Images by Lila Lee
On January 20, President Barack Obama will wrap up his presidency. Meanwhile, in Hawai‘i, a humble store that sells only medium, white T-shirts awaits its commander in chief.
Open now, the store is an exhibition by New York artist Emily Spivack, who was inspired to create it after reading about a daydream President Obama had while in office. In July 2016, Spivack read the New York Times article “Obama After Dark: The Precious Hours Alone,” which described how, at the darkest moments of the president’s terms, when the toughest calls were his to make, he retreated to a happy fantasy under the sun.
“[Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel] … and Mr. Obama once imagined moving to Hawaii to open a T-shirt shack that sold only one size (medium) and one color (white),” the article reads. “Their dream was that they would no longer have to make decisions.”
“When I read that, something just clicked, and I wanted to make that T-shirt shack for President Obama,” Spivack says. “I love that the way he thought about calming himself and having a respite from all of that decision-making came down to a white T-shirt. So many people can relate to a classic white T-shirt, because it’s something that so many people have.”
The exhibition is Spivack’s personal thank you to the president. She hopes that the exhibition will bring attention to his wholehearted commitment to the office, and the demanding decisions he had to make.
“In my lifetime, I don’t know if there’s any other president that I would have felt compelled to do something like this for,” Spivack says. “I feel like I know him a little bit more than other presidents. He feels like a person you might imagine having dinner with [for] the fact that he puts out his playlists or his reading lists, and you see him with his kids in this way or with Michelle in a certain way.”
Spivack, who wrote the New York Times best-selling book Worn Stories and pens a column for T: The New York Times Style Magazine called “The Story of a Thing,” deals primarily with apparel. Her concepts focus on clothing in an anthropological sense, finding the hidden meaning behind the clothes that we wear.
“Part of Emily’s work is to make things that’s about humans and not just blandly political,” says architect Rustam Mehta, who co-founded Brooklyn-based firm GRT Architects with architect Tal Schori. Together, they collaborated with Spivack to design the exhibit’s aesthetic as be a space to reflect on President Obama’s eight years in office, and the decisions he was required to make during it.
Initially, Spivack imagined the exhibit would be a literal shack on a beach on Oʻahu, where the president went to high school and where he vacationed annually with his family. But at the suggestion of the staff at the Honolulu Museum of Art, Spivack decided on the location at Ward Centre. Here, she and her team were able to experiment with an interactive space in a retail setting.
“I’m happy that we landed here, because we got so much traffic just within the past few days. There’s a guy looking in trying to figure it out,” Spivack says, pointing at a passerby peering into the space. “I really like that there are the people who are not necessarily coming out to go to a gallery or to a museum and who are encountering this and trying to put it together.”
Inside, attendees meander around piles of sand and palms encircling a clothing rack where plain white T-shirts hang. The blank T-shirts, supple cotton tees donated by online company Print All Over Me, are in an edition of 1,000, and are being sold for $44, an ode to the departure of the 44th president. Proceeds from their sale benefit local nonprofit Mala ʻAi ʻOpio Community Food Systems Initiative (MAʻO) and TheBus Federation, a national, non-partisan get-out-to-vote nonprofit. The first white shirt of the batch was given to President Obama by his sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, for Christmas.
The show is designed to be discovered, and, as a result, to cause reflection. “Even if you’re not immediately reflecting on the president and his decision making,” Spivack says, “that act in itself is a contemplative one, and the space encourages you to do that.”
Medium White Tee is located on the ground floor of Ward Centre, 1200 Ala Moana Blvd., next to Bed Bath and Beyond. It is open Thursday through Sunday, noon to 6 p.m., until February 9. For more information, visit mediumwhitetee.com. A talk story with Spivack and local organizer Stephanie Hsu will take place at Surfjack Hotel Thursday, January 19 from 6 to 8 p.m.