Two portraits lie unfinished on a work table in artist Ian Kuali’i’s temporary studio. They aren’t drawings, and they aren’t paintings. Kuali’i’s primary medium is hand-cut paper in which the minutest details of figurative forms are rendered through a careful process of subtraction, using a standard No. 11 X-Acto knife. It’s difficult to grasp just how adept he is at capturing a subject’s features until he places the white paper against a black background and the images come alive in near-photographic representations.
Kuali’i is the 2019 Ronald and Susan Dubin Native Artist Fellow at the School for Advanced Research. The Mescalero Apache and Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) artist is in the midst of a three-month residency. August is a busy month for him. He gives an artist talk and open studio at SAR at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 8, and an exhibition of six portraits of the Hawaiian deity Kˉu, which he completed as part of his residency, runs through Aug. 25 at Hecho a Mano. He’s also participating in Ancestral Ink, a symposium on indigenous tattoo traditions hosted by the Santa Fe Art Institute (10 a.m. Aug. 18).
The six portraits of Kˉu are similar to Hawaiian ceremonial and religious figurines known as Ki’i (Tiki in Polynesia). They are representations of sacred figures, woven from feathers, and are called Akua Hulu Manu. In advance of the exhibition, which opened on July 26, the portraits rested unframed, separated by thin yellow sheets of tracing paper to keep them clean.
The face of each Kˉu figure looks like some kind of fetish, as though it were a talisman or totem you might see in a museum. It stands to reason, because Kuali’i used historic examples in museum collections as a reference. The facial features are exaggerated, the mouths spread wide in menacing grimaces, and the brows are furrowed over rounded, deep-set, penetrating eyes.
Kuali’i (pronounced “koo-ah-LEE-e”) isn’t merely venerating the figures by representing them in paper form. He’s invoking them.
“What’s happening right now in Hawaii, our family and our nation are trying to protect our sacred mountain, Mauna Kea,” he said. “They have a wooden Ki’i that they carry around, which is of Kˉu.”
On July 17, Hawaii’s governor issued an emergency proclamation because of protests against the construction of a 30-meter telescope on the mountain, the highest in the island-chain state, which began in 2014 as peaceful demonstrations. Native Hawaiians have ancestral burial grounds there that play an important role in their culture as the place where the dead enter heaven.
“It’s part of our creation story,” he said. “It’s where Papa and Wakea, the heavens and the earth, converged and then created human existence, or life as we know it. But our religion aside, how can you justify building an 18-story structure on a culturally sensitive place in a conservation district?”
The two unfinished portraits, which by now are completed and on view in the show at Hecho a Mano, are of the protectors currently on Mauna Kea, taking part in the protests. Those portraits flank the six images of Kˉu that compose his Akua Hulu Manu series.
On this hot summer day, just over a week before the exhibition opening, Kuali’i is also busy with a couple of commissions and working on cut-paper artworks that are part of a site-specific installation on the grounds of SAR. They’ll hang from the portals outside the entrance of the school’s Indian Arts Research Center and outside the door of the artist-in-residence studio. He also plans to arrange them around SAR’s historic gazebo.
In addition, Kuali’i is planning a series of earthworks he’ll create on undeveloped land on SAR’s property: geometric patterns, some of which have significance to Hawaiian culture, made from the organic materials found on-site.
“They’ll be ephemeral and just wash away,” he said. “The monsoons will probably take them with them in a day. If I do one in the arroyo, it would be, most likely, with whatever the arroyo has to offer me — river rocks and debris. I collect those items. I’ll find trash in the piles of organic debris and I’ll clean all that up. I’m essentially cleaning the environment while doing a piece that’s in reverence for the land.”
Kuali’i, who lives in Santa Fe, is originally from Fullerton, California. “I was raised back and forth between Orange County [California] and the island of Maui,” he said. “After my mother finished college at UC Irvine, we lived in Maui until I became a young adult and decided I wanted to leave the island. Then I ended up in the New York metro area.”
Kuali’i eventually settled in Jersey City, New Jersey, and became part of a vibrant urban movement of street and graffiti artists. His mentor was painter and hip-hop pioneer Doze Green. Kuali’i apprenticed under Green for nearly a decade, assisting him with paintings for exhibitions and commissions. He also collaborated with Green on public arts projects, including two murals at the Aria to Bellagio and Monte Carlo tram stops in Las Vegas, Nevada. Kuali’i has a mural of his own on view in the Allan Houser Art Park at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts.
“I liked that he came from a graffiti background using stencils and then fell in love with the stencils themselves,” said Hecho a Mano owner Frank Rose. “I get a kick out of those kinds of shifts, where you’re using one thing, then something else reveals itself to you.”
The patterns and motifs Kuali’i uses are rooted in traditional Kanaka Maoli designs, but he lets them pass through his own filter, Kuali’i said, making them idiosyncratic to his own aesthetic, which is — like graffiti art — bold and graphic.
“We have a tradition of paper cloth-making called kapa, and we also have stencils created for adding designs and patterns to kapa,” Kuali’i said. “So we have a super-refined stencil heritage. But we didn’t have a cut-paper practice. It’s something I fell into from my graffiti background. I wanted to figure out how to do fill-ins with stencils within the basic letter structures that we have in graffiti. I just liked the cut portion of the stencils infinitely better than using them as a spray stencils.”
In his works on paper, the cutout shapes don’t necessarily represent the negative space in a composition. Once the white paper is laid against black, the black can become a part of, say, a portrait’s features. Take Akua Hulu Manu/Feathered God #2, on view at Hecho a Mano. The black lines where the paper has been cut away represent recessed areas of the figure’s face or areas of the face that are in shadow. The facial features are formed by a series of striated lines that give the portrait a vibrational quality and creates an almost 3D effect.
Kˉu is known as a god of war, but he has different manifestations, each of which express different concepts or are invoked for various purposes in Hawaiian religious tradition. Hence the six representations on view in the exhibit.
Kuali’i has been in Santa Fe for a year but still makes a point of getting back to Hawaii as often as possible. “It’s super grounding here, but there’s something about getting back there and being able to put my toes in the soil,” he said. ◀
▼ Ian Kuali’i talk and open studio
5:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 8
School for Advanced Research, 660 Garcia St., 505-954-7200, sarweb.org
No charge, registration encouraged; visit sarsf.info/kualii
▼ Ian Kuali’i
Hecho a Mano, 830 Canyon Road, 505-916-1341, hechoamano.org
Through Aug. 25