Byet in ancient Polynesia, the act of surfing the waves has intrigued and inspired for centuries. Hawaiians, gifted in the ocean beyond measure, reveled in the art of surfing, or he’e nalu (literally: sliding waves). Since contact with the West, sport has inspired fantastic artistic interpretations. The early illustrations, sometimes depicting questionable physique, quickly gave way to the culture and cult of surfing as the sport spread across the Pacific to California and beyond, while keeping its foundations firmly rooted in the islands. This sport of kings, which represents immense technical skill, bravery and joy, is an art form in itself.
This winter, a new exhibit at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center seeks to explore the nature of surfing as an art form. Surfing Hawai’i, an exhibition featuring the multimedia works of various artists (many of whom are surfers themselves), graces the halls of the Schaefer International Gallery until February 17. The exhibit explores the layered meanings of surfing in Hawai’i. through time, and how these meanings intersected with art.
The artists have created a multidisciplinary art to contemplate and explore the themes of surfing. They include a group of accomplished artists from Hawaii including Carol Bennett (Kaua’i), Pete Cabrinha (Maui), Peter Shepard Cole (O’ahu), Mark Cunningham (O’ahu), Charlie Lyon (Maui), Wayne Levin (Hawai’i) and Noble Richardson (Maui). The history of surfing is explored, including the Native Hawaiian connection to the ocean and he’e nalu. The evolution of surfing is also explored through the prism of the strong dose of tourism and commercialism. Beyond the paintings, there are collections of surfboards, vintage artifacts, and other materials straight from the salty archives of history.
I walked past the exhibit on a calm, sunny afternoon to take a look. “Each of these pieces was created just for that,” the educationalist told me, pointing to the start of the exhibition. The diverse work consisted of varied elements in the form of classic surfboards, bronze sculptures, portraits and modernist shots of the surf.
The exhibit begins with the origins of surfing: papahe’e nalu, wooden surfboards made by Tom Pohaku Stone, a talented and respected waterman. His remarkable classic planks are crafted from woods like ‘ulu and uma, with long archetypal shapes and a shiny polished grain. Displays with Hawaiian legends and historical photos add depth and insight to the display.
The exhibition winds somewhat chronologically through the gallery, tackling contemporary themes with striking images of great moderns exhibited alongside the expressive surfers of Noble Richardson’s portraits. Peter Shepard Cole’s seascapes – fluid, peaceful and powerful – showcase the striking beauty of the ocean while contrasting with the kitsch elements resulting from the surf boom and commercialization. Mark Cunningham’s found objects showcase: touristy surf shorts, broken barnacle encrusted leashes, and an explosion of discarded plastic fins offer a hauntingly realistic take on the downsides of surfing’s popularity.
As Hawai’i has evolved to incorporate new elements, so does the art: it moves on to Carol Bennett’s modernist approach and ends where it started, with Pete Cabrinha’s distinctive multimedia style layering on the modern. and history.
Throughout January there will be a few exhibition-related events, both held at the McCoy Studio Theater. On January 10 at 7 p.m. there will be a screening of the historic film The Essence followed by a question-and-answer session with revolutionary athletes like Paige Alms and Kai Lenny.
There will also be two conferences on Sunday January 27 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. The first, “Women and Legends of Surfing”, will be hosted by Pulama Collier, a language and culture educator native to Maui and Hawaiian. The talk will focus on elements of spirituality in surfing and stories about Native Hawaiian women and surfing. The other lecture, “Selling Hawai’i with Surfing, 1880 to 1980,” by author and historian DeSoto Brown, will focus on the symbolism of Hawaiian surfing as portrayed in historical advertising and pop culture.
The exhibition is a testament to our fascination with wave surfing that has fascinated thrill seekers and spectators for centuries. As athletes continue to push the boundaries, the athleticism of surfing classifies it as a sport, but it’s also more than that, living with history, context and meaning.
Hawaii Surf Show & Events
Maui Arts and Culture Center
1 way Cameron, Kahului
Exhibition: Tue-Sun, 10 am-5pm (ex. Public holidays)
Until February 17th. Free admission
Historical surf film: the essence
Thursday January 10 7 p.m.
$ 12 (plus applicable fees)
Surf Lessons in Hawaii
Sunday January 27 2 p.m.
Free entry (limited places)