A Curious Craving

Hawaiiana is more dream than reality, nostalgia for a past that never was. But who can argue with a dream?


In 1888 King Kalakaua commissioned a magazine under royal charter to be Hawai‘i’s ambassador to the world, and it was called Paradise of the Pacific. (Today, utterly transmogrified, it’s called Honolulu.) The haoles toppled the native government in 1893 and pushed heavily into public relations. In 1902 an alliance of business boosters created the Hawai‘i Promotion Committee and used that aforementioned magazine to push the “allure” pedal to the metal. An exemplary passage: “Then, once fashion’s flames are cast aside, and the penitent is decked in simple island garb, with a necklace of fragrant flowers, he shall enter where life’s nectar drops.”

Two years later the Pacific Commercial Advertiser, a blatantly anti-native newspaper, ran this story: “An Old-Time Village is Proposed for Honolulu: Pauoa Valley Suggested as Site for an Aboriginal Hamlet, With Grass Houses, Mat and Hat Weavers and Spear Throwers.” The article pointed out that travelers to foreign lands like to encounter foreign people doing foreign things, so it would be a good idea to round up a few of those foreigners so that they could be seen. In short, Hawai‘i’s tourism industry has been in its fiction-making groove for well over a century.

And effectively, too. It seems as though nearly everyone fooled around with the tropes of Hawaiiana. A stunningly drawn, early Disney cartoon has Minnie wiggling and Goofy failing to surf. Mr. Magoo arrived at Waikiki blind to the fact that he was hanging ten on a longboard. And so on. (Elvis.) (Gidget.) Groucho visited, and Charlie Chaplin. Also, artists who worked at the highest level of modernist technique.

“I was interested in the gap between how Hawai‘i was presented and how it is,” says Theresa Papanikolas, who curated the current Art Deco Hawaii exhibit at the Honolulu Museum of Art. The show will be up until January 11, and it would be a shame to miss it. Room after room gives evidence of the artistic brilliance of commercially funded Hawaiiana.

“It’s marketing. It has nothing to do with reality,” says Theresa. In fact, she prefers the term “exoticism” over “Hawaiiana.” And yet these works from the thirties, forties and fifties stand as lasting expression of a true “regional iteration of modernism.” As she writes in her gorgeous catalogue for the exhibit: “Hawai‘i’s modernism was . . . a phenomenon on the far reaches of American modernism . . . a set of formal and iconographic strategies that drove the presentation and reception of the Territory of Hawai‘i in the years between the two world wars.”



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