Why are you where you are now? What history shaped you into the person you are today?
Five Oaks Museum in Washington County has launched DISplace, a new digital exhibition exploring what these questions of personal and communal history mean to the Pacific Northwest’s seldom-recognized Hawaiian diaspora, which extends back as far as 1787, when the first Hawaiian, a woman named Waine’e, came to Nootka Sound, British Columbia, on a merchant ship. The exhibition opened on Thursday, Nov. 12, and will continue online through June 2021.
Following the first contact, a steady stream of Hawiian laborers came to the Pacific Northwest to work in the booming fur trade, logging industry, and in building the infrastructure of new towns developing in the region. Today, the driving forces bringing Hawaiians to the Pacific Northwest are better educational opportunities and cheaper cost of living as housing prices continue to increase in Hawai’i.
DISplace curators Lehuauakea and Kanani Miyamoto, mixed Native Hawaiian artists, find themselves in the Pacific Northwest for some of these reasons. Both have spent nearly 10 years in Oregon, and the two have had to grapple with finding a sense of belonging, place, and identity while being members of a diasporic community whose history has been largely ignored.
“It took awhile before I was able to find my roots here in Oregon,” says Lehuauakea, who was born in Portland, raised in Pāpa’ikou on Moku O Keawe, the Big Island of Hawai’i, and returned to Portland as a young adult.
Still based in Portland, Lehuauakea is an interdisciplinary artist with a particular focus on the arduous practice of making kapa cloth, a traditional textile rooted in Hawaiian culture involving the repeated pounding of bark from wauke (mulberry) trees into cloth.
Like Lehuauakea, artist and educator Kanani Miyamoto felt a similar sense of displacement after moving to Portland nine years ago from the island of Oahu to go to school. Her work in printmaking often meditates on the personal and the communal, reflecting on her identity as someone with mixed heritage, and on life in Honolulu, her home town.
The two artists, each motivated to bring the conversations about identity and place that arose in their individual art practice to the local community, without realizing it separately proposed to the Five Oaks Museum an exhibition featuring the Hawaiian community in the Pacific Northwest. After learning of each other’s project proposal and seeing how they spoke with one another, they decided to merge their ideas and work together on a single exhibition.
Planning for DISplace began right as the pandemic started reshaping our daily lives and how we interact in public spaces. With restrictions being established on public gatherings, the curators had to make a tough decision about how to safely curate the exhibition. As a result, they created a fully online show.
“Not having visitors in the traditional communal space of a museum feels like the most difficult part,” says Miyamoto. “Our lives back in Hawaii are so tied down to making that connection and making that physical bond sharing space together and food.”
For an exhibition exploring the history of displacement within Native Hawaiian community in the Pacific Northwest, there is a sense of loss in that the museum, too, has faced its own kind of displacement, from the physical place of a museum and onto a digital space.
Yet despite the challenge of presenting such an intimate exploration of identity and history through a screen, the two curators have done an excellent job of mirroring on the exhibition’s website the classical walk-through flow that traditional museums ordinarily foster.
Visitors to DISplace enter the digital exhibition through the Five Oaks Museum’s website, where they will scroll, rather than stroll, to see a mixture of multimedia art, storytelling, videos created by community members, and a great deal of historical research regarding the connection between the two regions.
“The entire history of Hawaiians and the Hawaiian diaspora in the Northwest has been largely overlooked or omitted or just inaccurate or presented through the voices of white settlers and historians,” says Lehuauakea, who spearheaded the historical component of the exhibition.
Visitors will begin with a historical timeline giving a brief overview of the Hawaiian diaspora in the Pacific Northwest. As they scroll through the exhibition they will have the chance to read detailed accounts of key historical figures and summaries of major historical events that have shaped the community.
By starting to fill in some of those gaps in the community’s historical narrative, Lehuauakea says, “I hope to provide a lot of resources to people who maybe didn’t know where to look before, because I sure didn’t.”
Working with the exhibition’s historical component is an array of art made by community members in the Pacific Northwest who have Hawaiian heritage. Some of the art featured includes classic Hawaiian landscape paintings, photos capturing intimate moments of island life, modern graphic design projects, and images of a wall display featuring dried leis.
Additionally, interspersed throughout the art and historical accounts are stories written by community members with Hawaiian roots, reflecting on their experiences as native or mixed Hawaiians living in the Pacific Northwest.
By giving a space for mixed-Native Hawaiian artists and community members to feature their art and their stories, Miyamoto says, “I hope to inspire other people from the islands, and give them a voice and have them be proud of who they are. I want them to think about assimilation and know that it’s okay to have an accent, it’s okay to be different.”
With the exhibition’s setup, Lehuauakea and Miyamoto plan to continue the conversation about the Hawaiian community in the Pacific Northwest by hosting discussions exploring some of the major themes brought up by the show. They also plan to host Instagram takeovers, in which local artists will use the Five Oaks Museum Instagram account to share their art and start conversations of their own.
Additionally, in conjunction with the exhibition, Lehuauakea will launch the community uplift project Pasifika Action Award (PAA), which hopes to provide financial assistance awards to graduating high school students of the Pasifika diasporic community starting in Spring 2021.
Even with its detailed historical research, community-based art work and personal narratives, DISplace is just the start of a wider conversation addressing the history that shaped the Hawaiian diaspora into what it is today and how that history has affected the individuals belonging to it.
“We want to tell the story with our own voices and with the communities’ voices today that we are surrounded by,” says Lehuauakea. “We’re addressing that huge omission and broad brush through our history.”
- DISplace opened Thursday, Nov. 12, online from the Five Oaks Museum (the former Washington County Museum) and continues through June 2021. Access it here.
- The exhibit has a virtual kickoff celebration from 5:30 to 7p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12, during which curators Lehuauakea and Miyamoto will speak about the exhibition. There’ll also be featured performances by Hālau Ka Lei Haliʻa O Ka Lokelani, the Kanohana Band featuring K-Boy and Miss Killa, and family stories from Kate Roland (Naukana), a descendant of one of the first Hawaiian families to settle in the Pacific Northwest.