Making it Maoli

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

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Carl Pao

Carl F. K. Pao grew up being told that “Hawaiian art ceased to exist after Western contact. They said, ‘If you want to see the culture, go to the museum.’”

A professional artist who has helped curate the Maoli Arts Month show, Pao teaches art at Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu, working with young people who are, as he is, of Hawaiian ancestry. And he tells them the message he learned was wrong.

“Prior to making a conscious effort to use my Hawaiian foundation, I was just making art. It wasn’t until Ron Kowalke, a professor at UH, challenged me. There was a New Zealand Maori art show that came through the university. Ron challenged people of Hawaiian ancestry to take a look at that show, at people who have made a choice as artists to work from their Maori background and cultural heritage, and let it be the source of their voice. It made an impression on me.

“As I investigated my culture, I started to develop my visual vocabulary. One thing I realized was missing in Western art was the unseen spiritual element.”

Pao says he’s challenged himself to put that unseen element into his own work. That, “and the understanding that I’m part of a continuum. Hawaiian visual language didn’t end with Western contact. It just evolved.”

I ask him how that epiphany changed his art.

“I went from trying to please my professors, trying to please the market, to the sensation that I’m on this journey. Forget about being successful. Believe in doing the right thing, in making a contribution. If it’s the right thing, my ancestors will support me.

“One of my professors in Auckland refused to be known as a Maori artist. He didn’t want his ethnicity to be the focus of his artwork. He wanted the quality to be recognized. I’ve struggled with that myself. I guess it’s that Western anthropological need to define and categorize things.

“What Western civilization has to offer is genius—but it’s only one way of seeing.

“For me, it doesn’t matter where you grew up, what exposure you’ve had to the culture. It goes back to whether you have the genealogy that ties you to these islands since before contact with the West.

“As an educator, I try to get through to the kids that, yes, the Hawaiian motifs and designs used by our ancestors all meant something back then. But I challenge them: What new designs will you create that reflect who you are today? There is a purpose in replicating things, but if our culture is a stream, and we keep going around in circles, we become stagnant. It’s the intention that’s brought to the piece that makes it right.

“I work mostly with kids sixteen to eighteen years old. They’ve had Hawaiian culture, being at Kamehameha Schools. I might give them a project about their kupuna and the purpose isn’t necessarily to look at their Hawaiian ancestry, but their overall genealogy, and appreciate where they come from.

“We hear a lot: ‘Make your kupuna proud.’ I’ve thought about that, working with my students. We’ve focused on the past, but we need to focus on the future. When I talk to them, I don’t just say, ‘Make your parents and grandparents proud. Make your grandchildren proud. You’re not the end of it. You’re the beginning again.’”

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