Striding through the rainforest of upper Nu‘uanu, artist and photographer Linny Morris weaves past trees and down a sloping hill until she reaches a hidden waterfall of Nu‘uanu Stream. Her fingers swipe to unlock her phone and record the minute details that interest her: sparkling plumes of mist that rise from the waterfall and dissipate in the sunlight, specks of bubbles traveling over the water’s surface, floating fishnet patterns knit together by water and light.
Morris’ deep relationship with water was the impetus for her installation in Contact: Foreign and Familiar, an exhibition held in April at the Honolulu Museum of Art School that focused on cultural exchange and migratory movements. “My piece, ‘The Consequence of Confluence,’ was a looped video of freshwater and saltwater footage,” she says. Morris, who makes a living as a photographer specializing in editorial and architectural work and has a degree from Parsons School of Design, projected the video onto the ground and enclosed it in a varnished wooden box topped with a railing. The idea came to her while on a cruise in Alaska, during which she regularly rested on the ship’s railing while gazing at the water. “I was mesmerized looking down at the water with the endlessly peeling white wake and the shifting reflections of sky and distant mountains,” she writes in her artist’s statement for the show.
“I kept thinking how all the people I come from have had this same experience,” says Morris, whose family genealogy was passed down over years of oral tradition. Her paternal great-great-great grandfather, English captain Samuel Dowsett, sailed to Hawai‘i on the Wellington in 1828. Her paternal great grandmother, Martha Kahailani Holmes Dowsett, was the daughter of Kapelakapuokakae Kahalelaau, a pure Hawaiian chiefess whose Polynesian ancestors sailed to the islands centuries before. While these forebears shared neither skin color nor religion, they all knew what it was like to peer down into the deep Pacific waters.
It is this connection to water that allows Morris to bring her historically divisive Hawaiian, missionary, and European blood together, flowing in her veins in peace. “To me, water builds a bridge between these vastly different peoples who were often divided by history,” Morris says. “They left everything they knew—the beautiful land and life-sustaining freshwater—to cross the ocean and find that same freshwater here in Hawai‘i. I can only imagine the fears they had crossing that great expanse, and how comforting it must have been to stare at the water peeling away from the vessel.”
Morris grew up feeling slightly removed from Hawaiian culture because of her haole looks and lack of cultural knowledge, but she is quickly finding her voice amongst other local artists such as Bernice Akamine, Kaui Chun, Joshua Lake, and Jerry Vasconcellos, whose works were all featured in Contact. “This exhibit made me question whether I was Hawaiian enough to stand with these other artists, who have always sort of intimidated me with their cultural practice and correctness,” she says. “Sometimes I feel guilty for not having learned our language or dancing hula or knowing more about our history, but I’m at peace knowing that I’m honoring my Hawaiian ancestors through small rituals of daily gratitude and by observing, understanding, and creating.”