On view at the Honolulu Museum of Art School through April 17 is Contact 2016: Foreign and Familiar. This exhibition organized by Maoli Arts Alliance (MA‘A), an initiative of Pu‘uhonua Society, has quickly become an anticipated show in just three years. MA‘A tapped as co-curators New Zealand–based artist and educator Herman Pi‘ikea Clark and Honolulu Biennial Foundation co-founder Isabella Ellaheh Hughes.

As a Hawaiian from O‘ahu who has lived in New Zealand for the past 18 years, Clark brings a unique perspective to the exhibition. A thought leader in the area of indigenous culture and design, Clark sees Pacific cultures—and the connections between them—as an overlooked goldmine of creativity. While here he attended the Arts Round Table at Hawaii Public Radio on March 22, intriguing people with his ideas, and will speak tomorrow, March 29, at the Art School for Kūkākūkā: Curators’ Dialogue, from 6 to 8 pm.

Clark took some time out during the installation of Contact, to answer a few questions.

At the HPR round table, you said that you thought the level of execution and skills of the submissions for Contact were higher but were lacking in something else.
I think so—there’s a level of confidence in people’s work generally, but there’s an absence of an edge, a fire.

Is that a good or bad thing?
I think any kind of artist has a social conscience, an obligation, and unless you feel that the status quo—anywhere, really, but in Hawai‘i in particular—is OK, then fine. It’s probably more a statement about the demands on artists, compliance and having to engage in a fairly narrow market—everybody has to eat and do what they have to do. But we’re finding that social conscience less and less in education, and that sort of leaves a narrow scope for artists. If artists aren’t able to feel confident enough to undertake that [obligation], and I appreciate the struggle that they have to undergo here in Hawai‘i, then it raises my next question to the audience last night—what is the relevance of “art” [in Hawai‘i]. I don’t have the answer.

I really applaud everyone for the quality of work they’ve put up [for Contact]. I am noticing that the rage or sort of intensity of socially conscious issues that maybe was prevalent 20 years ago isn’t there. Maybe they’re doing it in other ways, and maybe more subtle ways, and that can be exciting too.

It reflects the importance of the market. Any kind of artist needs a market, a patron. And the work being done describes what the market is here. How do creative people find that avenue to express that social conscious obligation? That’s the question.

Is the question of how relevant Art with a capital A is to Hawai‘i a concept that you’re thinking about?
I’m playing around with it now. One of the nice things for Hawai‘i—we are at the apex of a nearly 7,000-year human genealogy, or time, in the Pacific. All of us are part of this. In relation to the rest of the world, it’s not that long, but it is a long period of time. When we think of the history of Hawai‘i, we usually only think of it in terms of 1778, when Cook arrives. But we’re actually part of a very long time. And across that time there was no word for “art.” We only got the word in the last 15th 16th century in the western world.

It’s not to say humans weren’t expressing their creative capabilities. Quite the contrary. So it gives us an opportunity in Hawai‘i. As much as we’re in the world, we’re also in the northern hemisphere at the northern apex of the Polynesian triangle. We are one of the most isolated archipelagos in the world. We’re part of a very long heritage of human time in the Pacific. So what can we take from that? Where were the creative objects? Where was creative material culture through all of that time? What role did it play? It played some really significant roles.

Today we’re celebrating the return of a really important sacred cape and helmet [to Bishop Museum from Te Papa in Wellington, New Zealand] that left Hawai‘i at the particular time when Hawai‘i entered into contact with the western world. And now it’s come back to us. It marks an exciting new period, and I want to talk about that when at our Curator’s Dialogue. I want to give us a perspective, I suppose, that yes, we’re tied into the western world, we’re tied into the world of art, and I celebrate that and acknowledge and respect it, but we also have this other really long heritage where objects and creativity played a really important role in different ways outside of galleries, or the space that we define as art.

You don’t envision people creating only traditional arts and making mahiole [feathered helmet] and ‘ahu‘ula [feathered cape]?
No. What was a mahiole 400 years ago, and what is the need for it today? I’ll leave that to the creative people to define. It could be just a fashion statement, really, in the context of what the mahiole served at that time, what do we need now? They needed something like that to demarcate and signify something of sacredness as opposed to secular. How do we do it, how will we do it? I think that’s exciting.

In a way, you’ve followed the same path as the mahiole and ‘ahu‘ula. Does this give you a broader insight into their voyage?
I hope so. I used to go down to Wellington in the middle of winter just to get close to something that was familiar and had that mana and power that connected me home. It was lovely to have that. But it also makes me realize that we’re part of something far bigger beyond the horizon of Hawai‘i and that’s in the pacific, we are very definitely connected. And I think that sometimes gets overlooked—we tend to think of ourselves more as a suburb of LA or San Francisco rather than where we are in the geography and history and culture of things. And I say that not just in terms of Polynesians, but in terms of all of us, all of our ancestors, all of us who have been here, who are here, we’re all Pacific people.

I see developers and young entrepreneurs hellbent on transforming Honolulu into a lesser San Francisco or Brooklyn…
Yeah! I think that’s neat, I like that! I think it’s great, that’s the confidence I see, but then now what then? If no more edge—what? What are we doing? [laughs] So we went halfway, that’s great, I celebrate that and acknowledge and respect that. It’s so hard over here. As beautiful and fantastic as home is, it’s hard for people. Driving home you see lots of people on the streets, it’s sad. And that edge, maybe it’s coming, I hope so. I certainly do.

New Zealand seems to have a much stronger arts scene, whether in film or visual art. It’s long been said that that is because their arts and culture receive strong government support. Do you feel that’s the case?
Government support comes only when the government sees the interest in doing so. Governments are people, and people tend to be pretty selfish and self focused. But I think to its credit, New Zealand has seen the benefit of connecting culture and creativity to economic development and growth, where I’m not so certain Hawai‘i has seen that. Not to the extent that it could. As you well know, Hawai‘i sits on an aesthetic and cultural goldmine. So I’m hoping the decision makers and people that count the beans will see the importance of being able to connect those stories, and we have a multitude of stories, to economic benefit. It’s not any kind of magic wand—it takes a decision. And New Zealand has seen that connection, for example the recent run of Maori films that are coming out in the language, like The Dead Lands, they’re so powerful. In New Zealand, they’re like us, they’re out there, on the periphery of the cultural center, in their case London, but only in the last 20 or 30 years they’ve recognized that they, like us, sit on a goldmine of natural environment, cultural environment. If you look at what’s come from there in recent years, it’s phenomenal and the economic activity that has followed that is a driver for the economy of the country. Good luck to our politicians.

'Another Day in Paradise,' by AJ Feducia

‘Another Day in Paradise,’ by AJ Feducia. Photo credit: Pearlyn Salvador.

Are there pieces in Contact that especially resonate with you?
This one. [Walks to Scott Fitzel’s Evolution, pictured above.] Noe Tanigawa was saying that 20 years ago if someone, particularly a haole artist, had done a piece like this, that was appropriating the form of our lei o mano, which is a weapon made with shark’s teeth, they would have been criticized to kingdom come and kicked off the island probably. Today we’ve got this and the association with surfing—I love this piece, and I love him for doing it. The question I raise to him now, and the other artists, is: So you’ve done this, have you raised your consciousness about us, or about our collective history? And where are the people, on both parts, the surfing and the lei o mano, where are they now? Lots of them are incarcerated, or on the streets. What is your commitment now, in terms of your work?

I love what he’s done. One of the reasons we picked the pink [background] was to draw off the pink of that outside piece, and again to allude to and connect it to our irreverent kind of surfing culture in Hawai‘i and celebrate it. Maybe I’ll ask him at the curatorial discussion on Tuesday, so what now then? Are you committed now, are you obliged, or is it just a convenient piece? He’s executed it so well, and the concepts behind it are so wonderful, but I hope he’s not going to just leave it there.

The fact that it’s a haole guy that did it makes me feel like, that’s right man, we’re with you!

There’s another piece I want to show you. Another haole guy did it, and I’m just so proud of it, it’s wonderful. [Walks to A. J. Feducia’s Another Day in Paradise, two straitjackets made of aloha print fabric.] I wanted to cry when I saw that. I love the piece. We’re very much straitjacketed into this illusion, this story. I love that confidence, matched up with skill and thinking. The two pieces really express that to me. Again, my question to both of them is: So now what then?