of course my work, as well as most of the other Hawaiian artists that I work with, have very, very strong identity issues and always the idea of hukihuki. I think also the ideas of appropriation, misappropriation, what is appropriate to whom and why and how cultural perspectives change. These are all things that are in all of us who create whether they are intentional or not. Even for those who don’t think their art is aligned with the Hawaiian community.

Camille: You are an art teacher? What age group do you teach and how do you teach them to find that drive to be an artist?

Puni: I’ve taught as young as nine. The oldest student was in her 50s. That’s a pretty broad range. I can say that the kids are easier to teach. It’s more exciting. I feel like I have to be really careful when it comes to the younger kids because I want so much to impart a value system that is different from what general art education has given them. Or even just general art experience like what they see, and what they see others value. I try really hard to impart a value system that differs from what most of them have experienced. I think that most people, not just the younger generation, have experienced art in a very capitalized perspective. I also try to be very careful because it doesn’t help to indoctrinate the indoctrinated. I find that a problem with my own kids. I do definitely have that drive to say look, what you know already is all you need to know to make really great art. You don’t have to keep looking at what other people value as great art. That’s not always what you should aspire towards. I think there is a value for younger artists to set a bar for themselves and say these are my goals and this is what I want to accomplish. But, when that goal becomes less and less related to and less and less in alignment with their cultural perspective then it can get difficult. I really want to encourage what they don’t know they already know.