Photo by Melissa Mattos
Wainani Paikai stands in the lobby of the Honolulu Museum of Art School wearing half a dozen yellow and white lei, crowned with a haku of yellow chrysanthemum. As the museum’s special events coordinator, it’s not unusual to see Wainani greeting visitors and colleagues at an opening, but this time, she is off the clock. It’s Oct. 12—the opening reception for Unity in Color Honolulu, a photography exhibition she organized as part of an ongoing international photo project. And it also just happens to be her 25th birthday.
“Unity in Color is a photo series that Jasmine Solano started in Los Angeles earlier this year, as a precursor to the Women’s March on January 21,” Wainani says. “It features women of color, and focuses on intersectional feminism.” On the wall behind her are portraits of a diverse group of women—including several museum staff members—wearing shades of yellow, beige, and brown, posing on the steps of ‘Iolani Palace. Wainani organized the one-day photo shoot that took place July 30, 2017, with photographers Shaneika Aguilar and Michelle Chen.
“Even in everyone’s diversity we’re still united,” says Wainani. “Visually, the unity is expressed with the yellow and beige tones—yellow was the color of the women’s suffrage movement. But incorporating the gold and beige and brown tones makes the images more reflective of the world we live in now, it is not monochromatic.”
Art School director Vince Hazen, who looks for exhibitions for the schoolʻs gallery that not only have notable art but also help build community, says Wainaniʻs proposal caught his attention “because the photographs make activism beautiful and stylish. I thought they were documentations of social-practice art.”
Since Solano, a DJ and television personality, shared the first Unity in Color images with her 22,000 Instagram followers, people like Wainani have spearheaded similar photo shoots in almost 20 cities around the world—some featuring only young feminists (under 21), or even groups of men. Solano thinks of Unity in Color as more than just a social media campaign or a reason to dress up and take photos, but a way to build community around discussions of women’s rights. “I believe this series can serve as a universal tool to bring people together that are feeling disenfranchised, unrepresented or at a loss for hope,” says Solano. Though discussion panels, performances, and other events have been organized around the photo series, Honolulu is the first city to host an exhibition of prints.
“The focus is on feminism but also supporting women professionally, so the production team, photographers and videographers were all female,” says Wainani. “Even the installation team was all female. And the pūpū were donated by women.”
The term “intersectional feminism” was coined by American professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in the late 1980s to acknowledge the diverse types and intensities of oppression experienced by women of different backgrounds. “It’s beautiful the way this series has highlighted the African American and Latina communities, but I also felt that Polynesian and Asian women were underrepresented, and I find those groups to be frequently left out of this conversation,” says Wainani. “It’s just nice to feel like this project is a small step toward being recognized.”