Pow Wow Hawai‘i

A Homegrown International Art Collective: With a little ingenuity, and a lot of aloha from friends, Jasper Wong brought together local and international artists for a cultivation and collaboration of creatives seldom experienced in Hawai‘i.

Text by Sonny Ganaden // Images by Brandon Shigeta

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As one gets older one sees many more paths that could be taken. Artists sense within their own work that kind of swelling of possibilities, which may seem a freedom or a confusion. – Jasper Johns
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To truly understand a painting, one must contextualize the painter. Despite my repeated mentioning that I would be paying for breakfast and a few subtle hints to dine somewhere with air conditioning, 28-year-old contemporary artist and expatriate Jasper Wong insisted we do our interview at Ray’s Cafe in Kalihi. Past the last few buildings in the state still used as both auto body shops and apartments, time moves a little slower at Ray’s. The ambiance suggested that if you asked for decaf, brown rice, or even green salad instead of the house’s potato-mac, the cook would wince as if you’d lost your mind somewhere on River Street. The little room was packed, and after settling in, we shared a table with a few local guys in steel-toed boots who were apparently related to everyone there. When it took too long to get the coffee we ordered, one of the uncles took a break from what looked like his morning ritual of two eggs, spam and toast to pour us a cup, returning to his meal only after he refilled everyone in the room.Discussing the international art market over 9 a.m. fried fish, industrial strength coffee, and dripping plates of french toast in Kalihi explains a bit about Jasper. He grew up in the neighborhood, helping his mom out in her Chinese butcher shop. Joking often, the guy is absolutely serious about his vision – one gets the sense of someone deeply committed to the undertaking of creating something new.

Pow Wow, from the Narangasett term referring to a gathering, has been Jasper’s idea from the beginning. After graduating from Kalani High School, Wong spent time in San Francisco and Seattle essentially teaching himself design work. In 2008, he moved to Hong Kong, staying in his grandmother’s apartment and turning an old restaurant into an art gallery he called Above Second. While working on projects for Adidas, Hurley, DC Shoes, the Yerba Buena Art Center, and more, Wong thought to bring the friends he’s made over the years to his studio for a collective creativity spree. Noting that in the digital age actual face time has increased in value, Jasper explains that “these days the focus has unjustly been placed on the final product. It’s this imbalance that creates a finite sense of our relationships with a product as often it evokes no meaningful connection.”

The second Pow Wow in Honolulu went down in Fresh Café’s warehouse-turned-multimedia space “Loft in Space.” The collective was truly international and included Canadian artists 123klan and Jeff Hamada, Hong Kong-based Suitman, Will Barras from England, Yue Wu of France, Meggs of Australia, American Aaron De La Cruz, and Hawai‘i-based artists Kamea Hadar, Prime and Ekundayo. Jasper even got in a painting. Envisioned as a week-long event in which international artists converge to create together, Pow Wow succeeded in uniting these artists for a common purpose on O‘ahu, the gathering place.

As for thematic unity, all of the works aggressively assert themselves as fiction. Colors are distorted and keyed up, images are washed out or sprayed over, giving a take-it-or-leave-it quality that appreciates craft insomuch as it looks good. Australian artist Meggs makes a real argument for the spray can as a legitimate tool of art with effective imagery coming from the American canon of comic books. Using spray cans the way they were meant to be, the splatter and block out effects create hero masks and explosions on top of each other, targets and tagging orient outside the frame of the canvas to extend the story in a way that would make Jack Kirby, the comic book artist famed for his contribution to Marvel and DC, proud. Young Kim, an international artist better known as “Suitman” had attendees pose for portraits wearing a smock that gave the appearance of being a shirt, tie and suit jacket. It went on like a flak jacket or the lead vest one wears prior to getting an x-ray at the dentist’s office. The end result on Suitman’s website are both intimate and flattened, like René Magritte’s mid-century paintings of an apple over the face of a suited man. Like Magritte, here is an artist capturing an image in order to remove it from its context. Outside, a massive mural was worked on all week partially obscured by scaffolding, a work of enough complexity to deter explanation.

Pow Wow may be modern in ideology, but is grounded in the recent American tradition of hip-hop. The genre’s tendency to create new analysis using the artwork of others with samples, remixes and re-visions in the post-everything world that keeps it a fluid and malleable form found itself here in paint form – a self-referencing act that collects and spits out imagery with equal indignation at all forms of authority. Critics might see the ghost of Basquiat in the collective, along with the realization that somewhere in the 21st century hip-hop got older and wiser. In that context, I must articulate a slight objection to some of the work. Fetishes and sexual hangups of boyhood continue to be celebrated- the subject matter remains juvenile even as the artists have grown up and their technical skill having grown with them. In the paintings for this year’s Pow Wow, female lips, breasts and objectified bodies abound. For the quality of the work, women continue to to be mindless conveniences, 21st century muses splashed in acrylics over canvas. For better or worse, the men are treated no better. A closer inspection of Wong’s piece shows the head of Mr. T on the body of a toddler with an erection, ejaculating onto the rest of the canvas.

I don’t think my apprehension with the content was without artistic intent. Jasper has received several homophobic emails regarding his stylized work. As he explains: “For me, art shouldn’t bore you. You should get an emotional response, whether that be positive or negative. I guess I’m attacking masculinity in some way. That’s why you see a dictator as a baby painted in pink, maybe lasers coming out of his eyes or something.” Looking closely, there is some actual analysis of social structure in the work. Alienation, childhood cartoons and indiscriminate iconography tell the story of a young man separated from America, experiencing it as a state of mind. The images of Hitler or Mr. T in the work aren’t referring to the actual men and critiquing them, but rather references a TV version of them as characters within a fiction, the visual remix.

Regarding the arts scene in Hong Kong, “The place sucks man. It’s populated with highly educated people, and it has a western infrastructure. The British were there for so long, that the environment created a certain capitalism for art. The galleries are there for the high-end market. They sell old items, showing the same thing over and again, oriented towards sales. It’s a difficult place to progress.”

As Wong carves a space for American street art in once-British Hong Kong, the unheeded capitalist changes in China have reached the contemporary warehouses in Beijing, turning that historic city into a global hub of human creativity. Massive amounts of money are being traded as the Chinese government continues to chasten artists. In October of 2010, imprisoned poet and politically-minded intellectual Liu Xiaobo became the first Chinese Nobel Prize winner, “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” The Chinese government’s denial of the prize and continued repression of any coverage highlights where the country’s leadership stands socio-politically. As of the writing of this article, world famous Ai Weiwei, after the successful run of his Sunflower Seeds exhibit at the Tate Modern in London, is being detained for unspecified reasons in a Hong Kong airport, prompting major art institutions around the world to use Twitter and Facebook to reach out to the community in signing a petition for his release. It seems that in this part of the world, art really does have the capacity to change everything.

Speaking days before the event, Wong explained that “Hawai‘i is similarly distrustful of art. I have been trying to secure better funding for Pow Wow, and local companies have found it hard to go in with me because they don’t see Hawai‘i as a lucrative market. So for this event, we’ve had very little funding. I mean, I depleted my checking account to make this thing happen. I’m not worried though. I’m excited. I’m not scared.” Wong might not be scared, but there is certainly scary talk of the closing of The Contemporary Museum, and/or its merger with the Honolulu Academy of Arts. As in most instances of the arts through history, funding has originated from wealthy benefactors. Here in Hawai‘i those wealthy benefactors hail from a uniquely hamajang history. The descendants of those first missionaries who sailed from Boston Harbor on creaky wooden ships in the early 19th Century were some of the originating patrons of world class art in the Pacific, another of American Protestantism’s lasting provenance on these islands. In this city, missionary names still affect power moves in town well past the days of royalty and sugar. There is only so much that provenance can provide however, and arts at all levels, from the third grade teacher to the contemporary thought-provoker, have been affected by the downturn in the economy.

No great victory will be claimed by the shuttering of a place designed to showcase humanity’s creativity to a requiring public. But as the Great Recession settles into the new status quo for museums, they have had the difficult task of choosing between projects that used to mean economic security and those that represent artistic risk. Such security may go the way of the telephone landline, diminishing in a new era. In attempting to do art par excellence on a Top Ramen budget, they are missing out on the work that actually excites. To fill space with art for an educated bourgeoisie and the occasional ‘ohana (accounting formulas and egalitarianism), they have picked a version of madness induced by economic uncertainty; doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result.

In American form, Pow Wow got by with a lot of help from friends. Instead of waiting for authority (and money) from on high, the organizers willed the gathering into existence. Artists stayed at Kamea Hadar’s family residence, drink sponsors came through, and several local friends took the week off to see it go down. The success of the event stems in no small part from the audacity of its organizers, willing to sacrifice a false sense of security for a vision.

Certainly these young artists enjoyed themselves, understandably, taken with the task of their work while on Hawaiian holiday. They commandeered a warehouse in Honolulu to form their own republic of joy – a parenthesis within the city’s contentious art world and the schizophrenic Chinese scene – a paradise within a paradise. This is American contemporary art in Honolulu, and Jasper Wong is seeing to it that they will be back next year.