Andrade, Maile

Mea Nīnauele: Melehina Groves

Maile Andrade.

© Maile Andrade


Ka‘iwakīloumoku found the opportunity to talk story with Maile Andrade last month - and that is no mean feat! With gallery openings on March 3rd to kick off MAMo - Maoli Arts Month - university classes to teach, committees to head, Kamehameha dorms to advise, as well as her own work to devote countless hours and energies to, we really appreciate being able to share this interview with our readers. Maile is also the art editor for ‘Ōiwi and an Assistant Professor at Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, where she is working to create a Native Hawaiian Visual Culture Program. She believes strongly in the importance of networking with other indigenous peoples across the world as we share the struggles and the victories involved in rewriting our own unique histories.


MG:     Could you tell us a little bit about your background?

MA:      Sure, my mother was a backyard oil painter and she was also a composer of music. She was one of those women... you know the aunties that carry the ‘ukulele around? She always had her ‘ukulele with her, ready to sing. When we’d go to a party she was always the one up there singing, beautiful voice.  My father worked at Pearl Harbor as a boat builder. He constructed wooden boats and taught other people how to do it. So I come from a family that used their hands.

I grew up in Mākaha on O‘ahu but my mother is from Moloka‘i, she’s pure Hawaiian. Her maiden name is Hanakahi. Actually, my ‘ohana... my mother’s parents were the first homesteaders on Kalama‘ula, Moloka‘i.  In fact my grandmother wrote "Kalama‘ula."

MG:     No way! What was your grandmother’s name?

MA:      Ida is her first name and Iakona is her maiden name. There are a few composers listed under it because they wrote it as a group of three women but in those days it didn’t matter, you know? Originally she was from Kaua‘i. My parents moved out to Mākaha when land was just starting to go for sale in the late 1940s, so I grew up out there. In our yard, we had flowers and plants everywhere, so for side money we used to make lei for the airport. We always did lei making or woodworking, things like that.

I think at a very young age my parents recognized a talent, and now I always think about that in regards to children. They nurtured it. I was the kid growing up that always got the paint set, the little art kits, the craft kit, you know [laughing] and I always did it, since I was a little kid.

MG:     So they paid attention to what you were drawn to as a child, your interests.

MA:      Yeah and I think about that because when we look at children we should try to figure out how to zero in on their interests because it can change their whole life.

MG:     Watch what they gravitate towards.

MA:      And encourage it.  Allow them to gain skills at a very young age. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t doing art; as far back as I can remember, I always drew, I always painted, I always worked with my hands, and I continued my interests in school.  I majored in art and went to school in different places around the world, Australia, New York, California, and then when I was about twenty-one I wanted to come home.  I took every art class that was offered, forgot about the core!  [laughing] I think I had less  than a year left to get my BA, when I got married and moved to Kaua‘i.

At that same point in my life while we were raising a family, I was getting more interested in my own cultural practices. I started to learn weaving with a woman from Samoa, she was the first person who taught me to weave lauhala. I started to dance hula more seriously -- my mother was a kumu hula. She was trained, she danced with ‘Iolani Luahine. But even having a mother as a kumu hula, she never forced us to dance. I was into more of the visual part of cultural expression, you know?

To make a long story short, when I was on Kaua‘i in the 80s, there was this little rule in community colleges that you could become a "non-traditional" student and all those credits I’d taken over 15 years ago could be counted towards my degree. So Carlos, my husband, said, "You should go look into this and see if you can save your credits." I had them evaluated and ended up needing only one more semester to complete an AA. I went and did three science classes and one math and got my AA from Kaua‘i CC. [laughing]

MG:     Did you suffer the whole time?

MA:      No, I loved it! In fact I got the science award! I loved math in high school. I think one of the key things that was really neat was when my children were growing up, we realized we needed to change our occupations a bit to support the family, so we thought about going back to school.  At that point I was going to be a math teacher, because I love math. I love numbers. I used to be on the math team in high school. [laughing]

But Carlos told me something that I’ll never forget, and I repeat it to kids I meet today. He said, "If you didn’t have to think about money and support -- if you had an endless amount of supplies and someone sponsoring you -- what would you choose to do?" I would’ve chosen art. Even if it wasn’t my job, I would be doing art. So that’s what I chose, and he said, "That’s what you go to school for." I could’ve compromised and chose to become this other thing.

MG:     What a great husband!

MA:      I know! So the plan was I would go to school first and get a degree and then he would go to school and get a degree. We did that for one semester, then I realized there were grants and tuition waivers!  If we both went to school at the same time, we qualified for everything! [laughing] After graduating with our BAs, we both applied to grad school at Mānoa and got in, moved to Honolulu. That same year we started to work for Hale Kāko‘o and ‘Aha Pūnana Leo. I did the visuals for the curriculum, you know all the first posters, flash cards, book illustrations, all those things.

Then I pursued a Masters in Fine Arts, with a focus in ceramics and fiber arts; Carlos got a Masters in Counseling from College of Ed and today he has a PhD in geography, cultural geography. I worked in the Art Department at UH as a lecturer for... ten years? Then as a professor there for three years. In the last two years I’ve shifted to the Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies to create a Native Hawaiian Visual Culture  program.

MG:     Was there any reason for your shifting over to Kamakakūokalani?

MA:      While I was a professor in the Art Department, I was teaching this Hawaiian Visual Arts course and in a class of maybe 30 students, there would maybe be three or four Hawaiians. I began to think, do I teach non-Hawaiians a little bit about Hawaiian culture -- and it was always just a little bit about Hawaiian culture -- or do I shift over to Center for Hawaiian Studies and teach Hawaiians how to be artists? Not to be artists, because I think that we’re naturally visual people, it comes naturally. But teach them how to articulate and have a dialogue in the visual world, so I chose to do that.

We’re not duplicating the Art Department, because it’s not about skill. It’s about teaching a native perspective, how we see the world -- how we view the world as native people and putting that into a visual agenda.

MG:     Does teaching traditional skills in a university setting affect the process or the outcome of native expression?

MA:      Well, first of all, before I get into that... couple of things that are happening all over the world for indigenous peoples is that we’re creating dialogues and ways of articulating who we are.  One of the things that I find challenging, actually, is having the dialogue with our own people, because we have notions of what certain things are supposed to be imaged as or should look like in order to be classified as "native." We need to question ourselves as to where that comes from, because a lot of it might be coming from a Western perspective of what "native-ness" is.

For that reason, I try not to use the term "traditional" unless the person really understands what customary practices are. Then when I say, "Well our traditional things show us this," they’ll know that I’m referring to artifacts.  Otherwise, when you say you do Hawaiian art most of the responses are, "Oh, you must do practices that are replicating things in the museum." People think if you’re a Hawaiian artist, you’re doing artifact work.  Well, if you’re only doing artifact work, then you’re really doing dead art. You’re only doing things from the past... but it doesn’t talk about where we’re going. It’s not a bad thing, I think you must know those practices well before you can move on and be creative in today’s context. We’re really an ancestor-honoring people.  Not in a way that we "worship" them, but in a way that brings them forth to today and helps to become who we are.  That’s a good thing.

MG:     For those of us who aren’t as versed, what would be considered "customary practices"?

MA:      All the things our ancestors practiced. Making kapa, weaving... all those things. When we make those things today, we’re referencing them, but we’re not making them in a customary way, because we’re using modern tools. Now, modern tools are not a bad thing, I think using them is a good thing but there’s also something about adzing out a canoe and the feeling and the tapping and the sound...the rhythms, that are different. Sort of like in language, you can speak Hawaiian, but there are different rhythms in different communities -- the rhythms spoke about the place and the people of the area.

One thing became really apparent when Lyonel (Grant) was in residency here. There are a lot of Hawaiian artists who do contemporary work based on research or notions of conceptualization, but they don’t do the customary practices!  They do not understand that skill! It’s great they’re doing it, but I think there’s deeper understanding that comes from mastering a customary practice. When I’m weaving or I’m making kapa, I’m understanding that material. I’m understanding the process -- how, why did they choose a certain process to go through to make this piece? What are the levels of thinking and seeing the world from their perspective? It puts me in a space that better connects me to who my ancestors were. Not so much the physical part, but more about how those processes happen in your head and in your na‘au, in your being.  That understanding then allows you to take those same processes and conceptual ideas and move them to a contemporary material. You’re doing the same thing, and that’s what makes it Hawaiian.

The Hawaiian-ness is not about, "I’m going to put a tiki here," or use this or that image. It has nothing to do with imagery. The way we use imagery and color is to code things, to speak about something else in this bigger conceptual idea of how we see the world. That’s why international dialogue is great, because by having that dialogue -- with people like Bob Jahnke who is with Massey University -- we’ve started to use or not use words.

Take the word "art," for example. It’s a very Western term and when you use it, it comes loaded with a lot of baggage for a native person. I like to use the term "visual culture" instead.  When we think of art in terms of its function, what it does in Western society, it’s not really the same as a native perspective. Sometimes when people not of our culture look at Hawaiian work, they say, "Well it’s a craft," or it’s something that serves a utilitarian purpose so it can’t be an art piece. But I think excellence in our practices takes it beyond the function of just use and it becomes a beautiful thing. We’ve given it mana, we’ve given it more.  It’s more than just a "cutter," an ‘oki niho -- the form of it is beautiful, the use of it is beautiful, the way it’s lashed together is beautiful, the material used is beautiful -- so it’s not crude, it’s not raw! There is an excellence to it.

I think that’s what the challenge today is, to raise the art level back up to that type of excellence. We’re also dealing with identity that is imposed from the outside, when we should really identify who we are for ourselves.

MG:     For people that aren’t familiar with you, what kind of media do you work with, without limiting yourself? [laughing]

MA:      I try not to get stuck in a medium. Noelle Kahanu was saying it’s really surprising for her because she can never predict what I’m going to make! I try to think of what I’m trying to say and then choose a media that will best communicate it. If I feel that a fiber piece will say it best, I’ll use fiber. If I feel it’s sculpture, same thing. Most of what you’ll see of mine in the marketplace -- which by the way, just because you’re in the marketplace doesn’t mean you’re a good artist -- [laughing] but most of the stuff I put in the marketplace has been fiber things, such as those velvet shawls I did recently.  I’ve also been putting a lot of prints out there. There was a period of time where most of my art was political art so they were done in installations, meaning you put in a piece that’s specific to a show, it speaks on the theme of that show, but when that show ends it doesn’t exist in the same form anymore. It comes apart.

As far as customary practices go, I weave, I make kapa -- this will be a really busy year for me, there’s a kapa exhibition coming up. Lately I’ve been painting. I’m not trained in painting - they talk about artists having strengths in different areas and probably 3D is my strength. 3D comes naturally for me, 2D things I have to work a little harder at. But I think it’s important as an artist to work on things that you’re not so strong at because it helps you to see better all around. When I’m working in 3D, I’m always thinking, "Well how does this lay up in 2D?" and vice versa.  It’s actually training your eye, art is about seeing and looking. It helps you to see the world differently, all of your options, and it helps you to communicate with the world differently, because really it’s a visual language.

MG:     Do you feel that trying to find something you want to focus on is a challenge for you?

MA:      No, because I don’t think that’s in my nature. It’s not my personality. My challenge is probably making those pieces that stand throughout time. They’re not dated, they don’t speak of only one thing, they’re like your legacy that takes you beyond time. When you go in to look at things that our ancestors made, those things that are 200 years old... they just blow you away. They have withstood the test that doesn’t speak of any time period, they’re just great pieces of work. I think that’s my challenge, to make those pieces. How will they function for Hawaiians in 100 years? 150 years?

MG:     Who do you feel has really influenced you, artist or otherwise?

MA:      I think there’s a body of people that influence me. I guess to be very honest, I could have stayed on Kaua‘i and continued to do my art on my own, in seclusion or isolation or whatever. I chose to do the university, the school route. Sometimes people equate getting an education and degree at a university with some kind of validation that you have arrived someplace. I don’t think that’s so. I think that it’s self-imposed -- if you want to arrive, you can arrive with or without school. People can be self-taught, by association, hui, hanging out with people, or by going to school.

But I think what school did for me was speed up the process. It put me there much sooner, forced me to have these dialogues and to examine myself much quicker than I would have if I’d been by myself. It also put me in a space of interaction with international artists which I never would have had if I’d been at home. Maybe eventually I would have, but I would have been way too old. It would have taken a lot of time, and I don’t have a lot of time. I’m thankful for having those opportunities. I think the big thing for me is exposure: exposure to as much art as possible, to as many native artists as possible, to the dialogue, and talking to people, creating relationships with all these different indigenous artists.

I’ve been having this dialogue with Māori artists since 1993 and have developed over the years great relationships with different native artists. The world is not that big for visual artists, especially native artists. We pretty much know each other and each others’ work. I think the difference though, at least for me and Māori people, is that we’re Polynesian so we share the same stories, we have so many similarities, that when I connect back with them, I’m just there.

Those things I really look forward to, that interaction, because they’re sort of my peers. We’re the same age, although I’m in a different generation in the art sense. I think what I miss is that in Hawai‘i, we can still have the same dialogue but we seem to be a little more... we get so busy...

MG:     Maybe distracted, wrapped up in things?

MA:      Yeah, wrapped up in our own things and because there’s so few of us there’s so much work to do. There’s so much kuleana to take care of.  Maybe it’s because when we do exchanges, you know, because I’m a visitor, the host will make the time for you but maybe they don’t do it for each other! [laughing]

Other artists have been very helpful to me, when I have questions about certain strategies, PR things, I can always talk to them. Lately I created a dialogue with Hiko (Hanapī) and we email all the time now. It’s just finding those people, April (Drexel) at the Center, Puni (Kūkahiko) -- but she’s the next generation, so I can see her coming and kicking in. It’s great. ‘Īmai (Kalāhele) reminds me about always working. We need to have more people included in certain dialogues to understand what’s going on.

MG:     Do you see yourself going in any particular direction in the next few years?

MA:      Hopefully we can get a really strong visual culture program in Kamakakūokalani, I can see that happening. I can also see a strong group of Native Hawaiian artists that are producing, that are doing great works, not just for the markets but just for our people. This year is a busy year with the trademarking committee, the Arts Market, we’re doing a resource database, preparing for the PIKO international gathering... I’m also doing several residencies this summer. Fiji one week, Aotearoa six weeks and Alaska two weeks. There goes my summer! 

When it comes to the business of art and the paperwork of art, I am starting to allow other people to do it. I want to let it go. I want to get to a place where I can just do the art. Initially it’s hard, because you always have this doubt about the success factor. You know if you do it, you’re going to do it well, because you’re committed to it.  But I need to let that go and allow the next generation to do things the way they want to do them. A little lesson for my generation to learn is that we think it has to go a certain way, but we’re not going to be living in those times when the next generation will be and they’re going to have to be responsible for things.

Puni pointed something out to me. When I was in my twenties, we just did a lot of things because there was a need. I’m waiting for this generation to kick in and they’re older than when I kicked in! Puni said, "Well, listen. We have you guys that are above us and we’re waiting for you to give us permission to do it." Then I think, that’s right! We just did it because there was no one else and we just had to do it. So what we need to do is allow you, the next generation, to practice and allow you to do it. We need to give it up! [laughing]

MG:     Or...maybe not "give it up" in so many words, but...

MA:      Or be there to support you, but let it go. Let it become what it has to become. And not control it. Maybe serve as someone who advises but doesn’t run the show. I guess there’s validation or whatever that you guys are waiting for, but you can’t worry about it. You just gotta go for it.

MG:     Maybe younger people are waiting for that perfect time to feel ready, but... it won’t ever come!

MA:      No, you just gotta do it. It’s also an age thing, I think, because at some point in your life you have to say, "I really don’t care what people think about me. Your opinion of me isn’t going to change how I live my life, I’m gonna do it anyway." And it’s OK.  Probably when you step out like that, things get done, and you probably are doing it in a good way. But time flies by, so you gotta jump in.

MG:     How do you feel about the issue of native perspective, of people who feel anyone can create from a native perspective?

MA:      Well, the program we’re creating at the Center for Hawaiian Studies is not just for Hawaiians. It’s not about excluding anyone but it is about proper protocols. I think that if one has the understanding of what they’re doing, then it’s OK to do it. But I also think to be a Native Hawaiian artist, you have to be Native Hawaiian. You can’t call yourself a Native Hawaiian if you’re not. I’m an artist. I purposely say I’m a Native Hawaiian artist because being Native Hawaiian is important to me, being an artist is secondary. So there’s a conscious effort when I say that.

In one of the classes I teach, we do genealogy right off. I believe that we are honoring our genealogy and we’re honoring our ancestors. I don’t believe in "Hawaiian-at-heart." People tell me, "Well, I’m Hawaiian-at-heart." What does that mean? Do they think because you’re Hawaiian at heart, it gives them permission to do certain things? Like what? If you don’t have Native Hawaiian ancestry or genealogy but you love the culture, it doesn’t stop you from participating in it or learning about it. We don’t ever say, "No you can’t learn it, you don’t have the genealogy." Whatever background you come from, Caucasian, Japanese, Chinese, whatever, that makes up what you are, that’s your DNA.  But you can’t say you are this thing if you’re not, because to me, that is a theft of identity. That’s a theft, even of someone’s genealogy. Be upfront about it.

There are non-Hawaiians who participate in our cultural practices who never ever claim they’re Hawaiian, and they’re excellent in their areas of expertise; they tell you exactly who they are, they never claim to be who they aren’t.  In that way they honor the culture. You don’t honor the culture by stealing the genealogy and identity. Most of the time when we get into problems with people, it has nothing to do with actually practicing something, it has to do with the attitude of "it’s all about me" and "I want to take this thing and be the expert on it." I think that issue actually has something to do with how different people see the world, where systems of measurement and achievement are different in Western thinking.  To me, one overriding thing about a native point of view is that we’re very conscious of community and group, so a lot of the agendas that we do support communities or groups of people in getting ahead.

Along those same lines, a lot of things I do as an artist I don’t do just for myself, I try to pull in as many artists as possible. But most of the times when I run into people who want to claim Hawaiian-ness, they’re not looking to forward or empower the group, it’s about them. That "it’s all about me" attitude - they have the wrong approach before even starting.

Sometimes I get challenged when I’m teaching, someone will say, "Well I don’t find that in any readings, that’s not written down," and Keone Nunes said something really interesting to me once about that. He said, "If a Hawaiian tells a Hawaiian who tells another Hawaiian, and that Hawaiian tells a foreign person who writes it down, then all of a sudden it’s validated?" We have different ways of passing knowledge. Just because we didn’t put it in a book... and the person who put it in a book who got it from a Hawaiian, does that make him an expert on it because he got the information from someone else and wrote it down? No. If they were truly empowering the culture, then they would tell the genealogy of how that information got passed. And then you have to be responsible for that knowledge and value what you’re passing on or talking about. Outside people have claimed the culture to be theirs; by studying the culture from the outside and defining it they have become the "experts" on it and the only point of view out there is theirs.

MG:     What are some of the concerns you’re faced with?

MA:      One of my concerns and challenges -- not that I lose sleep over it -- is where are our practitioners in the future, in terms of excellence? In our cultural practices, we’re losing so much skill. It’s shifting... used to be in a village, tribe, clan, or family or community that you got to pass on those things, study with someone. Maybe we’re losing skills such as kapa making because the media doesn’t function the same anymore. If we had to wear kapa every day there would probably be a lot of kapa makers!

Something I think about, especially in teaching art to younger generations, is the students to have patience.  When they start to learn our customary practices they try to do it the fastest way, so the concern is how do we impart pride in your work? How do we impart excellence in work, patience, it’s a mentorship thing that’s needed. Sometimes our education focus shifts, right now everything is self-esteem, but I think it’s false to give a self-esteem "credit" to something that isn’t done well. It’s misleading and doesn’t do service to the student either. Sometimes we give false recognition to something that could be done so much better... you know what I’m saying? You’re also instilling in that person some sort of false system of measurement.

How do we deal with imparting excellence in skill and pride in your work, in everything we do? Even for how we live in this world.  Art can be a way that you live, how you cook, how you breathe, how you move, how you pack, how you drive -- it’s like values that are instilled in you that make you want to do things a certain way.  You don’t want to take shortcuts, even if no one’s looking! Sometimes we do performances only when we have an audience. How do we perform excellently for yourself, so you’re happy to live with yourself, when there’s no audience? How do you do the art, the visual part, or the art of living excellently when no one’s looking? But your ancestors are looking.  When you lele into the next world, will they greet you with open arms or will they say, "Oh gosh, you screwed up! You could’ve backed us up, but you turned away!" or something. How do you impart that?

I don’t know if that has to do with the times we live in, the social setting we live in. I don’t know if it’s something that I acquired because I grew up in my community. I think if we address that then we won’t have as many problems with cheating or lying or drug problems because the excellence of living is what expected of us.  It’s expected of us not to be doing the quick thing, not to be cheating, no shortcuts.

The challenge also is to get our students to believe in who they are. When you discover what it is to be a Hawaiian, then those things are automatic. Sometimes in the education system we go backwards. We deal with the external which is so much harder, but if we deal with the internal than everything else falls into place.

Sometimes I think, so I perform or do certain things because I’m worried about someone else thinks about me, and does what that person thinks of me change what I do or how I behave, because it shouldn’t. It’s what you think about yourself that should be consistent.  But that part is self-discovery and there’s not much you can impart, everyone has to go through it for themselves. Some go through it earlier than others, some never do!

MG:     How important do you think having a mentor is to a student’s success?

MA:      I think mentorships are really important. I think they’re probably the most long-lasting way of imparting information. We see it today in hālau hula, that’s a mentorship. How a kumu hula embraces or takes in students. It’s really hard to do it in our educational system today because we’re not set up that way.  When I think about that, you’re not taking someone on just for a period of time, it’s a lifelong commitment. You’re seeing them through their whole life, it’s like having children. You don’t know if you’re a good parent until your kids is 60! And even then, they can still mess up!

MG:     Do you have any experience you can recall as one of your proudest or happiest, in terms of your work?

MA:      [laughing] That’s hard! I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about it... I like to stay open enough so that the experience becomes the adventure. Sometimes if you’re not open to it, you miss the whole experience.  We have this discussion with students, it’s almost philosophical, but... is art the product at the end or is it the process? To me a good product, end product, becomes a strong piece of visual art because it speaks of this unreal journey. You gotta pay attention to the journey. If the journey is great -- it’s really about life -- if it’s good, then this piece that expresses something about the journey will be good.  If you’re just doing a visual art and going through the theory and the steps, you know, lighting, paint strokes, color blend, then it’s just an exercise. It doesn’t tell a story, it doesn’t speak about anything.  The art is really a journey.

MG:     That really makes me want to be an artist.

MA:      [laughing] Well we’re all artists, our products may be different, for you the product may be dance or writing but we gotta pay attention to the journey. That’s where all the lessons happen. Also I always think about stepping out of the comfort zone. We don’t learn that much in a safe environment. We probably have our most growth and learning when we step out of our comfort zone.  And it’s hard! Boundaries are self-inflicted, we put them there ourselves. I always have to question myself, "Who put this up? Where did that image come from?"  Where did that image from? Is it from some context of a colonized point of view? We put that up ourselves. Or am I starting to stay clear enough?

I also always like to think I’m trained in Western art and aesthetics. I know all the theories, the histories, that’s my degree, I’m trained in it. The difference between that and Hawaiian art is that our aesthetics are different. The way we look at the world is different. So the way we measure it differently. We’re going to use codings that are different from Western aesthetics.  They change and sometimes cannot be read from the outside, and that’s OK.

That’s why as good artists, you have to the layering. For a certain audience it becomes just a pleasurable visual thing, then you have a layer for those who can read the code, and then you might have a layer for those that’s personal, and another layer for the kaona. Kaona is real important in our culture.  Like in kapa, why did they put a watermark there, they didn’t need it, who was gonna see it? That’s the kaona, all the layers upon layers upon layers. That’s how we view the world, it’s real different, it’s not right in your face.

Some things may appear to be decorative, but wouldn’t it be cool if it was decorative and it gave mana and it protected you, spoke about the god you worshipped, spoke about your family, and identified where you came from! All in one thing. The shift of my going over to the Center was being able to speak about all of that.  Manu (Meyer) put it down in writing, ideas about how we gain knowledge and see the world. We see and gain knowledge in different ways, and that’s what makes us native or not native.
Photos courtesy of Maile Andrade.