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“He Hō‘ike no ke Ola”: A Hawaiian Artist’s Microscopic View

The work of Maui printmaker Abigail Romanchak takes a deep look at climate change.

Maui printmaker Abigail Romanchak. Photo by Jyoti Mau.

Maui printmaker Abigail Romanchak. Photo by Jyoti Mau.

MAKAWAO, Maui—For many, climate change comes in visible forms felt simply by going outdoors: soaring or plummeting temperatures, unseasonably high amounts of precipitation or extreme drought, rising sea levels that continually threaten our coastlines.

But for Maui-born printmaker Abigail Romanchak, understanding climate change runs deeper than that.

Much deeper.

Romanchak’s interpretations are found in prints multi-layered, abstract and closely cut to examine the relationship between humans and the world in which they live.

As part of a 2015 Native Arts & Cultures Foundation Fellowship, Native Hawaiian artist Romanchak completed 10 prints—each 3 feet long by 3 feet wide—that examine the effect of climate change on Hawaii.

The prints will be part of an exhibit called AlohaĀina, a traditional Hawaiian philosophy concerning humanity’s relationship to the Earth, which translates as both “love of the land” and “love of country.” The exhibit, or a smaller version of it, will be shown in three German museum and gallery venues through the fall of 2017. The first stop was in September at the Lower Saxony State Museum (Landesmuseum) in Hannover, where it will remain through February.

One of six Hawaiian artists who are contributing to the exhibit, Romanchak titled her work “He Hō‘ike no ke Ola,” which she says means an indicator of health and well-being.

She calls it an up-close look at the skeletal layer of diatoms—the “microscopic indicators of health and well-being in ocean ecosystems.”

Explains Romanchak: “If climate affects something as microscopic as this, it affects everything. Once it affects the bottom of the food chain, we are no longer eating all the fish we love to eat.”

Kapulani Landgraf, a Honolulu-based photographer also contributing work to the exhibit, says the collection represents a big step for Hawaiian artists seeking a bigger stage. Landgraf says she worked closely with Landesmuseum Hannover curator Dr. Alexis von Poser to display the artists’ work for as long as possible.

“It’s very difficult for Hawaiian artists to show outside of Hawaii, so this is an opportunity to have international exposure that we normally wouldn’t get,” Landgraf says.

“It was a long collaboration of just trying to get there,” she says. “Now we’re going to be [in Germany] for over a year, and that’s significant for us.”

Romanchak became hooked on printmaking while studying at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in 2000 and completed graduate work for her master of fine arts in printmaking four years later.

The craft begins by transferring an image onto quarter-inch plywood, also known by printmakers as a “plate,” regardless of the material. She then carves away what she does not want printed with Japanese woodworking hand tools, a Dremel rotary tool or a router. Then she runs the inked plate through a press and awaits the results. Some prints feature a combination of several plates.

“I love the mystery in printmaking,” Romanchak says. “It’s not like an oil painter adding paint to a canvas, which is much more predictable and immediate.

“From the time you ink up your plate and run it through the press, you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get. Sometimes there are these beautiful surprises.”

Prior to her prints for the Aloha ‘Āina exhibit, Romanchak’s work found its way into several private and public collections globally: the National Museum of Australia in Canberra (2012), the White House (2011), The Nature Conservancy of Hawaii (2010), and Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton hotels (2008).

“I like to think my prints empower and assert a Hawaiian sense of identity while perpetuating Hawaiian culture through art,” she says. “Native cultures are jeopardized once they stop speaking to people in the present day. I want to perpetuate traditional culture not through traditional means, but contemporary ones, so that it may endure for generations to come." -- Abigail Romanchak (Maui)

“I like to think my prints empower and assert a Hawaiian sense of identity while perpetuating Hawaiian culture through art,” she says. “Native cultures are jeopardized once they stop speaking to people in the present day. I want to perpetuate traditional culture not through traditional means, but contemporary ones, so that it may endure for generations to come.

“I want my art to be visually striking so that the audience is intrigued by it, then I want them to dig deeper and ask questions,” she says. “I’m hoping it speaks to all age groups, but my big dream is that it speaks to a younger generation, artists and students younger than myself, and inspires them to ask more questions about their heritage and how they can preserve it.”

Steve Quinn is a Juneau, Alaska–based freelance writer who for seven years has produced award-winning stories featuring Alaska Native and Hawaiian people, including artists, dancers, language advocates and elders whose lives and stories have brought indelible influence to their communities. He can be reached at smqwrite@gmail.com.

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Five other Native Hawaiian artists have produced work for the Aloha ‘Āina exhibit to be displayed in three different German museums.

  • Kapulani Landgraf. She is a photographer whose essays and installations examine the history of colonialism and its effect on Hawaiian rights, land and people. Her work combines scholarly research, in-depth fieldwork, practice, artistic rigor, and viable bilingual Hawaiian and English texts.
  • Kaili Chun. A sculptor and installation artist, Chun often constructs narratives through symbols and objects that address the impact of historical events on the present day. She has an MFA from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and is enrolled in the university’s school of architecture.
  • April A.H. Drexel. Drexel is an associate professor of Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa. Her research and responsibilities embrace Native Hawaiian creative texts, the politics of “imaging,” history, mythology, land tenure and ancestral methodologies.
  • Marques Hanalei Marzan. A staff member of the Bishop Museum’s Cultural Resources Division in Honolulu, Marzan is a weaver and Hawaiian fiber artist. He views his art as bridging the traditions of the past with the innovations of the present.
  • Maika’i Tubbs. He uses found detritus to create sculptures and installations around themes of obsolescence, consumption and ecology. He views discarded objects as untapped resources, seeing them as a vehicle to reveal a world of hidden, limitless potential.

Biographies provided by Kapulani Landgraf

 

Where can people see the Aloha ‘Āina exhibit?

  • The exhibit currently is on display through Feb. 26, 2017, at the Landesmuseum in Hannover, Germany.
  • A smaller version of the exhibit moves to Galerie Rasch in Kassel, Germany, in the summer of 2017.
  • The exhibit then moves to the Linden Ethnological Museum (Linden-Museum) in Stuttgart, Germany, in the fall of 2017.