Hanging side by side in the Arts of Hawai‘i Gallery is a large painting of a statuesque woman, a thick red lei hanging down her back, surrounded by what appear to be three little bunny creatures. The boldly colored figures are outlined in thick blue lines, giving the composition a very graphic, contemporary look. Next to it hangs an image of a room featuring two ghostly chairs and a figure—gossamer and fragile compared to the woman next to them.
The two paintings—an untitled work by Madge Tennent, British by birth and American by choice, and Memory for Forgetfulness by Reem Bassous, who is Lebanese—are at first glance very different, yet have much in common, which is why curator of the Arts of Hawai‘i Healoha Johnston paired them when she reinstalled the gallery. The two works are of similar scale, both reflect their makers’ skill as colorists, both include a figure and both address themes of war. And both women made Hawai‘i their home.
“What I think is really interesting in these paintings is the art historical distinction about approach to interrogating issues of identity and understanding one’s own experience,” says Johnston. “In the case of Tennent, she’s best known for her depiction of Hawaiian women. Though she did not exoticize them—she felt the Hawaiian form was the most classical and beautiful, so she was always looking at the scale and grace she felt they embodied—she was also looking at someone else, in this case a Hawaiian woman surrounded by children.”
Johnston explains that after the 1980s and 1990s, discourse around cultural appropriation made artists aware they needed to proceed with caution when depicting “the other.” Artists such as Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, and Adrian Piper looked at issues of appropriation, and the way the art canon looked at the other through a white male lens.
The activist art group Guerrilla Girls famously asked, “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” in a 1989 poster. It was just one of the ways women artists were taking ownership of how they are represented in art. “It wasn’t limited to a feminist movement—people were taking ownership of their own representation,” says Johnston.
Painted following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Tennent’s Hawaiian woman holds a gas mask in her left hand. Those bunnies? The government issued gas masks for children made with rabbit hoods, to make them more “fun.” It’s notable that Tennent also combined two canvases to create the painting—art supplies weren’t easy to come by during the war, and she was resourceful.
In contrast, Bassous, who made her painting in 2015, is very aware of issues of appropriation, says Johnston. “She is not interested in depicting someone else’s experience in war, only her own. She acknowledges that her work is fueled by Hawai‘i’s political undercurrent, and although she did grow up in Beirut during the Civil War, her work would not be what it is today if she did not live in Hawai‘i. Hawaiian artists such as Kapulani Landgraf have motivated her to look at her own political history.”
Through these paintings, we look at two women—both immigrant artists, both lived through war, both worked similarly in color, elements of abstraction, and heavy layering of paint, yet because of their time and condition depicted an idea in different, distinct ways.