A sense of place
By Victoria Gail White
Special to The Advertiser
By Victoria Gail White
Born in 1962, Kaili Chun is the first artist of Hawaiian ancestry to win the Honolulu Academy of Arts' Catharine E.B. Cox Award for Excellence in the Visual Arts.
Each year's Cox Award winner gets to show work in the annual Artists of Hawai'i show, and "Nau Ka Wae (The Choice Belongs to You)" is her entry.
It's a prototypical example of Chun's thought-provoking sculptural and large-scale installation pieces. Poignant and exquisitely executed, her work communicates a strong connection to Hawaiian culture and Native Hawaiian issues.
While Chun was earning her degree in architecture at Princeton University, she took ceramic classes with Toshiko Takaezu for three years. The side interest became her focus, and in 1999, Chun received her MFA from the University of Hawai'i-Manoa. She now teaches at Kapi'olani Community College.
Chun's eight-year apprenticeship with master craftsman and canoe builder Wright Elemakule Bowman Sr. had a big influence on her work. She now lives in his house in Nu'uanu and uses the tools he used.
Chun is not afraid of being confrontational, but she demonstrates a gentler approach in "Nau Ka Wae." She invites the viewer to interact with the installation. She has arranged large basalt and lava stones in pathways. Forty smaller polished basalt stones are mounted on the walls with small images mounted inside their piko (navels). Wooden plugs engraved with phrases and dates fit into the piko. Installed in its own room at the center of the Artists of Hawai'i show, "Nau Ka Wae" is literally the heart of the exhibition, giving it a definite, profound sense of place.
In July 2003, Chun was the second artist of Hawaiian ancestry invited to show her work at the Contemporary Museum's Biennial Exhibition of Hawai'i Artists. This September she is scheduled to be part of a group show at the UH Commons Gallery.
Q. How did you come to apprentice with Wright Bowman?
A. I wanted to use some Hawaiian spears in my first big project at UH. Mr. Bowman had done all my grandparents' urns and was the only person I knew that did that kind of woodwork. His love was canoe building, paddles and weapons. And I was interested in weapons, because I started getting interested in the Hawaiian situation. I just cannot believe that we are in the situation that we are in with all the challenges being brought through the U.S. system. We are an indigenous people, and we are not even recognized by the federal government. I think it's important for us to be recognized as a people. I mean, our native birds, insects and animals are treated better than we are.
Q. Why work in stone?
A. Basalt is beautiful and there's wisdom in these stones. They come from the Earth's core, blue rock. Stone lasts forever.
These were taken from Kapa'a Quarry (in Kailua) with dynamite. The largest stone weighs over 1,000 pounds. It's the lele stone (jumping-off place). It has many meanings — spiritual, intellectual. We have different ways of knowing and understanding the environment around us.
One path of stone is cut and polished. I used a combination of diamond blades, diamond sanding pads and water-fed equipment. I thought sanding wood was tedious, but this is even more tedious. The other is a puka slab path of lava rock. We associate the rough stone with being Hawaiian, but not the polished stone. So there is this jumping-off place and two pathways that end in two basins that weigh 500 pounds each, one with water and one with Hawaiian salt. We cannot live without them. It's not about choosing one; it's about how you get there. Any place could be a jumping-off place. The decisions we make have an effect on our life as well as the lives of others. We don't exist alone. We have an impact on everyone else. I am so grateful to have had so much support with this exhibit from my family, teachers and students. All the stones were blessed by a kahu (minister) before they went to the academy.
Q. Is the fact that there are 40 smaller stones with piko especially significant?
The little stones on the surrounding walls refer to the 40 days in the wilderness, 40 years in the desert — the Christian periods of time where God tests your faith and you suffer. I feel like we are in that period of time now. We have been in that since contact — the 400-year period where we are being tested, Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians. We need to have dialogue and present our ideas. Maybe there are certain images in these piko that will affect people and that might help to open up dialogue so we can understand each other and the different perspectives we come from. If we learn about each other, we can learn to respect each other. We can disagree, we can live different ways, but we can coexist in a very fruitful manner. I really believe that.
Q. Religion, particularly the Christian faith, plays an important part in your work. Why?
A. Because of the impact it has made, both positively and negatively. I think that in this piece you choose the way you use religion — properly or improperly. That choice belongs to each individual.
Q. What do you wish people would take away from this exhibit?
A. Thinking, for one — I'm not providing translations. I'm giving clues. Many people might not recognize many of these images or phrases, but I'm hoping they will do some research and find out.
Q. What is the premise for the show's title?
A. Well, I would like people to have their own interpretations, but for me, it's about the frustration and the bewilderment of how people can treat each other unjustly, inhumanely and disrespectfully. I'm looking at our people and I feel like we are valuable and have something valuable to contribute to society — and not just the Hawaiian community — the greater community of Hawai'i and the world. This is for all of us really, because we all coexist in this place. I'm not just speaking about the Hawaiian people, because 80 percent of the population in Hawai'i is not Hawaiian. I'm talking about all of us together as a people. We need to understand the beauty of diversity and the dynamic relationships that exist because of diversity.