In October of 2011, five established and practicing artists and art educators, five assistants with an art focus (ages 20 to 28) and 17 students with a visual arts background (ages 10-19) gathered at the Hawai'i Convention Center on the outskirts of Waikiki. They collaborated to paint a 10- by 64-foot mural depicting economic systems from an indigenous mindset through a native Hawaiian lens. After 1,200 hours of painting over seven days, the Hawai'i Kakou mural was installed. Its presence is a testimony to the combined and focused efforts of individuals working together for the greater good of all. Funded by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and gifted to the Hawai'i Tourism Authority for display at the Convention Center, the mural is the first of its kind. Through the collaboration of these large state agencies, the support of many individuals within those organizations and the collective efforts of the mural artists, the Hawai'i Kakou community mural is more than a reality, it's the powerful and dynamic voice of a community.
On a sunny Monday afternoon, nearly thirty people, the majority under 18 years old, gathered in the lobby of the Hawai'i Convention Center. Children kissed family members goodbye, ate a simple meal, received their "Mural Artist" T-shirts and started sketching. Kumu Meleanna Meyer's voice could be heard above the din of laughter and friendly chatter. The first of 1,200 collective hours of mural preparation, design and painting of the Hawai'i Kakou Community Mural project was underway.
On nearby tables the other kumu, Harinani Orme, Solomon Enos, Al Lagunero and Kahi Ching, were busy with their own groups of young mural enthusiasts. Behind round tables filled with children drawing were eight wooden panels, measuring 10 feet high by 8 feet wide. When put together they would stretch from one end of the room to the other, an impressive 640 square feet of original art—the first piece of native Hawaiian-made art on public display in the Hawai'i Convention Center.
A central planning concept for the mural had been an image of our island home and the currents that surround it, done by graphic artist and maoli philosopher Matt Ing. Currents and ocean shading resemble a fingerprint, aligning with the deeper meaning of the fingerprint of humanity. During one of the many brainstorming and idea-sharing sessions prior to painting the mural Harinani Orme had a dream. She saw everyone putting their fingerprints onto the mural. Hawaiians are metaphoric people and daylight dreamers. When we see signs and feel the presence of others, we must acknowledge and include. So on the first night of mural painting Harinani stood with a pan of black paint and everyone put a fingerprint of paint on one of the mural panels. Although the fingerprints would be painted many times over, we knew they would always be there.
A respectable showing of state officials, Office of Hawaiian Affairs representatives, Convention Center top guns and APEC big wigs joined in the fingerprinting fun. With paint on the canvas the Hawai'i Kakou Mural project had officially begun. Our distinguished guests were part of the kakou energy. If everyone knows what they are suppose to do and they do it, that's a Hawaiian concept. From top to bottom, everyone has something to add to a kakou project; there is no hierarchy and you do what you are supposed to do because you can.
The Office of Hawaiian Affairs funded this project and gifted the art to the Hawai'i Tourism Authority to be hung in the Hawai'i Convention Center. APEC was only a few weeks away. Lots of people in many different state and government agencies had to believe in this project and support it in order for it to pass through the official steps that had to be taken to see the mural to fruition. And there we were, happily putting our fingerprints on the canvas in a show of solidarity. Hawaiians don't go anywhere without always giving gratitude to our ancestors and our 'aumakua. That night, the gods, and lots of people seen and unseen, were there to support us.
Running up to the emotional opening night, a group of dedicated volunteers embarked on three months of planning and researching in an attempt to try to speak on behalf of indigenous communities throughout the Pacific region. Roopal Shah, a lawyer by trade who left that world to be of service by starting a foundation in India, appeared in Hawai'i a few months prior on a mission to learn from Hawaiians how to be of service to community. Roopal became an instrumental part of the team, grant writing, gathering research and working with the APEC constituents, artists and children. Her presence and good counsel was a kakou thread throughout the project. With her kakou orientation the project received the seamless support it needed to keep moving forward.
Art educator Meleanna Meyer and Solomon Enos can trace their creative relationship back to 2003, when Meyer first worked with the young and budding artist, the Hawaiian Michelangelo as she calls him. The two were involved on a mural project for the Bishop Museum with a group of young Hawaiians from middle school. The class did a collaborative mural, interpreting a powerful Hawaiian prophecy chant about the merging of "that which is descending from high and that which rises from below." This extraordinary piece of art made up of 40 squares painted by dozens of young children now hangs in "The Realm of the Gods" on the third floor of the recently renovated Hawaiian Hall at Bishop Museum.
Meleanna believes in collaboration and art. As an art educator she's worked in public, private and charter schools throughout the state for over 20 years. Lifelong art and teaching experiences have made Meleanna a champion for creative self-expression for children. She has taught thousands of keiki how to "see, feel and touch" and experience using art. The Bishop Museum mural was a great warm-up for her next four mural projects: Kaiao Garden in Hilo, the Helumoa Mural at the Sheraton Waikiki, Camp Mokule'ia and the Kalihi Waena streamside mural. These four murals were art and community workouts, building the creative muscle for the Hawaii Kakou Community Mural project.
And on that first night at the Convention Center kumu Meleanna stood side by side with the best artist kumu from the Hawaiian community, including Solomon Enos. Now ten years later, Enos is an accomplished and well-known artist, illustrator and Wai'anae community advocate. Al Lagunero, a brilliant painter, community organizer and renowned artist coming from upcountry Maui was in the mix as was educator, fabricator, illustrator and all around art-champion Harinani Orme, one of the core artists in the HOEA arts movement. Rounding out the kumu was child art protege Kahi Ching, a bonsai enthusiast and master of every medium and method. These kumu formed an eclectic community of maoli artists committed to creating insights on indigenous economies and culture on an enormous wall-sized canvas within a week. The only way to get a project like this done is to do it kakou—with everyone.
APEC was top of mind during the process and the initial goal of the mural project was to try to represent the countries that were gathering. After many hours of studying, researching and learning about APEC communities, the kumu realized that every place has an indigenous voice and everyone shares that indigenous DNA. As Hawaiians, we needed to use Hawaiian metaphor and symbolism as a starting point for old knowledge that all cultures at one time shared. The language might be different, but the underlying priorities and values remain the same: care for the land and each other, balancing needs and wants, working with spirit and working in relationships, together.
It was time to paint.
Up and down ladders, day and night, the children got a full year of art education condensed into three days. When they were picked up at the Convention Center on Thursday afternoon, they had each spent more than 25 hours with their kumu and the alaka'i artists—shading, scaling, drawing, mixing colors, painting and always working together. Many of these children have worked with kumu Meleanna and Solomon before and found their passion through their art.
Kupono Duncan was eleven when he first worked with kumu Meleanna on the Bishop Museum mural. Kupono came to the Convention Center as one of the students, but quickly joined the small group of alaka'i artists including Robin Fifita, Sarah Ing, Shad Kaluhiwa, Kai'ili Kaulukukui and Cory Taum. These five young artists, all in their twenties, stayed with the kumu after the keiki left for another five days of painting. It was the right next step. They had proven themselves and were invited to continue.
Throughout the mural process the community was invited to come, sit, watch, try not to talk, but kokua if can—and they did. The food table was always full. Fresh coffee and smoothies appeared every morning. Convention Center staff stopped by regularly to see how things were going. There was lomi for tired feet and backs while classes on economics, sustainability, politics and law gathered at the mural. Friends, family and strangers stopped by. People driving by the Convention Center saw the mural lit up at night, a warm glow of oranges and reds, a world on fire with messages that were being added, removed, added back, negotiated, clarified, prayed about and championed. They were messages designed to speak to all—delivered in real time—painting in the "now."
In the background of the mural is an arching earth curvature, the bow of a carrying stick, in Hawaiian culture an 'auamo, reminding all to pay attention to what is being balanced—resources from our 'aina, earth and waters and the wants of people. At the center is the presence of spirit, what is unseen and moves through us, inspiring us to be in relationship with all living creatures across the full expanse of the globe, from the highest snow-capped mountains to the deepest ocean canyons. It is a message of a unified connection as equals to coexist and thrive.
These ideas, emotions and messages were painted, and painted, and painted. By noon the following Monday the painting was pau. The message had manifested and was delivered. It was alive on a piece of canvas that one week earlier showcased a small collection of human fingerprints.
The next two days the individual pieces of the Hawai'i Kakou Mural were joined together and installed on the walls of the first floor lobby of the Hawai'i Convention Center. Five days later a mahalo party was held for the mural with 400 people gathered to acknowledge the collective effort. Within the next week, the APEC media center was set up in the Convention Center and visitors from all over the world had a chance to experience the Hawai'i Kakou message first hand.