An Arts Scene in Full Bloom

Hawaiʻi Contemporary brings the global and cultural art spotlight to the Islands.

Text by
Tracy Chan
Images courtesy of
Hawai‘i Contemporary

At the crossroads of the Pacific, a flower of creative expression is unfolding. Hawaiʻi’s contemporary art scene, made of interwoven petals of complex cultural experiences; a unique sense of place; a diversity of talented, artistic visionaries from Hawaiʻi’s native shores and around the world; and a rich history unlike any in the world, is coming into its own. It is enriched by discussions, traditions, and ideas about multicultural art that the Hawaiian Islands are uniquely suited to host—all of which will be in full bloom at Hawai‘i Contemporary’s upcoming Hawai‘i Triennial.

Established as the Honolulu Biennial Foundation in 2014, and reinvented as Hawai‘i Contemporary in 2020 with a new triennial format, the nonprofit arts organization debuted the inaugural Honolulu Biennial in 2017. It quickly established the event as the largest periodic showcase of contemporary art in Hawaiʻi, engaging residents and visitors with dramatic installations and projects by major players in the international art world. This was followed by a second successful event in 2019. Combined, the two Biennials drew nearly 214,000 guests from around the world. Since then, the impact of these events has been felt in ever-broadening ripples through Hawaiʻi’s arts ecosystem, inspiring artistic concepts and growing Hawai‘i’s significance as a center for creative dialogue in a unique cultural framework.

“Engaging with art is powerful, and we are honored that our inaugural Hawai‘i Triennial will contribute to a dynamic conversation of learning from and interacting with works by local and global artists together,” says Katherine Don, executive director of Hawaiʻi Contemporary.

The Hawai‘i Triennial belongs to a prestigious network of international art exhibitions with roots in the first Venice Biennale of 1895. While Hawai‘i Contemporary may be young, it has already accomplished great things in the eight years since its inception. Backed by influential channels, it provides a rare opportunity for world-class international artists and local artists to exchange ideas. It also provides access to thought-provoking art in iconic and locally-beloved venues like ʻIolani Palace, Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, the Honolulu Museum of Art, and Hawaiʻi Theatre. Outside of the signature three-month event, it succeeds in reaching Hawaiʻi’s creative community throughout the year, from its involvement in arts education to hosted drop-in workshops for the curious public.

The upcoming Hawai‘i Triennial 2022 proves that Hawai‘i Contemporary is continuing to evolve as it heads into the future. Building on its last two events and the experiences of a rapidly changing world, it brings to bear an impressive array of supporting organizations like presenting sponsors Hawai‘i State Art Museum, supported by the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, and MakeVisible, a nonprofit that helps create and sponsor innovative platforms for artists. Hawaiʻi Contemporary is also the recipient of a first-time grant awarded by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

“This is a time for deliberate movement towards more equitable structures inside and outside the art world,” says Joel Wachs, president of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. “The foundation is committed to supporting organizations that amplify the voices of artists and position them at the center of critical conversations shaping our future.”

Hawai‘i Triennial 2022, titled “Pacific Century – E Ho‘omau no Moananuiākea” will address the legacies and shifts of our recent history, while focusing on the Asia-Pacific and how artists are responding to a resurgence in cultural awareness. It taps into themes of history, place, social activism, climate change, and Indigenous knowledge —all within the context of Hawaiʻi, framing the islands as a convergence point for perspectives from Asia, the Pacific, and Oceania.

Internationally renowned guest artists and speakers participating in 2022 alongside Hawaiʻi’s local cultural experts and artists include Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, cultural critic Homi K. Bhabha (profiled by Newsweek as one of “100 Americans for the Next Century,”) and Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates. In total, 43 artists and collectives from Hawai‘i, the Asia-Pacific, and beyond will come together to accomplish a city-wide exhibition at seven venues over the course of 11 weeks.

“What makes Hawaiʻi special is not just its geography and beaches, but its culture,” says Don. “Hawaiʻi is truly unique in that it has its own sense of place, history, and community. Artists respond to place. It’s not just about the object, but the experience.”

As for the art itself, expect the Triennial’s offerings to go beyond the traditional painting, drawing, photography, and sculpture that people normally think of when they hear the term “visual art.” From interactive installations and new media art to discussions and performances, the Triennial will prioritize audience engagement, as in years past.

Even in times of crisis and uncertainty, Don maintains that the arts should be a priority.

“There really is the question of what’s most important now for our community and our economy,” she says. “While art is not necessarily the first thing [people think of], it is essential to recovery and to our community.”