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State of the Arts

By Kai Andersen, Kait Hanson and Jennifer Thornton

Audrey Luna photo by Brian Kuhlmann | Kahunahana photo by Olivier Koning | Kusama installation photo by Chris Rohrer


Hawai‘i’s art scene is as vital, exceptional and ever-growing as the islands themselves. Meet the innovative movers, players, works and venues that are painting a particularly beautiful picture for art lovers of all stripes.

Fresh from a run with New York’s Metropolitan Opera, soprano Audrey Luna returns home to Hawaii Opera Theatre.

This February, Audrey Luna—gracing the stage as Marie in Hawaii Opera Theatre’s Daughter of the Regiment by Donizetti—is the HOT ticket. Though performing with NYC’s illustrious Metropolitan Opera this November, the Grammy-winning soprano considers HOT her home company, having appeared as Juliette in its production of Romeo et Juliette, Blonchen in Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Anne in A Little Night Music. (As for Marie? A bucket-list role that taps into Luna’s love for comedic roles.) Heeding the siren song of Hawai‘i, Luna settled on O‘ahu five years ago. Singing its praises, she says, “I am so happy to come home to this glorious island.” And expect a homecoming in kind. Presided over by longtime board chairman Jim McCoy, with board members including Cherye Pierce and Sally Parker, HOT’s other high note of the season is its annual Opera Ball. The fundraising extravaganza bows Nov. 11 at the Sheraton Waikiki. Bravo! Feb. 9 & 13, 7:30pm; Feb. 11, 4pm; premium tickets $90 & $135, Neal S. Blaisdell Concert Hall, Kaka‘ako, O‘ahu

Christopher Kahunahana

Christopher Kahunahana

An island son prepares to tell the story of one of Hawai‘i’s most legendary places.

“Storytelling is huge part of growing up Hawaiian,” says Christopher Kahunahana, writer and director of the new film Waikiki, slated for a 2018 release. “We come from an oral tradition. Stories impart culture, beliefs and spirit.” Based in Honolulu, the Hawaiian filmmaker, who also penned the film Karaoke Kings and is inspired by directors from Akira Kurosawa to Stanley Kubrick to Ava DuVernay, is very much an auteur in his own right. (He’s a Sundance Institute Native Lab Fellow in post-production on Waikiki for submission to the famed film festival.). “Waikiki is about fragility and strength and the interconnectivity of everyone in our community,” says Kahunahana—“the gritty humanity and beauty of life in contemporary Hawai‘i.” It’s also a reflection of his innate respect for origin and its influence—a “community effort” made in the islands and starring its people. “I hope Waikiki inspires others to believe, value their voice and… tell their stories,” he says. His own, meanwhile, is riddled with the qualities that move him as a filmmaker: empathy and humanity.

With a mission to make a place where community, creativity and inspiration thrive, Kahilu Theatre is doing much more than running a successful nonprofit on Hawai‘i Island. In addition to its packed program in Waimea, the cultural mecca has debuted the Kahilu Gold series, one of the most intimate and exclusive cultural events on island. The goal? Reaching new audiences outside its main Waimea venue while raising funds for educational programs. Now, in its third consecutive year, the 2017-18 edition of Kahilu Gold ($175 per event, $450 for all) is set to stun with three concerts at special venues along the Kohala Coast: rapturous New York-based Indian music ensemble Brooklyn Raga Massive (Nov. 3), innovative trio Manoa DNA (Jan. 20) and island legend Robert Cazimero (Feb. 16).

Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama, “I’m Here, but Nothing” (2000/2017, vinyl stickers, ultraviolet lights, furniture, household objects)

The Honolulu Biennial’s first edition may have wrapped—but the show is far from over.

This past spring, O‘ahu’s art world cred soared when it hosted the first edition of the Honolulu Biennial. Curated by Fumio Nanjo, director of Mori Art Museum, and Ngahiraka Mason, former indigenous curator at Auckland Art Gallery, the debut outing presented an eclectic array of work from 33 artists from over 12 countries—from homegrown talents like Marques Hanalei Marzan and Kaili Chun to the globally lauded Yayoi Kusama. But that’s just the beginning. Work has already begun on the second edition, which is scheduled in 2019, from March 8 through May 5. Leading the charge is the festival’s newly appointed artistic director, Jens Hoffmann, and curators Scott Lawrimore and Nina Tonga. In the meantime, neighbor island residents can enjoy the traveling program Island Hopping. After a fall debut on the Garden Isle, the program’s next destination is the Maui Arts & Cultural Center Nov. 21.

In Hawai‘i’s fine art scene, the Honolulu Museum of Art deservedly remains the pinnacle of the community. So when a new director was needed, the venerable 80-year-old institution made buzz when it named island-raised Sean O’Harrow to the post. After one year on the job, the O’ahu-raised arts insider shares his insights.

What did it mean for you to not just come back to Hawai‘i—but as the Honolulu Museum of Art’s first director to have been raised in the islands?
Returning to Hawai‘i and taking the helm of the museum was deeply meaningful for me, professionally and personally. Having grown up here, I feel I understand what makes people tick in Hawai‘i. This state is unlike any other, and running an organization within our unique and fragile cultural ecosystem requires someone knowledgeable about the environment and sensitive to potential issues. Plus, being local means I have to come up with long-term solutions because this is my home and I am obligated to improve it for future generations.

This role is also personal. Like many people, I spent my childhood taking art lessons at the museum. Since I was 8, I viewed the museum as the most beautiful place ever—it was my ideal world full of art and culture. I left to study art history on the mainland in 1986 and only came back home earlier this year, so this is the culmination of my 30-year career in the visual arts. For a ‘local boy’ like me, the HoMA director position means more to me than any other museum job in the world.

Tell us about the current and upcoming exhibits that you are the most enthralled by. Abstract Expressionism: Looking East From the Far West is fascinating, in particular.
You’ve certainly heard of the great abstract expressionist artists Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning—but are you familiar with New York City-trained artists Harry Tsuchidana, Sueko Kimura and Satoru Abe? These are just three of the several Hawai‘i artists who contributed to this most American of artistic movements. To see them take their rightful place alongside renowned New York masters like Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Adolph Gottlieb, Isamu Noguchi and others in the upcoming AbEx exhibition is going some way toward correcting a historical injustice that has lasted over 50 years. This is our biggest show in years and incredibly important.

Anyone involved in the arts knows the significance of patrons. How have the museum’s supporters helped sustain and propel the museum? 
All patrons help, all the time. What is wonderful to see is that our patrons and visitors truly love this institution, over many generations. They are connected to the museum emotionally and sustain the museum by donating on an annual basis, participating in capital campaigns and attending functions. They give to support exhibitions, pay for painting the museum walls and help pay the salaries of many employees. By providing this base of support, patrons make the museum a more effective and efficient institution for our public, and we are forever grateful for their benefaction.