An Interview with Nanea Lum: Is aloha ‘āina a contemporary art?

Through labor-intensive ceremony and ritual within sacred water sites around Mānoa, Honolulu-based artist and educator Nanea Lum harvests kapa, a bark cloth from the wauke tree, as material for her work. Just as water and land systems–(‘ahupua’a) from rain, watersheds, estuaries, to valleys–are regarded as an inseparable whole in Hawaiian ecological conceptions. Central to this is the cosmological concept of ‘āina, which evokes a reciprocal, collective relationship to the earth, living forces, and being. This metaphor is built into the anthologies of the Hawaiian people, but more importantly it is understood on a personal and individual basis for indigenous Hawaiians. “As it relates to the material process, aloha ‘āina expresses love and gratitude for the earth’s participation in the artwork and when tradition is embodied by artists to further take care of the ecological systems in which we are all deeply embedded,” Lum emphasizes.

At New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA) art fair in New York this year in 2022, the artist debuted new paintings and print works on kapa with Ontopo, a project helmed by New York-based artist Jon Santos. Among her other collaborations for NADA “Presents,” including with fellow Honolulu-based artist Jason Chu, Lum was also a subject in a short film directed by Tiare Ribeaux and Jody Stillwater. The film, Ulu Kupu, documents harvesting kapa and other materials through a collective work that emphasizes the sacredness of ancestral waterways in Hawai‘i . Gathering and processing bark from the ulu (breadfruit) tree, using hand-made beaters, or i’e kuku, crafted from various other indigenous trees, fermenting and processing the kapa are shown as part of the ceremonial interactions of making for the artist.

In this interview, the artist and I discuss her experience with geological and indigenous knowledge, the implications of modernity and colonialism in Hawai‘i , Hawaiian material culture, her great-grandfather who came to Hawai‘i from Southern China, notions of temporality and cosmology, ancestral and ecological kinship, and the radical possibilities of aloha ‘āina as a contemporary art.

Danni Shen: The Hawaiian concept or Native cosmological framework of ‘āina is central to your practice. For those that don’t know, what is ‘āina’s etymology, and how does this idea influence your work?

Nanea Lum: ʻĀina in Hawaiian is the interconnection of the world, a kind of omnipresent force. Its etymology lies in the word ‘āi- to eat or consume, and -na instructs that the health or well-being of each living thing depends on the balance of consumption practices. Early in my work, I was going into the land and painting landscapes. But there’s a different word for that in Westernized painting language called en plein air. I did a show with another Hawaiian painter, called Ku’uhome o Moku, and we were trying to show our en plein air paintings and how they were documenting the changing landscape. I liked that process, but also felt that it fell into the same categories as French expressionism or Manifest Destiny landscape paintings. I wanted to actually explain something deeper about ‘āina, and then that actually happened. So I was painting in that plein air style using ink wash, and then this really big rain came and completely washed away my painting. But I didn’t get upset. I thought okay that’s just going to be a little bit more texture to this work once it’s finished. Then, I brought it back another day and continued to paint the same landscape. But from that initial rain, there was this warp, and the cotton weave also wouldn’t accept any pigment, or it just wasn’t behaving in the same way as when I had first started painting on the canvas. I brought it into my studio and then realized that the stream I had been painting had represented itself through the water mark and rain in the middle of the canvas. It was this happy affirmation of the process, in that if you want to paint ‘āina you have to be interconnected with all of its weather patterns and the gravity of its material. That was what had given me the idea to start putting my canvases into the ‘āina, into the stream, into lo’i or marshes, to change them and then to look at them as almost finished maps in my studio.

DS: For these earlier earth paintings in which you were placing canvas in bodies of water under rocks and streams, were you traveling to various locations, or were they also made at specific sacred sites such as that which appeared in the short film Ulu Kupu?

NL: That’s a really good question because my mapping technique is really specific. I wasn’t born and raised in the valley of Mānoa. Mānoa happens to be one of the first places Hawaiians came to live after migrations of people across the Pacific in A.D. 450 from other islands such as Tahiti, Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, and Micronesia. These ‘Aumakua, or the Hawaiian familial gods, then evolved from the land systems into a new being that became the Hawaiian Kingdom. I went to Mānoa to study and get all of my education. To me, learning to map is the way I come to know a place like Mānoa. By the process of mapping the valley system, to follow its water, find all of the locations of its water collection such as streams, diversions, or even streets that actually pave over where a stream’s history is. It’s a kind of deep mapping of where the water flows across the land, and then how modern life intersects with the flow of the stream. Those are the points at which you will be able to enter because, for example, entering at the top of a valley system is totally inconvenient, so you will have to navigate across the land every day to find the clearest point of the stream. I was doing all of those mapping techniques for myself to enter the stream at safe points and leave things where I could dedicate ceremony to.


Nanea Lum, Kapa in the light, 2022, Acrylic on canvas, 20×16″. © Nanea Lum. Image courtesy Nanea Lum. Photography by Jon Santos.


DS: How do ceremony, ritual, and spirituality factor into your art making, which is as much about the process as it is the resultant materials?

NL: I like the ideology that you can leave behind by making a painting, which is what I will start off by saying. I was interested in painting initially because it leaves such a strong cultural imprint in past generations and for future generations. I like the idea of being able to communicate timelessness because I think a lot about how an ancestral past informs my present behavior. Culturally, due to the generation of American erasure I grew up in, I wasn’t raised to think that way. For my friends and I who eventually became artists, we wanted to engage more in the past by navigation. The Hōkūleʻa is a renaissance of navigational retraining by which Pacific Island people are communicating to try navigating the Pacific Ocean using non-Western tools, and my generation is actually a recipient of some of that mission. Even through something like painting, I wanted to communicate the idea of navigating yourself back to a kind of truth. I have recognized spirituality in some of the most successful paintings that I’d seen, but I also looked at those works not for who made them, but for the connection of vibrating human-ness or non-humanness. In my own ideologies as a Hawaiian, and communicating ‘āina, I tried to distill that, yes, this is a personal connection, and it creates a deeper spiritual truth that other people can connect to.

There are materials of kapa practice that critically collaborate with me to finish sacred pieces that also include the seasons, harvested bark, wooden implements, my kua, ‘ie kūkū, and ipu, which holds the fermenting mo’omo’o. Ceremonies are always intentional, and they create intervention. There is a lot of teaching and learning around my work right now, because it does come from a very specific place with cultural views. But it also comes from me, and I’m quite a complicated person. There’s been questioning of what do you mean by spirituality—is it abstract expressionist painting in spirituality, or Hawaiian spirituality but this just happens to be something that looks like a painting? I stand in the middle of that and say it depends on you, the viewer and the consumer. Are you someone who’s going to take these things like a modernist, or are you going to take this as a connection point from the past and coming into the future?

Nanea Lum. Kaliko harvests bark, 2022, Acrylic on canvas, 16×20″. © Nanea Lum. Image courtesy Nanea Lum. Photography by Jon Santos.


DS: So using i’e kuku to create the kapa makes marks inside of the fiber and becomes a way of mark-making. Thinking about this mark-making through the history of painting and canvas, can you speak further to how you situate your earth paintings within the continuum of painting? And perhaps earth or land art? 

NL: The ephemeral quality of kapa-making and the memories that are made with the material is why painting, for me, is the best medium for translating that ephemerality. That sounds strange because it should be something like film, but for a lot of other reasons, I’m a lot more interested in paintings, which can be static, that document an ephemeral and felt process. Earthworks were creating these in-site artworks, or looking at the site of land as a place to make an artwork. All of that is great except what communities gave you their blessing to create signification for yourself in that place? That’s why I’ve always known Hawai‘i  is special, because without the support of specific communities, certain significations in our landscape will not happen. But when you look at the circuit of land interventions that have happened in Hawai‘i, that also signifies a really specific kind of power and control, like monument building. I think a lot about water in that way too. When Hawai‘i s concrete streets were being named, they were taking the names of waterways to replace them, just like how monuments are built to replace something vital that was there before. That erasure is similar to how the white cube replaces so many ideologies that are colorful, full of textile, and how we ourselves are also made to fit the white cube. 

Still from Ulu Kupu film directed by Tiare Ribeaux & Jody Stillwater, 2021. Photo by Jody Stillwater. Image courtesy of Manavva Films.


DS: You are a subject in Tiare Ribeaux and Jody Stillwater’s Ulu Kupu (2022), which screened at NADA New York 2022. The short film records your process as one of several gathering processes on restricted sites of Mānoa. What was the process of entry into these freshwater systems, i.e., of the familial gods of Mānoa?

NL: I have to remind myself that ceremonies for entering water are always based on community, and my community has these protocols that always ask permission. If there isn’t a person around, you ask the water. And all of that is to be taken with complete seriousness, and only for yourself to keep aligned with the observation of the environment you’re entering. Because even that awareness of asking permission is going to open you up for a form of communication, of yes or no. But those who never ask find out later that it wasn’t a good idea after having sickness or getting caught in rough surf or brown water. There are some really specific chants and water prayers that you can say, but a lot of times it’s just about centering yourself into the awareness that you should ask permission, because the water is its own entity. 

DS: That’s really beautiful. To clarify, is asking the water in this way akin to asking the familial gods of a place?

NL: There’s a chant in Ulu KupuAia i hea ka Wai a Kāne? (Where are the waters of Kane?) This chant calls out to the water, all of the many places in the land that you’ll find the water, in the rainbows and the clouds running across the rocks, and then emerging in the ocean—all of these places where the water of our God Kane, who represents the purity, life, and vitality of freshwater [exist]. Where you can find him, you can find water; and where you can find water, you have to honor the god Kane. There’s this awareness too that pollution is a mortal sin, because you’re going against yourself and your god. There [are] these changes in behavior that can happen when you think about the water as a god. 

DS: The inherent tie to Hawaiian language and maintaining certain vocabulary, leaving room for the untranslatable, rather than privileging English, when speaking about your work is really powerful and inspiring. Do you see this use of Hawaiian language as having transformed contemporary art dialogues and language in Hawai‘i ? 

NL: The untranslatability of a word like ‘āina is because there are these myopic lenses that pop up around land and belonging. Everyone belongs somewhere and comes from somewhere. One of the deepest and initial questions that Hawaiians ask each other is: No hea mai ʻoe? Where are you from? And that’s not because we can’t all agree on a Hawaiian identity, rather that there are all of these places that people are not going to have the same familiarity over. It’s also a chance to break the ice and validate or appreciate different places. ranslations to me are about both validating and appreciating difference, because if people all had one cohesive ideology, the world would be a very dystopian place. The words in Hawaiian that are the most difficult to translate into English, are connected to ideas that are not Western at all. Where we keep those words and their essence intact such as in art, is actually a really safe place to communicate and do justice to what those untranslatable words are through visual language and metaphors. 

DS: Absolutely. And is there a word for contemporary art?

NL: No. [Laughs] There’s not a word for that because we are of the positionality that our work is neither traditional nor contemporary. It comes from an idea of time that’s cyclic: past, present, and future are all considered at once. Is it degrading to an artist who makes a traditional form today, to call their work simply traditional? Because the acts of resistance they (artists) need to do to create, actually enmeshes us into the contemporary art world in that we’re all in the meatgrinder of capitalism. Those of us who still create – are still creative – are lucky to be that way. The ways in which you feed your creativity are contemporary art, but not all of us are privileged with the education to talk about it that way.

DS: Out of personal curiosity, you mentioned that your surname Lum comes from your great-grandfather who came to Hawai‘i from Southern China. Does Chinese cosmology or any kind of cultural hybridity impact your thinking and work at all? 

NL: I like that question a lot. My grandfather is in his 80s now and he’s always been my philosopher. We used to talk about ea which is a Hawaiian word for freedom or sovereignty, or what happens naturally according to the universe where all things lead to one another, which I think is also like the concept of dao and wu wei in daoism. All of these ways of thinking are aligned with the Hawaiian ideology of ea, which entails behaving in a world that doesn’t demonize or destroy the environment based on your improper distinctions.

DS: You mention a gratitude for nature’s participation in an artwork and the stewardship of the water. Could you talk more about how these ideas also relate to art making for you in your practice?

NL: That’s a perfect segue to talk about this passion project of mine. I started asking contemporary artists who I know really well the question: is aloha ‘āina a contemporary art? As a clarifier, aloha ‘āina is when you combat pollution using your projects, daily tasks, words and actions. Aloha ‘āina is when you physically go and remove plastic from the beach. Aloha ‘āina is when you clear part of your yard so you can grow food for you and your neighbor. Aloha ‘āina is also when you see a fallen tree in the stream and you use your weekends to go and clear the debris from the stream so that it can run smoothly. All of that is part of these core values of being Hawaiian, which is that you feel it’s your responsibility to do these things because your personal overall health is at stake with the health of the environment. But aloha‘āina today comes with many decolonial ideas. To fully understand aloha ‘āina, you have to understand for example, why water systems are public and support public use of water, but not for general public use. Teaching young people what aloha ‘āina really is includes teaching them about the military history of Hawai‘i , the bombing of Kaho’olawe, and why Hawaiians needed to physically go there so the bombing would stop, because our bodies, our humaneness stands in the exact way of those bombs, and that’s the only way that the military will understand what ‘āina is, is through our deep aloha.

Nanea Lum. Me iā ia 3, 2022, Image transfer on Kapa, wauke (Hawaiian paper mulberry), 12×3″. © Nanea Lum. Image courtesy Nanea Lum. Photography by Jon Santos.


These activists, our aloha‘āina warriors or kia’i, people who were on Mauna Kea like myself, who wouldn’t allow the 30-meter telescope to be built on the summit, were taking part in activism to stop that development project. While we are enacting these social movements like Ku Kia’i Mauna, which environmentally can be related to indigenous revolutions towards stopping the Keystone Pipeline project. All of these Indigenous leaders who are activists, are also totally creative people. Aloha ‘āina is being embedded into contemporary art by socio environmental issues for protecting and understanding the Pacific. Returning to my project, when I ask close friends how Aloha‘Āina is embedded into their art, they’ll talk about their process of cultural thinking, methodology or historical adversities, or about what their artwork means. But in that dialogue we are singing in the same choir, you know? Like this is what aloha ‘āina is, this is what Hawaiian contemporary art is! I am inspired by Hawai‘i ’s cultural knowledge publications in both Hawaiian language and English. These revolutions in written word are focused on being innovated into a popular culture or linguistic-academic reference, or even as a new educational approach. 

Nanea Lum, Me iā ia 4, 2022, Image transfer on Kapa, wauke (Hawaiian paper mulberry), 14 x 12.5″. © Nanea Lum. Image courtesy Nanea Lum. Photography by Jon Santos.


DS: How does it feel to bring your kapa works and Hawaiian material culture to New York in the context of the NADA art fair? What does it mean for these works to enter the contemporary art market circuit? 

NL:  Quick answer is it felt great! I feel like I have a kapa relationship that is very complicated and complicated enough to withstand all of the ignorance around it. But some of that ignorance isn’t anyone’s fault. It’s the conditions around Hawaii and what Hawaii has to live through, which is militarism, American tourism, and global environmental racism. Bringing kapa to NADA started because the project’s curator Jon Santos, who I met as a website designer living in Hawaii while working in New York, wanted to go to NADA with his project Ontopo so that he could explain how topography helps reframe people’s connectivity to land by understanding ‘āina. ‘Āina gives us something that we can not just appropriate, but actually can decolonize ourselves by. Also being at NADA where there are many busy, fun and shiny objects, talking about water and the pollution by the military jet fuel in our aquifer seemed a bit too accosting, so I wanted to offer instead that there’s these qualities of sacredness in all waters, and you just have to go and look for them. Bring yourself to the water.


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