Lauren Hana Chai: Healing and peaches

The exhibition Lauren Hana Chai: The Five Senses opens on Aug. 10. Here’s what the O‘ahu-based artist has to say about her deeply personal work, which is informed by loss, healing, and transcultural symbolism. Have a read to get more out of your next visit to the museum. And you can hear Chai talk about her art on Saturday, Aug. 12, at 7pm in the Doris Duke Theatre.


Your upcoming exhibition at HoMA is called The Five Senses. Most audiences might assume viewing your work would be a largely visual experience. Why is referencing all five senses important to you?

This show centers around the overall theme of healing. After I went through a major life change during the pandemic, I was drawn to activating all five of my senses, to touch, smell, hear, taste, and see everything. I took a yearlong break from my normal medium of oils and explored everything else from video art to ceramics. At first I didn’t know the deeper reasons as to why I was so attracted to awakening all my senses but I later read about a grounding technique psychiatrists use—where they advise patients to keep an orange in the fridge and whenever they feel anxiety, they can take the orange out and feel the cold texture, smell it, eat it, and thereby activate their senses to help ground them. This became an important part of my show’s concept that I want everyone to be able to interact and participate in.


Your work bursts with color and transcultural symbolism, but also reference deeply personal loss. Where do you draw your images from and why are these sources important to you?

A lot of my images are drawn from my own family and myself, specifically about my mom who went missing when I was 11. The themes in my work then moved on to Korean history, generational trauma, Korean folk art, specifically focusing on symbols of longevity, Korean Buddhist temple architecture, and Northern Renaissance styles of painting. All of this has snowballed into the themes that I paint currently and it is a big reflection of my ever evolving identity. Honestly, looking at my art is taking a look into my visual diary.


Peaches appear often in your work, tell us about them.

In Korean folk art, peaches were drawn as a symbol of longevity. They were painted in a way that made them, in my opinion, look like breasts and so I took that and emphasized the femininity with it, tying the idea of longevity, resilience, and strength with the divine feminine.


What do you feel most people misunderstand about you or your art? What do you want them to take away?

The majority of people take one look at my art and focus heavily on the sexuality of it and deem me as “that erotic artist.” It’s understandable that is what the quickest takeaway might be to the average person—my work includes a lot of nudity, people involved in intimate acts, and here I just explained how I paint peaches as breasts. In the past, the sexuality in my work was more about addressing the ways we might use sex as a form of escapism versus a hedonistic perspective. With the way I include sensuality in my current work, I’d like people to experience the sensuality representing the divine feminine—unapologetic, free-flowing, shame-free, sensual in the way water flows, and letting go of control. It’s not about male or female, it’s yin energy.


Does Hawai‘i inform your work? If yes, how?

Being born and raised on the island of O‘ahu, I honestly took the beauty of the land and water for granted. It wasn’t until I left the island for seven years and came back that I truly started to appreciate its healing properties and began to do all the things that I didn’t do growing up, such as planting and foraging for my own food, spearfishing, learning about all the flora and fauna and invasive species versus the native and having respect for the land. I also came back home at a time where I was in dire need of healing and it all leaks into my paintings now through my imagined landscapes involving all elements of sky, land, water, and even tying in the fact that we can see the sun and the moon at the same time here in Hawai‘i. It all shows up in my work. It is also frequently represented in Korean folk art and I find myself connecting the dots between these different cultures. Although I am not native Hawaiian, there are times that I see bridges between Koreans and Hawaiians, most especially with the cultural trait of having “han.”


Lauren Hana Chai on the concept of ‘han’:

“Han” is an abstract Korean concept that speaks to a collective sense of sadness, anger, and helplessness that’s embedded in native Koreans who have endured years of oppression. Through generational trauma, han has also shaped my experience as a second-generation Korean-American. I feel a deep and personal resonance with this powerful concept which manifests strongly in my practice.

I was 11 years old when my mother went missing. I have been negotiating the ongoing trauma of that loss ever since. As I navigated adolescence and then adulthood through the lens of that experience, I have been on a parallel journey exploring my Korean-American heritage and the boundaries of personal mythologies of self, family, community, and history. Like many who come from a cross-cultural background, I often feel that I live in an in-between world. I am both a Korean and an American, but never fully one or the other. Yet through my practice I have found empowerment and a means to visually reclaim han, with the space to explore complex themes of identity and belonging. In my art, I strive to turn victimhood into power, blending Korean concepts such as Neo-Confucianism and folk mythologies with explorations of Western capitalism, sexual liberation, and Christianity. I’m interested in the harmony between chaos and order, in our shared connection to the universe, and how pattern is the basic structure in everything.