Now on view at the Honolulu Museum of Art School through April 21 is Contact Zone, the fifth exhibition of the Pu‘uhonua Society’s Contact program. Each year Pu‘uhonua Society executive director Maile Meyer secures two jurors for the exhibition—part invitational, part juried showcase—which aims to explore “the notion of contact as it relates to the Hawaiian Islands, its people and their experiences.” Since its debut in 2014, the show has become a highly anticipated event on the Honolulu art calendar.

Meyer, who owns Na Mea Hawai‘i/Native Books and makes it her mission to foster opportunities for Hawai‘i artists, has never made predictable choices. This year she reached out to what at first may seem an odd couple—Keola Naka‘ahiki Rapozo, the designer of popular cap-and-clothing line Fitted; and Michael Rooks, the Wieland Family Curator of modern and contemporary art at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta (and the Honolulu Museum of Art’s former curator of European and American art).

She explains that part of Contact’s premise “is to create opportunities to pair an in-culture person with an out-of-culture person—i.e. non-native with a Hawaiian. Every past curatorial pair has had that dynamic. So contact is about Contact in all its forms, and it starts with the curators.”

“Michael is an experienced, inclusive, generous curator, who loves urban art,” says Meyer. “Ola is a great designer, with no curatorial experience, but great taste. Both have strong opinions and aesthetics, one developed through western education, the other through school of hard knocks. I felt that once they started working together, neither one would intimidate or overwhelm the other, and so the thought was they would figure out how to work with each other through mutual respect. The possible ‘conflict’ is part of the contact process, get through it and create a great show.”

Working with Contact project manager Josh Tengan, whom Meyer calls “the hero” who makes the show happen, Rapozo and Rooks rolled up their sleeves and were in the gallery selecting and curating in a four-day marathon. When asked if her curatorial choices did indeed create a great show, Meyer answers: “They did a fantastic job.”

Here is what the two juror/curators had to say about the experience.


How did you get involved in Contact?
Maile Meyer called me and asked me. [laughs] I love Maile. Absolutely!

You’ve been a champion of Hawai‘i artists’ work since you worked at The Contemporary Museum and the Honolulu Museum of Art. Was the prospect of possibly working with some of them again part of the draw of curating Contact?
Yes. When Maile invited me I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to come back and to reintroduce myself to artists who I’ve followed for a long time and to also be introduced to new ones.

In the process of this show I have met and been introduced to so many artists I’ve never heard about before. And that’s wonderful. Many are Hawaiian, and cross-generational—from people in their early twenties to artists who are in their eighties. It’s been a great experience for me to get to know several generations of artists who were not on my radar screen when I lived here. Such as Imaikalani Kalahele—now I’m a new fan.

The artists’ responses have all been very interesting. There are artists whom we’ve visited in the studio, and there are artists whose work went through the juried portion of the show. Everyone has responded to the theme in a way that is versatile but also specific to issues concerning Hawai‘i, Hawaiian history, their own history here and those of their friends and family. Also, artists have created work specific to living in Hawai‘i—in some cases for many generations, in other cases they are the first generation, so for me it was interesting to see the differences in that context.

Does a portrait of Hawai‘i emerge?
Yes, I think so. And my co-curator Keola has been a great partner and has taught me about a lot about Hawaiian language, and the meaning of images and words. So together we have selected work that is not so obvious all the time. I am proud of the works we have selected. When you’ve been given a topic or concept to work around, often in a juried show submissions can be very literal, and sometimes it’s important that they are because they are pedagogical and the didacticism of them is important—but many other works are more poetic and return us to the central concept of the exhibition, that there are these points of contact that we all experience, such as when we walk through the streets of Waikiki. Experiences here are almost inevitably going to be a point or a zone of contact. So we’ve been returning to that theme in ways that are poetic, didactic, literal, and abstract. And I like that combination.

It’s been a collaborative process?
Yes, I came here in December to do studio visits. Keola was traveling so Josh, Maile, my assistant Jonathan Odden and myself went on studio visits. Then Jonathan and I shared our thoughts with the rest of the group. Since then we’ve been working remotely via conference call and email with Keola, Josh and Maile, looking at proposals and documents. Then the final week is dedicated to the jurying part of the show, which is never easy, especially given the limited space we have to work with.

Individuals we met with in December were invited to submit proposals. A lot of proposals are very ambitious, and given the limitations of space and budget, we have worked with them to either narrow the scope of their proposal or to help them work through it so it makes sense and retains its integrity within the exhibition.


So did you get a call from Maile like Michael did?
What are you doing in April? I don’t know. OK great, you’re going to be a curator. [laughs] That’s pretty much how that conversation went. I said OK, sure. I followed up with, “You know I have no idea what I’m doing.” She said, “Perfect, that’s exactly what we want.”

I was a little worried at first because I’ve never done it, but she made me feel OK. I think it’s the volume of scenarios that we go through in my business. The amount of art and design that we do, it made the curatorial process kind of easy.

How do you think this year’s theme did in inspiring artists?
There’s a wide range of content and different types of disruption. Each artist’s approach has been unique, some people’s work is more specific to their Hawai‘i tie, like if they are not Hawaiian or they are not local, but live here now, that’s their approach, that’s their contact to this space. They literally interpreted it as ‘this is my contact of this place’ and what is my impact and how can I leave something here, which is very cool to me because…people come here to take a vacation, and that’s all good, but it would be cool if people came and learned culture, take it back home and shared it with someone else. There’s an interesting piece based on the kahuna Kaopulupulu’s prophecy, which is great for me because I am studying that right now. Not a lot of people would know about this prophecy and it’s cool to see that somebody is also learning and interpreting it.

What do you take away from your curating experience?
I’m loving it. I come from design—I design clothes, spaces, branding, any kind of creative strategy. As I was talking to Maile, I asked her, “You sure I’d be good?” And she was like, “Brah, you’d be perfect,” and I started to think about it and I started to not be so…intimidated. I was able to rely on my experience for my confidence, to not feel like I don’t belong. I think my entire career as a designer or creative, or whatever it is, has been in opposition to my inferiority complex. Because I grew up in the country, in a place where doing what I do isn’t a real job—I should be a construction worker and have six kids. Breaking that mold in itself is an achievement, but to be able to travel the world and do what I do has fueled me. So, I don’t know what it takes to be a curator, but if Maile has confidence in me to be able to sit beside a professional curator like Michael…

It is interesting to see how artists live and interact with the community in Hawai‘i. I assume it’s a lot different than it is on the mainland. There aren’t a lot of opportunities here. The more solutions we can provide so people place more value on art is important, especially for kids. I feel like a lot of corporations here will spend their money outside because they feel the pedigree and solutions are better outside Hawai‘i. And that may have been true in the past, I don’t know, but I feel like now there is so much quality coming out from Hawai‘i, in all genres—music, film, art, design—that we should be able to be self-sustaining in that sense as well. It’s cool to see all the variations of the artists’ applications in Contact Zone—it’s very inspiring to me.

Contact program:

Friday, April 20, 8pm • 9pm • 10pm / Blaisdell Concert Hall
Ē Luku Wale Ē: Mark Hamasaki + Kapulani Landgraf
One-night Contact Zone projection installation
Bring a mat or beach chair to view a 20-by-40-foot projection program of photographs of the construction of the H3