As it celebrates an international art biennial, the city is experiencing a cultural renaissance unimaginable a decade ago. And that’s not all: The food scene has moved well beyond the luau, and even the classic Hawaiian shirt is getting a couture makeover
It’s a Friday evening and the Honolulu Museum of Art is hopping. Bartenders shake, food trucks sizzle, DJs spin. The locals have turned out in force, many of them wearing Aloha shirts—not the shapeless eyesores you see billowing on the mainland U.S., but well-tailored garments showing off surf-sculpted bodies.
The occasion is “Artists of Hawai‘i,” an exhibition that showcases four of the islands’ contemporary artists (running through May 28). One installation, by Kaili Chun and Hongtao Zhou, invites visitors to navigate through a maze of fishing nets; above their heads, multidisciplinary artist Kasey Lindley projects video footage from the tide pools of Oahu, digitally combined with her own watercolor paintings. Forget Hawaii Five-O; this is Honolulu 2.0, a sophisticated and self-confident city that has gone way beyond fake grass skirts or Spam musubi.
Honolulu’s contemporary art and design scene, in particular, is making waves on an international level. This spring’s inaugural Honolulu Biennial combines the work of homegrown talent with an impressive roster of artists from the Americas and Asia, including Japan’s Yayoi Kusama, who created a traditional hale hut covered in her iconic polka dots, and Korea’s Choi Jeong Hwa, who built a colorful sculpture with buoys washed up from the sea.
“Honolulu is having its moment,” says the Biennial’s director and one of its co-founders, Isabella Hughes. “You can feel the energy. Locals who moved away are coming home to build something big, something new.”
Hughes went to college in Boston and worked in Dubai before returning home to found Shaka Tea, which bottles brews made from a base of local māmaki leaves. On the side, she bootstrapped the art festival. “The reality for anyone in the arts in Hawai‘i is that you have to wear a lot of hats. It takes entrepreneurship.”
The city’s art scene has been bubbling for a while. The nonprofit studio Interisland Terminal has showcased everything from photography to video game design for the last eight years. And, since 2011, the annual art festival POW! WOW! Hawaii has turned Honolulu into an open-air canvas, with renowned muralists—many from Hawai‘i—creating works that stay up for at least a year.
“You see a cross-pollination from local and international artists exchanging ideas,” says Jeff Gress, the festival’s operations director. POW! WOW! Hawaii has become so successful that its format has been exported to Taiwan, Tokyo and Long Beach.
Kaka‘ako, the district that lies between downtown and Waikiki, forms the center of the art exhibition—along with other aspects of Honolulu’s revival. Here, one side of an industrial warehouse might feature a collage-like mural by renowned painter Tristan Eaton, while the other faces a sleek new duplex—all against a growing skyline of high-rises that are nearing completion.
Named after the saline ponds that once covered this low-lying wetland, the new SALT development reimagines Kaka‘ako as a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly community.
The 85,000-square-foot complex consists of various shops, offices and eateries such as Moku Kitchen, a lively restaurant that opened late last year with urban flair and country swagger—think poke tacos, ginger shrimp bisque and a fresh mahi-mahi sandwich served alongside wine on tap.
A mile east, on the other side of Kaka‘ako, is South Shore Market, an industrial-chic shopping center housing 18 local merchants that include Salvage Public, a passion project of three childhood friends that sells street-cool menswear like nylon twill board shorts and combed cotton sweatshirts—all of them “designed in Hawaii, by Hawaiians.” “We communicate what’s true about Hawai‘i—the way we love the outdoors, connect to the land and respect history—and present it in a new light,” says co-founder Joseph Serrao. Last year, just a few months since opening its first retail outlet, the company was invited to take part in the Honolulu Museum of Art’s “Hawai‘i in Design” exhibition.
Down the hall, Aly Ishikuni-Sasaki’s shop, Mori, sells handmade jewelry, clothing, furniture and home décor by local designers. The fashion stylist got her start running the monthly craft pop-up Art + Flea, its name reflecting how Honolulu’s blossoming art world is informing retail. Today, Mori doubles as a gathering spot for local creatives.
“There’s a lot of collaboration,” says Yurie Lorange, who’s stopped by the shop with the latest items in her YKnot Bowties line, vintage Aloha shirts and Japanese fabrics upcycled into bow ties. “And because there’s a sense of calm in Hawai‘i, you’re free to explore your own aesthetics.”
“We have our roots, but also routes,” says musician Kimié Miner, who has lived in China and Jamaica. “Our ancestors were navigators, so it’s natural that we’re compelled to explore the world.”
Miner, whose work is rooted in soul, acoustic and island music, credits new venues like Blue Note Hawaii, which opened in 2015, for providing intimate stages for local and visiting artists. The Honolulu Museum of Art’s ARTafterDARK and the historic Hawaii Theatre are other platforms for performers.
“It’s crazy how much Honolulu has changed,” Miner says. “There are more opportunities for working artists than ever.”
This creative spirit is transforming old neighborhoods like Chinatown, the northwestern wedge of downtown that’s still a bit rough around the edges, but has recently made a comeback thanks to young people taking advantage of its convenient location, walkable layout, affordable rent and fantastic food.
Along with the ramen shop Lucky Belly, the Vietnamese-inspired The Pig and the Lady was credited with turning a new page for Chinatown when it opened in 2013.
The airy bistro is a staple in Honolulu’s foodie world, thanks to its signature dishes like Pho French Dip and a lei-inspired salad of seasonal flowers, leaves and seeds.
“The food of Hawai‘i is about weaving in and out of different cultures—Vietnamese, Japanese, Portuguese, native Hawaiian,” says the restaurant’s highly regarded chef, Andrew Le, who attended culinary school in New York. “Chinatown, with its many mom-and-pop shops, is a great place to explore the meeting of those heritages. Plus, rent was cheap.”
Retail is also growing in the neighborhood. Last year, Hilo-based Sig Zane, famous for creating bold print textiles that draw from the islands’ flora and history, opened a men’s shirt shop in Chinatown. Tucked between a travel agency and a run-down office, Sig on Smith opens only on Fridays to showcase limited-edition button-downs.
“I actually hated Aloha shirts when I was growing up,” says Sig’s son Kuhao, who helps him run the company. “But now it’s become a badge that says, ‘Yes, I’m from Hawai‘i and proud of it.’”
Kuhao points out that he is part of the first wave of Hawaiians who could learn the native language and history from pre-school on, after the 1978 state constitution convention called for promoting local culture in public schools. And it’s no coincidence that creativity here has flourished as that generation matures. With roots reaching deep into the island soil and nourished by the traditions of migrants from around the world, Honolulu has become a cosmopolitan city, but one that is confident about its own singular identity. The Curator Healoha Johnston
Though the Honolulu Museum of Art has collected local works since its opening in 1922, it didn’t hire a curator solely dedicated to Hawaiian collection until 2015, when Healoha Johnston assumed the role. “I’m the beneficiary of the people who trailblazed,” she says. “We now have a whole generation who’ve had access to formal education about Hawaiian heritage.”
If the Bishop Museum across town, which boasts a stupendous collection of artifacts and photographs from the Pacific Islands, has preserved Hawai‘i’s cultural riches from an anthropological perspective, the HoMA is invested in chronicling the islands’ zeitgeist through the lens of art. Its permanent collection encompasses pieces from and about Hawai‘i, ranging from centuries-old bowls to Maui landscapes by Georgia O’Keeffe. Johnston is bringing in contemporary work for exhibitions, like the current “Artists of Hawai‘i 2017,” which includes large, site-specific installations by Kaili Chun.
“I’m looking for artists who are making their own statements and commentaries—artists who aren’t derivative,” she says. “They’re finding their own fuel, not just looking to New York or Los Angeles.”
That’s not to say Honolulu’s art scene is an isolated petri dish. Many Hawaiian artists not only draw from their diverse backgrounds that reach far beyond the state, but have also worked on the mainland and abroad. In a recent exhibition, “Hawai‘i in Design,” Johnston assembled an eclectic mix of objects, including a deceptively minimalist woven maple table that would feel just at home in a Scandinavian boutique hotel as on a balcony in Hawai‘i. The piece is by Hilo-based furniture designer Iliahi Anthony, who earned a master’s degree from the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. “Yes, whatever we produce here may be informed by global exchange,” Johnston says, “but it’s definitely taking on an impulse that is specific to Hawai‘i.” The Architect Rob Iopa
Rob Iopa studies a map pinned on the wall. Inside the airy office of WCIT Architecture, where he’s one of the founders, he’s been reimagining a new chapter for Kaka‘ako, a waterfront district between downtown and Waikiki. Aside from thoroughfares and current structures, his blueprint marks where salt used to be harvested and fish ponds were a habitat for fresh catches. It was also a place where many mythological events are said to have occurred.
“Every design point of view has a method of developing inspiration and expression,” he says. “Some may take a mathematical approach; ours is based on history and legend.”
Like many of his generation and the one before, the 48-year-old architect grew up feeling somewhat disconnected from Hawai‘i’s indigenous culture. “My father, who was half-native Hawaiian, was raised without the language because the political environment of the time pushed Hawaiians to become Western.”
But while working in Kuala Lumpur incorporating Malaysian motifs into new resort projects in the late 1990s, he realized that he wouldn’t know how to translate Hawai‘i’s culture into architecture. Upon returning to Honolulu, he devoted himself to studying the arts and history of his homeland.
“Some may ask why we build skyscrapers since they aren’t indigenous,” he says. “But I don’t think it’s practical to live in a hale, a traditional grass hut. The real question to ask is: How do you incorporate Hawaiian thinking into Honolulu today?”
For him, the answer is not just a matter of slapping on double-pitched roofs and carving taro flowers on everything. It’s not even about using only lava rocks, water reed and wood.
Instead, he’s interested in applying the traditional environmental management system of ahupua’a to the 21st century. Organized along streams from mountaintops all the way to the undersea reef, these wedge-shaped divisions once kept Hawaii self-sustained for centuries with its agriculture and fisheries.
His newly opened 36-story mixed-use tower, Waiea in Kaka‘ako, combines techniques reducing energy use through natural ventilation and orientation toward the sun—the way the ancient hale did—with a legend. With its fishnet-inspired shape, the curvilinear structure pays homage to the story of fishing god Ku‘ula-kai and his son ’Ai’ai, who are said to have rested in Kaka‘ako after introducing five fishing tools to the islanders. “Not only are we designing buildings,” Iopa says, “but we’re also sharing stories.” The Chefs Chris Kajioka & Anthony Rush
Chris Kajioka wears tweezers the way some men sport pocket squares, just the tip poking from his apron. “I kept losing them until I designated a place for them,” he says, smiling sheepishly. Then he pulls out the curved instrument and starts covering a mound of big-eye tuna tartare with translucent, penny-sized medallions of hearts of palm, one petal at a time. The finished product is meticulous: dozens of porous disks making up a perfectly symmetrical chrysanthemum that floats in a dashi broth. Among many entries on his résumé is a stint at Per Se in New York, where he met Anthony Rush and Katherine Nomura, co-chef and general manager of the trio’s new Honolulu restaurant, Senia. But despite the painstaking presentation that harks to the team’s haute cuisine training, the flavors are nuanced yet straightforward.
Senia combines a 38-seat, off-the-menu main section with a chef’s table featuring a dozen-course prix fixe dinner. Over a hand-carved monkeypod wood table, Kajioka and Rush bring out nightly changing courses such as slow-cooked eggs with miso hollandaise, succulent opah simmered with basil and tarragon, and a tart of foie gras and cocoa crust.
Though mainland critics are paying attention, it’s the congratulations from other Hawaiians that have meant the most to the homecoming chef since the restaurant’s December opening. Senia is inside a Chinatown building where, Kajioka found out after signing the lease, his aunt once ran a sporting goods store. “Maybe that’s why I felt so at home—I used to play here as a kid,” he says.
The kitchen is completely open, and as the dozen staffers grill, broil and whisk in sync, the chefs jump from station to station, doing everything from cutting to plating—not an easy feat when a steady stream of diners come to thank them after their meals. Though Senia’s team does draw from Hawai‘i’s ingredients and local flavors, they also make no apologies for charting their own territory.
“Change is good,” Kajioka says. “So we don’t get bored.” The Hula Artist Kayli Ka‘iulani Carr
At the 2016 Merrie Monarch competition, the Olympics of hula that keeps many Hawaiians glued to the TV screen, first-time entrant Kayli Ka‘iulani Carr took the stage and performed an oli, or chant, so ferocious that Facebook and Twitter instantaneously lit up around the islands. Even before she clinched the crown for the individual woman’s category, the viral YouTube footage of her performance had made her a celebrity.
“I’m actually ambivalent about social media,” says the 26-year-old. “I’m glad it got people talking about hula, but we’re so reliant on YouTube and Instagram today instead of memory—and memory is the basis of hula.”
Forget whatever kitschy image you may have—a wispy beauty plucking a ukulele on a beach, perhaps, or on your dashboard. Hula is history and mythology, spiritual ritual and earthly communication all rolled into one—an art form that is inimitable. And it’s not frozen in tradition.
“The hula that we’re doing today is different from what people did in the ’70s, or the 1700s,” Carr says. “It’s forever evolving. It’s innovative.”
In fact, the tongue-twisting oli that brought her fame came from ancient royal exaltations whose original melody was lost. Her kumus, or teachers, laid a portion of the manuscript to a new rhythm just for her. But no matter how much things change, some mele ma’i — procreation songs — remain the same because they are foundations, Carr says.
In a way, Hawaii’s current renaissance parallels hula’s firm roots and manifold transformations. When you watch a troupe of hula performers, you’ll notice that each person’s face, elbows and even fingertips convey unique expressions that make up a community’s diverse stories, even as they move in sync.
“There are so many people who deserve credit,” Carr says. “I may have won, but we all won.”