Sandra Kwock-Silve discusses “Crossings”

 Art, May 1989
While most of France is preparing for the big summer events that will fete  the Bicentennial of the French Revolution, some  85 Hawaiians have traveled halfway around the world to celebrate  the opening of Crossings France-Hawaii.  Art works by 45 contemporary island artists are the focus of the Crossings ’89 exhibit that begins May 22nd at the Mona Bismarck Foundation.

This exchange of contemporary art commemorates the last Hawaiian exhibit sent to Paris by King David Kalakaua in 1889.  A historical introduction to the show, comprising photographs and  Hawaiian artifacts, recalls the “Artificial Curiosities of Hawaii” exhibit that fascinated Parisians at the Universal Exposition 100 years ago.  

Although haunting photographs by Caroline Gurrey and Jerome Baker set the stage with a nostalgic vision of Hawaiian yesterdays, the emphasis is clearly on the dynamic multicultural art scene that flourishes in the 50th state today. The history of the is¬lands and diverse aspects of culture and the arts are presented through a series of conferences, performances, and films.

The Crossings ’89 Hawaii exhibit is just the first part of an exchange of art expressions between Honolulu and Paris. Plans include three major exhibitions of works by contemporary artists to be shown in Hawaii next spring.

The following is an interview with modern art historian Sandra Kwock-Silve, international art consultant and the Paris coordinator of the Crossings France-Hawaii exchange:

PV Most people would find it difficult to find any connections between France and Hawaii.  How did this international art exchange develop?

kwock-Silve: Crossings ’89 grew out of a similar exchange experience that involved artists from Hawaii and Japan. The success of the event, entitled Crossings ’86 Japan-Hawaii,, encouraged Tom Klobe, director of the University of Hawaii Gallery, the Contemporary Museum, and Patricia Chong, one of the Art Loft associates, to consider my proposal for a contemporary art exchange between France and Hawaii.

As contacts between France and Hawaii are few and far between, it was a great challenge to bring this event about. One of the primary motivations was the many misconceptions people in France have about Hawaii. There is great confusion for many people in France about whether Hawaii is not somehow a part of Tahiti, or another name for Haiti… Many French people find it hard to believe that the Hawaiian islands are part of the United States!  

PV Tourists go to Hawaii for the beautiful beaches, not to see art.  Is there really a contemporary art scene in the islands?

Kwock-Silve: You will see that there is indeed a vital contemporary art scene there. The Crossings exhibit gives an overview of the art expressions being created in Hawaii today. The art reflects Hawaii’s past as a separate kingdom, its strong links with Asia, and of course, a clearly American identity. These factors blend together to provide a very creative, stimulating environment for artists.

PV How do artists in Hawaii define themselves?

Kwock-Silve: Like artists everywhere, artists in Hawaii are concerned with being well informed about important exhibitions and current trends in the major art centers like Paris and New York. They are connected through the media to the international art world. However, Hawaii is a very special place in terms of its history, extraordinary landscapes, rare quality of light, and feast of tropical colors. Many of the art works could have only been created in this environment.

PV You make Hawaii sound like paradise on Earth. Are there any drawbacks for the artists who live and work there?

Kwock-Silve: Island artists often have difficulty establishing larger arenas of exposure for their work, because of Hawaii’s geographic location. This is why the first exchange with Japan was organized. We hope this exhibit will open some possibilities for Hawaiian artists in Europe, and stimulate interest in further con¬tacts between France and Hawaii. And perhaps more visitors will take the time to discover the excellent museums and fine galleries that Hawaii has to offer… after a morning hike in the mountains or trip to the beach.

PV What is unique about the art created in Hawaii today?

Kwock-Silve: Several examples directly inspired by life in the islands come to mind.  Hawaiian sculptor Rocky Ka’iouliokahihikolo’Ehu Jensen has dedicated the last 15 years to recreating the cast of characters that made up ancient Hawaiian society.  His research has taken him into the realm of myths, with resulting totem figures that recall statues that were once the sacred guardians of Hawaiian temples. Jensen is also the founder of a Hawaiian artists group, Hale Naua III, that is concerned with innovative new expressions of traditional Hawaiian arts.

Big Island artist Pam Barton uses natural fibers and Tapa cloth of her own making for her vessel forms, and photographer Wayne Levin’s body surfer images explore man’s relationship with the sea.  

“I Ka La Ikiiki Nopu Ike One”, one of Linda Oszajca’s delightful cut-out relief scenes, describes lying in the hot sun that warms the sand of a Hawaiian beach. In contrast, Japanese traditions have been the subject for John Morita’s monumental lithographic works and Shuzo Uemoto’s photographs.

PV Are there any styles or materials that dominate island art?

Kwock-Silve: Ceramics are an important art expression in Hawaii. A number of local artists have achieved international recognition in this domain. In recent years artists Suzanne Wolfe, the Bakutis, Michael Tom and Susan Amoy have taken ceramic work in many exciting directions.

PV What about the French role in this exchange?

Kwock-Silve: This exchange has truly been a mutual  Franco-Hawaiian cooperation. The French airline UTA has worked closely with Hawaiian airlines to assure the transportation of the art work between Honolulu and Paris, and developed air fares that allowed many artists to travel to Paris for the opening celebrations. The Ministere des Affaires Etrangeres supports this project, and the Hawaii Alliance Francaise is already preparing conferences and programs that will highlight French culture and art next spring. At that time several exhibitions of contemporary French art will open in three museum spaces in Honolulu.   

CROSSING FRANCE-HAWAII  on view at the Mona Bismarck Foundation.

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