‘Reframing the Landscapes of Hawai‘i’ opens April 27

Reinstalling the museum’s John Dominis and Patches Damon Holt Arts of Hawai‘i Gallery was an immense task. Nearly 200 works needed to be narrowed down to 40 for display. A new approach to storytelling had to be adopted, one that made space for new narratives to be told with the permanent collection’s works. And it would need to be collaborative, reflecting varied perspectives from different historians and art experts.

The key that unlocked a project that required so much fresh thinking came, though, from the most unexpectedly expected place: portrayals of landscapes. It’s a familiar artistic construct, particularly in Hawai‘i, with its abundance of natural beauty. But the curators used landscapes as the frame for exploring deeper aspects of the archipelago’s identity—its social, political, cultural, and geographical layers.

You can see the results starting April 27. The reinstallation—made possible thanks to the support of Judy Pyle and Wayne Pitluck—celebrates the dynamic visual culture of Hawai‘i, featuring works from HoMA’s permanent collection and a few strategic loans across a variety of media and expressions.

The landscapes theme came from the co-collaborators behind the reinstallation: Tory Laitila, HoMA’s Curator of Textiles and Historic Arts of Hawai‘i, and Rory Padeken, the O‘ahu-raised guest curator currently serving as the Vicki and Kent Logan Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Denver Art Museum.

Their goal is to show a more rich and nuanced view of landscapes in all their layered meanings, rather than the traditional idea of postcard-like views of beautiful places.

“We’ve gathered artworks made from the 19th to 20th centuries that show various places throughout the islands that are not Waikīkī or Lē‘ahi (Diamond Head), places and views of the land that you wouldn’t necessarily find on a postcard or in a travel brochure,” says Padeken said. “I am excited for visitors to see a group of engravings made between 1834 and 1844 by American Protestant missionary artist Edward Bailey alongside work by Native Hawaiian students and engravers who depicted various places on the islands of Maui and Hawai‘i. They are the complete opposite of his paintings that offer Eden-like views of Hawai‘i. In many ways, the engravings are more immediate and show Hawai‘i in transition as Western development begins to reshape the land. However, markers on the land that signify a Native Hawaiian sense of place also appear: the coconut groves that line the shore and traditional dwellings thatched with pili grass.”

The reinstallation explores the broad and varied identities that make up the culture of the islands and their artistic communities across centuries: Japanese and Filipino influences, immigrants from Korea and Micronesia, displaced Europeans, Scots who married into the Hawaiian monarchy—all are part of the historic fabric and society of Hawai‘i.

“This reinstallation shows the broadness of the ethnicities of the people and the artists represented, including Native Hawaiian and artists that worked, lived, or were born in Hawai‘i,” says Laitila.

“People talk about Hawai‘i as a melting pot, but I like the word ‘stew,’ because we’re all combined and still retain our identities,” he continues. “Living here means you live in multiple communities and societies simultaneously. We live and work in all these layers, and those layers make up our landscape.”

It also shows the broad mediums employed by artists here: Theodore Wores’ 1901 oil painting The Lei Maker, one of the treasures of HoMA’s collection, will remain on view. Woodwork, like an ‘umeke poi from the 18th century, as well as quilting, feather work, engraving, and printmaking will be on view as well. Artists like Lionel Walden, James Gay Sawkins, Isami Doi, Sean Browne, Marguerite Blasingame, and Reuben Tam will be represented.

Visitors will experience this expanded vision on both ends of the museum: more contemporary works toward the back of the gallery will be bookended by those in HoMA’s Gallery 14, where the focus will be on frequently changing exhibitions of contemporary art by local artists.

Reinstallation and reinterpretation of collections have become common projects and topics of conversation across museums in recent years as they seek to tell more authentic stories through their collections, part of the broader cultural push towards inclusivity.

“The traditional, chronological ways of telling histories at so many museums across the world often reinforce a linear or accepted canon of how things happened,” says Catherine Whitney, HoMA’s Director of Curatorial Affairs. “Reinstallation, if done well, can open up conversations and break down that canon of patriarchal, colonizing narratives so that we can tell new stories that are more diverse and more inclusive.”

Whitney says it was important to the curatorial team who worked on this iteration to approach it with a collaborative spirit, with the aim of sparking conversation rather than authoritatively defining past histories.

“The hope is that we are not just teaching a history or pointing to the past, but also showing how powerful these themes still are,” says Whitney. “The works are addressing some of the same human and societal issues we’re still grappling with today.”


Written by Alia Orra