For most people, Palm Courtyard is an airy space in which to unwind, reflect, sip coffee, or wait to board the bus to Shangri La. For Arts of Hawai‘i intern Jesi Bennett, since July 2015 it has been a de facto office where she sat glued to her laptop screen researching Hawaiian artifacts, churning out exhibition labels, and organizing gallery installations throughout the past year. As part of the requirements for her graduate certificate in museum studies through the University of Hawai‘i–Mānoa, Jesi had to log 320 hours interning at an arts or historical institution, and since her ongoing American Studies Ph.D. research focuses on Pacific Islander identity and visual culture, working alongside Arts of Hawai‘i curator Healoha Johnston was a natural fit.
Jesi’s internship ended on May 11, and when she came to the museum last week to return her ID badge, she also visited the courtyard one more time to talk about her HoMA experience, and what it was like to curate the Hōkūleʻa-themed exhibition—complete with a massive rudder called a hoe ʻākea and selfie station—on view at the Art School now through May 29.
How did you end up in the Arts of Hawai‘i department?
When I was looking for an internship, Healoha was recently hired here for Arts of Hawai‘i, and she was looking for help when it came to interpretive work, jumpstarting the department, and having a little bit of help on the side. So since I have a background more in visual culture and identity issues, and not so much art history, it was a nice pairing. I had her to talk with, but I was able to shadow her and she was able to show me the ropes of what a curator does. It’s one thing to read it in class and theorize it, and how we tell stories, but it’s another experience to shadow someone like her and see what the daily flow looks like, and the multitude of responsibilities she has outside of telling visual stories.
How does the position play into your ongoing Ph.D. work?
It’s tied to what I was looking at with my masters, about that movement and migration of Chamorros, but also about how we articulate our indigeneity in new spaces. A lot of that has been through material culture, and that’s where museum studies came in. You can dance and sing and speak your language, but there are also other ways to have a relationship to your home islands, and that could be through clothing, museum spaces, artwork, things like that.
My goal has always been to teach, but the nice thing about museums right now is that there seems to be more of a turn toward an educational component, which fits nicely with my academic interests, as well as this kind of storytelling with museums. So I am hoping a little bit of teaching, alongside some kind of museum work.
So how did you end up curating a show focused on the Hōkūleʻa?
In March 2015, I put on an exhibition called Carrying Culture: Navigating Anew that was part of the Celebrate Micronesia festival. In that space at that time I had local artists from the different Micronesian communities come together and talk about what it means to be from the region.
My boyfriend works for ʻŌiwi TV, which is basically the communication and media leg to the Polynesian Voyaging Society [PVS]. They were hired to do that. So I already have that relationship there, but his boss Na‘alehu Anthony spoke with [Doris Duke Theatre director] Taylour Chang about having the ʻŌiwi Film Festival emphasize wa‘a life, or canoe-focused films, and from those conversations sprang the ARTafterDARK: Worldwide Voyage, because [special events associate] Wainani Paikai’s brother works at ʻŌiwi and is also a photographer for PVS. So it popped up that way through conversations that we should have an exhibition. So they contacted Healoha, who offered it to me.
There was already a personal connection there—though I think if that wasn’t there I still would have been given the offer from Healoha—but it made it that much easier, and that personal connection to feel alright about telling the story.
How did you start making decisions about the direction for the show?
Because the exhibition is on the mezzanine, where students are going to class, families walk through, adults are coming after work, I wanted to make sure that it was a dynamic, multidimensional space for everyone passing through.
We had the photography from ʻŌiwi TV, and then I spoke with PVS to see if I could get any equipment from their storage facilities. So it’s all older equipment from Hōkūleʻa that they’re either no longer using or that’s in line to be fixed.
It was supposed to be just photography, but we wanted to make it an interactive space, so when we went down to the facilities, I already had pieces in mind that I was going to look for, and thankfully they were available. I really wanted that hoe, the large canoe rudder. That’s the smallest one that they had available, and it’s about 22 feet in length and 200 pounds. They gave me the OK on it; it was just figuring out how to get it here. We used a crewmember’s Jeep, put it on racks, and it kind of looked like a unicorn. We just caravanned it over with a truck in front and a car behind. She pulled up to the front of the museum and the three of us took it off her Jeep and walked it up the stairs.
And you also have a sail?
Again, it’s one of the smaller sails for the canoe. It’s a triangle-shaped one. Hōkūleʻa is seen in a lot of pictures with crab claws—the curving sails in that beautiful reddish-orange. But that one was way to large. There are ways to shorten the sail, but it still would have been really large and heavy.
Do you know any of the journeys these pieces have been on?
Over at the selfie-station there are life preservers that you can take a picture in front of and put on, and there’s some foul-weather gear. The yellow gear is from Patagonia, and that was taken to Tahiti. Basically we put that in there because it lasted one journey and that was it. It’s kind of trial and error with what kind of foul-weather gear works best. Sometimes it holds up and sometimes it doesn’t. The red foul-weather jacket is a pullover for hotter climates, so you can have shorts on under, but if a squall’s coming through you can just throw that on real quick. And I think they said they have used that in warmer, more humid places like the Caribbean.
But the hoe specifically has more than 30,000 miles on it. It has traveled all over Oceania. It’s gone to Canada, through the west coast of the U.S., to Japan, Rapa Nui, Aotearoa. You name it in the Pacific and it has gone there. It was built in 1985 and they stopped using in 2009.
Do you think that might be eye-opening to people who think of the Hōkūleʻa as a kind of static icon?
Yeah. It’s not only cultural artifact, it’s a functioning, living piece that people use to express their identities and learn how to get around the ocean. Part of it is making sure it’s safe. Pieces have to be taken care of, restored, or replaced.
What do you hope people take away from it?
With this particular story I’m hoping that I can bring attention back to the worldwide voyage, which has been going for two years now. It’s an amazing accomplishment; they’re more than halfway around the world, and they’re slowly making their way back to Oceania. And also inspiring people to think about how they can live more sustainably, how they can reconnect to the environment around them. The nice thing about Hōkūleʻa is that she does that in so many ways, whether it’s through celestial navigation, through crewmembers and their outreach, or the green technology that they have on board. Being sustainable and taking care of your environment isn’t just recycling—it’s a multilayered kind of approach, and she’s an example of that.
Watch ʻŌiwi TV’s video coverage of the exhibition’s opening-ceremony.