July 19, 2018
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Unreal: Hawaiʻi in Popular Imagination
Exhibit reveals thought-provoking questions amidst Hawaiʻi-themed commercial artwork
Honolulu, Hawaiʻi –Bishop Museum’s new exhibition Unreal: Hawaiʻi in Popular Imagination, on display July 14, 2018–January 27, 2019, presents rare, never-before-seen-together images and objects drawn from one of the largest private collections of Hawaiʻi-themed printed ephemera in existence. The exhibition gives visitors a unique opportunity to see the breadth and depth of Hawaiʻi-themed commercial art through time. Unlike any J.M. Long Gallery exhibit in recent memory, this experiential installation sets up a dialectic between unreal depictions in commercial art and the contemporary reality of Hawaiʻi that has resulted from the wide use of stereotypical and culturally misappropriated depictions.
Unreal impressions of Hawaiʻi have fed Western popular imagination since the 1880s, largely through advertising’s sale and commodification of the idea of Hawaiʻi. Eurocentric interpretations of Hawaiʻi as a place and a people have since been disseminated worldwide. Unreal images enticed people to visit Hawaiʻi and to consume products infused with the imagined glamour and exotic allure of the islands. The global success of these advertising efforts lured people into a false familiarity. Hula dancers and surfers, palm trees and glowing sunsets—these are the popular depictions of the supposedly harmless daydreams of paradise.
One half of Long Gallery will be dedicated to a work entitled ‘Āina Aloha—a touring, story-telling mural about the past and a hoped-for pathway to healing, from a Hawaiian viewpoint. The mural was created by six kānaka maoli (Native Hawaiian) artists—Al Lagunero, Meleanna Meyer, Harinani Orme, Kahi Ching, Carl F.K. Pao, and Solomon Enos. “‘Āina Aloha explores a wide range of persistently difficult issues that surface repeatedly in the Hawaiian community today,” said Meleanna Meyer, Native Hawaiian artist, filmmaker, and arts educator. “This two-sided work is twenty feet long and invites contemplation and hoped-for interaction, dialogue, and further reflection about our beloved Hawaiʻi and the need for continued education and truth telling in facing Hawaiʻi’s history.”
Visitors may interact with the ʻĀina Aloha mural installation by reading and considering a series of prompts on the gallery walls that will encourage viewers to reflect on their own families and lives, their relationship to the land, and their own perceptions of the imagery being presented.
Visitors will also be offered an opportunity for sharing stories and feedback through the use of a recording station near the mural installation. The voice recordings will be kept by the artists and will become part of the ʻĀina Aloha mural story going forward.
The other half of Long Gallery will present hundreds of reproductions of commercial ephemera in the form of floor-to-ceiling wallpaper made for the exhibition. Select objects drawn from the private collection will punctuate this display to provide further information, context, and ways to both critically interpret and appreciate the material. “This exhibition invites us to reflect on the power of visual arts, who creates it, and for what purposes,” said Melanie Ide, president & CEO of Bishop Museum. “The ʻĀina Aloha mural expresses both the trauma felt and healing ability within a community. With the piece set in juxtaposition against stereotypical iconography of Hawaiʻi, we hope to generate a dialogue about how Hawaiʻi’s history and culture evolved in the past, and how it may now be shaped.”
A large, free-standing kiosk will serve as a “newsstand” with objects of everyday life—food products with Hawaiian labels, postcards, paperback books, matchbooks—as well as reproductions of magazine covers, and comic books with which visitors can interact. Hawaiʻithemed film trailers and TV commercials will support the persistent image of Hawaiʻi in popular culture.
From the Bishop Museum Ethnology Collection, a two-piece hula costume belonging to Pualani Mossman will be displayed. Mossman was a hula dancer at The Hawaiian Room of the Lexington Hotel in New York City during the late 1930s to the early 1940s. She was the daughter of George P. Mossman, who opened the Lalani Hawaiian Village in Waikīkī in 1932, and also performed there.
A listening station will feature hapa-haole music from the 1930s through the 1950s, set against a backdrop of sheet music covers.
Unreal: Hawaiʻi in Popular Imagination will challenge visitors to take a longer look at these ephemeral materials. Some viewers will appreciate the exhibition from a nostalgic point of view or for the artistry presented. Others will find ways to engage from a critical, historical, or political perspective. In looking back on these seemingly serene and charming images, we may be faced with an uncomfortable question: are these daydreams of paradise really harmless?
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