Making it Maoli

What defines art as Hawaiian? The answer may lie as deep as one’s DNA.

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Al Lagunero

In this quest to know whether Hawaiian art can evolve, yet remain authentic, I’ve been fortunate to have an old friend, Al Lagunero, as a guide.

Last May, Al was one of four master artists honored by the Bishop Museum as part of Maoli Arts Month. Painting is something he returned to after nearly two decades’ hiatus, when he focused on Hawaiian spirituality and healing. It’s a path he now continues through his art.

“When I came back to the studio, it was a time for me to rediscover medium,” he says. “I wanted to just paint freely. I like to think larger—universally—and act in the moment. Respecting the opportunity to enhance human life and its potential, that’s being free.

“One thing that concerns me as a Hawaiian artist,” he adds, “is being defined from a Western point of view. Outside scholars say, ‘What is your source?’ Understand, we Hawaiians had no written literature. Ours is an oral tradition; our source is what is. We’re not limited. Hawaiians behave in a universal sense, but the universe has been defined for us. We have our own creation chant, the Kumulipo, a body of literature that has been memorized and passed down.

“One difference I see with Hawaiian contemporary artists is that they see themselves as lineal descendants of that creation chant. There’s a cultural pattern in the Kumulipo that they respect when they see nature. Hawaiians have respect, deep and ingrained, for all of life. Wind takes on personality. Valleys have personality. Rain does. We’re not talking heathen; we’re talking appreciation.

“I think that influences our art. You look at Pulama’s work. Her fishhook is not just a fishhook. It’s Manaiakalani, the constellation Scorpio, which is very pertinent to the legend of [demigod] Maui, when he fishes the islands out of the sea. We Hawaiian take for granted that people should know this, and understand the position of the heavens at that time, how those stars form and [influence] our lives.

“The shape of Abbey’s cape is hoaka, the crescent. It’s the shape of a bay, an area where people live because it’s protected. The cape is also protection. And there’s a fan that’s got that crescent shape; it’s particular to Lono and his priesthood. It’s talking about peace.

“When you see this from the standpoint of the creation chant, each of the works in this story—the stone, the fishhook, the cape—falls into place because it’s rooted in that. We want to be able to say to the spirit of creation, however we define it in the physical or intangible world: ‘We appreciate you, so let our works be good, be honorable to you and all life.’ [In this way] the hum of the creation chant maintains itself.

“That doesn’t mean our work has to be pretty. It has to be meaningful.”

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