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Author’s note: I do not italicize words in ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i (the Hawaiian language) for two reasons: doing so perpetuates the “otherness” of Indigenous languages that were nearly rendered extinct as a result of colonialism—including ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i, which was effectively banned in 1896—but also because Hawaiian and English are both official languages in the State of Hawai‘i.
Hardly innocuous nomenclature, “Pacific Century” suggests a multifocal battle waged across overlapping fronts, from geopolitics to economics, ideology to culture. The phrase evokes competing sentiments, some celebratory and others apprehensive, themselves indicative of the tension between place-based exhibition making and global art spectacle. Such an unresolved yet generative dilemma broadly defines the expansive biennial circuit—of which Hawai‘i Triennial 2022 was not exempt.
Pacific Century – E Ho‘omau no Moananuiākea was the inaugural triennial edition of the largest art exhibition in ka pae ‘āina o Hawai‘i (the Hawaiian archipelago). In terms of institutional history, the event was technically its third iteration, following the 2017 and 2019 Honolulu Biennials, each effective in connecting the city to Oceanic art worlds and establishing a hub for contemporary Indigenous art. Hawai‘i Triennial 2022 (HT22)—steered by the curatorial team of Melissa Chiu, Miwako Tezuka, and Drew Kahu‘āina Broderick—built upon these efforts, now positioning the islands more in relation to Asia than Oceania, with Hawai‘i serving as interlocutor between the so-called East (Asia) and West (North America) but also as a locale worthy of deep historical consideration on its own terms. As implied by the duality of HT22’s title, this curatorial paradox permeated the seven exhibition sites and roster of over forty participating artists and collectives. However, reconciling the disparate perspectives—Hawai‘i as both go-between and center—proved a slippery yet informative exercise, conducive for articulating a clearer critical perspective on exactly what should constitute the Pacific Century.
HT22 opened with a multiday activation of ‘Iolani Palace, the Hawaiian Kingdom’s bastion of sovereignty. Projected on the building’s façade for HT22’s first three nights was Los Angeles-based Jennifer Steinkamp’s Queen Lili‘uokalani (2022), a digital animation of flowers brought to Lili‘uokalani from her garden upon her being charged with treason and imprisoned within the Palace by the illegitimate US-backed government following the 1893 coup. In terms of topical subject matter, Steinkamp’s projection—alongside an installation of Aboriginal Australian artist Richard Bell’s Embassy (2013–ongoing), a temporary community convening for the discussion of Indigenous rights, and Hawaiian Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio’s powerful recorded poetry performance When I think of Ea (2022)—made ‘Iolani Palace a fitting stage for HT22 to address Hawai‘i’s enduring predicament among the competing political players of the broader Pacific.
A focus on flora continued at the urban Foster Botanical Garden, where the Manila- and Honolulu-based fashion collective TOQA’s installation of their performance video work Midnight Smoothie (2021–22) filled a greenhouse, while their self-aware, sustainable, and made-to-order take on kitschy resort wear was available for purchase in the gift shop. On the other side of Foster’s grounds, Ai Weiwei’s Tree series (2009–ongoing) prompted a conversation on deforestation, albeit through repurposed work originally made in reference to the Chinese landscape and theoretically propped by Ai’s recent ventures in Brazil. At the Honolulu Museum of Art (HoMA), Chicago-based Theaster Gates forewent social practice to instead intervene in the museum’s Japan galleries with his tarred ceramic wares and A Clay Sermon (2021), a video work merging craft traditions of Black music with Japanese pottery. Ai and Gates ultimately brought more name recognition to HT22 than thematic depth, a touristic association between art stars and a place that cannot be cursorily engaged, neither upfront nor as an afterthought.
Other participants, though, did help illuminate numerous entanglements within the Pacific. At HoMA, for instance, Japanese artist Ai Iwane’s long-term KĪPUKA project (2006–ongoing) examined how Japanese culture has been integrated and infused with sensibilities of Hawai‘i as a result of settler colonialism and sugar plantation capitalism, while Okinawan artist Chikako Yamashiro’s single-channel video Mud Man (2017) alluded to the remnants of war and negotiation of traumatic histories regarding military presence in both Okinawa and Korea’s Jeju Island. These works—in addition to Japanese artist Gaku Tsutaja’s ENOLA’S HEAD (2021) at Bishop Museum and Singaporean artist Ming Wong’s Bloody Marys—Song of the South Seas (2018) at the Hawai‘i Theatre Center—collectively spoke to matters of land, labor, migration, militarization, and representation, all affected by US imperial interests in the respective regions.
From the vantage suggested by exhibiting such relevant works in Hawai‘i, the islands primarily function as a mediating center of in-betweenness, a pertinent geography to analyze Pacific-wide interactions. But those operating more locally proved Hawai‘i to be a key fulcrum of similar quandaries, between coercive governance and desecration on the one hand and declarations of liberatory politics and ecological relationality on the other. Undoubtedly, the standout of HT22 was the Hawai‘i State Art Museum (HiSAM), where stretching across two galleries were several collaborative projects from Hawai‘i that began as early as the 1970s, including the literary hui (partnership, team) of ‘Elepaio Press (Richard Hamasaki, Mark Hamasaki, and friends); the publishing arm of ‘Ai Pōhaku Press (Maile Meyer and Barbara Pope); the documentary videos of Nā Maka o ka ‘Āina (Joan Lander and Puhipau); and the photographic duo Piliāmo‘o (Mark Hamasaki and Kapulani Landgraf). All are likely unknown to international audiences, but their lasting importance to Hawai‘i’s art world cannot be overstated despite prolonged institutional inattention.
Featuring slick vinyl installations, communal reading areas, and a designated screening room, HiSAM’s galleries were as educational about Hawai‘i’s history as they were stirring. Themes of materiality resonated, from the enlarged concrete poetry of the late Hawaiian Wayne Kaumualii Westlake to the photographs of destruction wrought by the H-3 freeway, described as a “concrete slash” by Hawaiian activist Mililani Trask in Piliāmo‘o’s book Ē Luku Wale Ē: Devastation Upon Devastation (2015). The work seamlessly blurred together throughout HiSAM, the individual artists of less importance than their shared commitments. A gallery dedicated to stopping the US military’s bombing of Kaho‘olawe, for example, incorporated concert ephemera printed by ‘Elepaio, a video of said concert documented by Nā Maka o ka ‘Āina, a book published by ‘Ai Pōhaku, and diptych photographs from huakai‘i (trip, journey) to the island by Franco Salmoiraghi, who was not listed as an official HT22 participant. The continuing influence of these practices was evident on HiSAM’s ground floor, where a window display of zines, stickers, hand-printed shirts, protest signage, and the installation of CAFE (2022) by the collective Tropic Editions (directed by Honolulu-based Marika Emi) showcased the blurred boundaries of politics, publishing, and artistic production.
By rejecting the presentism often imposed by biennialization, the work shown at HiSAM (plus the selection of Ed Greevy’s photography documenting decades of political struggles with Haunani-Kay Trask’s corresponding captions at HoMA) outlined a novel art history of Hawai‘i, one inseparable from concurrent social concerns. This innovative claim is supplemented by Broderick’s curatorial essay for the catalog, titled “E Ho‘omau no Moananuiākea: Native/non-Native Artist Collaborations Against U.S. Empire in Hawai‘i,” wherein Broderick historicizes the formation of these partnerships and asserts an approach to art and politics cognizant of one’s positionality but more so driven by chosen ethics and solidarities. The catalog also includes a reprinting of Hawaiian poet and artist D. Māhealani Dudoit’s underrecognized 1998 essay “Carving a Hawaiian Aesthetic,” in which she recounts the contentious navigation between traditions of Hawaiian craft and histories of institutional racism that long castigated the implementation of Hawaiian culture in contemporary art settings. In many ways, the HiSAM galleries deployed Dudoit’s analysis to conduct a curatorial carving of a hitherto uncelebrated development of revolutionary national culture—no matter its medium—informed by, and made in conversation with, the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.
Containing other reprinted essays, place histories of venue sites, and selected highlights from the 2021 Contemporary Art Summit precursor event, the catalog clarifies what guided the curatorial process—postcolonial hybridity, the proliferation of global cities, strategies for framing transcultural exhibitions—and challenges it as well. In explaining the use of “Pacific Century” in HT22’s title, Chiu traces its emergence to then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2011 essay and subsequent speech at Honolulu’s East-West Center, in which Clinton weaponized the phrase as “America’s Pacific Century” to reaffirm US hegemony in Hawai‘i and throughout the region. While Chiu insists HT22 “is in no way intended as a fulfillment of US foreign policy” (15), there is a certain naïveté that one can separate the economic rise of Asia—the innocent conception of Pacific Century characterized in wall texts and the freely distributed guidebook—from US reaction, signaling the supposed transition from the American Century of the twentieth century to the new Pacific Century not as a benign shift in cultural capital but, rather, a strategic militarized realignment. This Pacific Century only further erases Hawaiian culture, threatens environmental distress, and secures Hawai‘i’s occupied status. Given that HT22’s venues were established art spaces (the Royal Hawaiian Center in Waikīkī being the least conventional), one must wonder what could have been exposed had the former military bunkers of Fort Barrette at Pu‘uokapolei been realized as originally planned.
But this definitional discrepancy was exactly what HT22 was meant to elicit, complicated by previous centuries of perseverance and ongoing resistance. Rather than opting for the more common punctuational choice of a colon between components, the full title of HT22, Pacific Century – E Ho‘omau no Moananuiākea, instead employs a peculiar hyphen, setting up a relation that is less continuous than oppositional; the title—the first in the event’s history to include ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i—reads not as “and” but as “or,” offering two distinct choices for the triennial visitor. As it were, HT22 ultimately prompted questions around ownership and temporal delineations: Whose Pacific? And which century(ies)? In a conversation between the three curators, Broderick reasoned, “Perhaps we understand a Pacific Century differently, based on our respective positions. For some, it may have already come; for others, it may not have yet arrived” (162).
PhD candidate, Visual Studies, University of California, Irvine