Dr Nikita Vanderbyl

Art and identity in Hawaii, preliminary tourist thoughts

What can one learn about one’s identity from the internet? This is the question motivating Hawaiian artist Ualani David in her series Nānā i ke kumu. And further to this question, how do we navigate and counter stereotypes, particularly in tourist destinations like Hawaii?

Bleaching Hawaiian t-shirts and printing over them with cyanotype Davis creates a seductive product. I was drawn in by the blue and started reading the text on a line up of men’s and women’s t-shirts. I was reading Siri’s response to questions such as “Siri, how can I become Hawaiian?” and “Siri, what is Hawaiian culture?”. Something deceptively simple but the direct quotes have a sarcastic edge when applied in this context.

For native artists like Davis it must be difficult to watch a certain version of their cultural heritage deployed as a tourist commodity day in day out. I enjoyed the challenge that Davis’s artworks posed to my preconceptions, I thought again about what it means to be a tourist in Hawaii, where tourism is a big part of the economy, but at what cost?

As described in my previous post I was in Hawaii for a conference relating to my research. As my first solo overseas trip I soon learnt a lot about tourism first hand, particularly about the entitlement that tourists feel and the pressure to see the ‘real’ and ‘authentic’ aspects of the destination, not to mention the ‘highlights’. Tick off the highlights like a bucket list and move on quickly to the next destination. It is a weird mix of constructed and stereotyped identity markers, and this has proved constant in my travels from the USA to Europe.

Ualani’s artwork is a useful reminder of the perspective of the locals who are watching the tourists unseen. It was an honour to see her work at Mark’s Garage where young artists from Hawaii are supported and complex ideas are explored.