The crowd erupted in whoops and children stuffed dollar bills into dancers’ waistbands as the Palauan troupe Mem Doloik shook their gold and teal skirts to Donna Summer’s disco hit “Hot Stuff” in front of the Art School on March 28. Hundreds of people attended Celebrate Micronesia, a one-day festival held on the last day of the exhibition Carrying Culture: Navigating Anew. In spite of a drizzling sky, hundreds of people showed up for performances, art-making demonstrations, and craft displays and sales.

While the day was dedicated to showcasing Micronesian traditions, it also demonstrated that those deep-rooted traditions aren’t statically fixed to the past. A testament to the times: everyone pulled out their smartphones when another Palauan group, Ngelekel Belau Student Organization from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, the dancers’ skin glowing with a coconut oil and turmeric, took the stage.

Ngelekel Belau dancers applying coconut and turmeric to their skin just before performing

Ngelekel Belau dancers applying a mixture of coconut oil and turmeric to their skin just before performing

“The UH Hilo Palauan women’s traditional attire and chanting performance stood out,” said director of the Art School Vince Hazen. “I was thrilled with the large number of guests and participants. I loved the cooperation between different cultural groups, coming together as a united community, to produce the event.”

Visitors navigated through the sea of spectators and brightly clad child dancers to explore the Carrying Culture exhibition in the Art School’s main gallery, as well as  on the second-floor mezzanine, which included handcrafted woven pieces on the walls, enormous shark-fishing hooks dangling from the ceiling, and a video screen in the corner playing Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner’s activist spoken-word poetry.

Works that were on view in 'Carrying Culture'

The exhibition ‘Carrying Culture’

At the back end of the main gallery, films such as The Land of Eb were screened throughout the day. That film, about a Marshallese family that has migrated to Hawai‘i Island, speaks to the connection fostered by this event between the city of Honolulu and diasporic communities from the islands of Micronesia. In Hazen’s view, “This community of recent immigrants…is a community that has been successfully navigating a new life in Hawai‘i.”

The event, organized by Art School staff and a committee of 20 Micronesians from cultural groups and organizations,  fits into the museum’s mission to provide access to everyone. “The Honolulu Museum of Art works to be a welcoming institution and we are interested in engaging all communities who make O‘ahu their home,” says museum director Stephan Jost. “The Celebrate Micronesia event grew a lot each year. Clearly our community is interesting in learning about and celebrating the many peoples and cultures that have roots in these Pacific Islands. We are proud to do our small part in hosting the event,” Jost said.

Celebrate Micronesia is an extension of other projects led by the Art School, including outreach programs that serve Micronesia students and train Hawai‘i’s teachers about Micronesian culture and immigration. Celebrate Micronesia was followed on March 29 by the Navigating Success Summit, which brings together Micronesian students in higher education in Hawai‘i.

Hazen has decided to make Celebrate Micronesia an annual event, and this summer the Art School will host a Jaki-ed master weaving class for local Marshallese weavers.