Until this year, if you can believe it, the nearly 90-year-old Honolulu Museum of Art has never had a curator of Hawaii-based art.

But as of Jan. 5, Healoha Johnston, a 35-year old Kuliouou native, is tasked with sleuthing out the histories of the pieces in the museum’s Hawaii art collection that spans from pre-contact to the 1970s. Because this is uncharted territory, she will essentially write a history that few know.

Museum Director Stephan Jost, perhaps recognizing the museum’s responsibility to try and understand this history, was a driving force in getting the board to approve the position. According to him, “a massive amount of basic curatorial research needs to be done in this area. It is a specialized field that we need an expert in. Most of our curators have been educated on the mainland or have little formal training in the arts of Hawaii. It is really a 20- to 30-year project to frame the history of art in Hawaii with all of the cultural complexities and contested issues.”

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Healoha Johnston is the Honolulu Museum of Art’s first-ever curator of arts of Hawaii.

Shuzo Uemoto/Honolulu Museum Of Art

I sat down with Healoha and Lesa Griffith, the museum’s communications director, to find out what “art of Hawaii” means — are indigenous Hawaiians getting their own curator? (not exactly) — and to hear her plans for the job. Here’s our interview, which I’ve edited and condensed a little for clarity.

CIVIL BEAT: You’re about a little over a week in; how’s it going?

HEALOHA JOHNSTON: It’s going really well. People have been really helpful.

What is the first thing a new curator does?

The first thing I did was reach out to my colleagues, introduce myself to them, get to know their department and what it is they like to do, and also get to know their collections. We’re responsible for a visual culture of Hawaii and so I’m looking at how to interpret that.

What does it mean to be the Assistant Curator of the Arts of Hawaii?

I’m assistant to Theresa Papanikolas, the curator of European and American art. The museum has always been set up with a focus on the East and West, so the Pacific was a smaller sub-set (and Hawaii is a part of the Western art department), and I think this position was created to be able to examine Hawaii’s role in that department.

Is it specifically for indigenous art?

It’s interesting, because art of Hawaii and Hawaiian art aren’t necessarily one and the same. These terms have been defined differently over time, sometimes based on ethnicity of the artist, other times based on subject matter, or location of production. To call an art work “of Hawaii” means that it was created in Hawaii by any ethnicity of an artist, and works created by artists who are linked to Hawaii. They may not necessarily live here their whole life.

Ray Yoshida would be an example. He’s someone who lived here and then taught at the Art Institute of Chicago and returned home. Just looking at Hawaii’s art production and its connection to the broader world. My focus is 19th- and 20th-century work. The collection consists of pieces from the 1800s and 1900s so I’ll be studying that span.

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A look inside Honolulu Museum of Art’s John Dominis and Patches Damon Holt Gallery of the Arts of Hawaii, whose collection is now under the curation of Healoha Johnston.

Courtesy Honolulu Museum Of Art

Why, do you think, has the museum invested in this part of its collection?

Hawaii’s art history has not been explored in depth — I think Hawaii’s history, in a general sense, is understood in only a limited capacity. And this is a way for the museum to contribute to an understanding of Hawaii’s history by understanding Hawaii’s visual culture, taking that piece and contributing it to the larger historical experience.

There are people who are really into some of the subgenres of this category of art, such as the “volcano school” (non-Native Hawaiian artists who were really into painting erupting volcanoes) and those paintings go for a lot of money, right?

It’s a significant example of how Hawaii’s always been linked to the global experience. We’ve always had artists coming and going, and we’ve always had the specific or Hawaii interpretation of different schools. Take California plein air. We’re connected very closely with Hawaii landscape paintings, which are quintessential landscape art. So again, more research will underscore those relationships, Hawaii’s relationship with regional Pacific places and also international and global.

Do you have any early goals out of the gate?

For 2015? I want to reach out to other curators. There are similar collections that exist in other places nationally and internationally, and I’d like to reach out and just let them know that our museum has a curator for this collection and that we can maybe participate in exhibitions and initiatives at large that are relevant to Hawaii. We could have a way to not only engage other institutions, but also to engage the community — having a historical collection and making that relevant to the social political context of today.

How does Hawaii’s art fit into the international context — or, to put it another way, how do other places perceive Hawaii art, and will you try to influence that in any way?

Because Hawaii’s history is not well understood, the art history is not understood at all, and the art history is largely unwritten. That’s a crucial component — to provide a broader understanding is to put it into text so that people elsewhere have access to the information. But I do think that people here, the artists here, want critical consideration of their work, and they want to open it up for interpretation.

I think that the arts here are diversifying, though. Hawaii was always a diverse composite of artists and institutions and interpretations, but as artists from here get footholds in other national and international arts circuits, it’s opening the door for new ideas, for some warranted attention for artists who have been working or operating under the radar for a long time producing some really, really smart work about Hawaii, yet haven’t been noticed.

The ocean is more than just a physical barrier — Jaimey Hamilton Faris, who writes about art and teaches theory and criticism at the University of Hawaii, has talked about how hard it is to get essays about Hawaii art published in national magazines.

People don’t consider it — it’s interesting. There’s a publication called ArtMargins, and what they consider to be art margins are really burgeoning art hot spots, like the Arab world. Like China and other places like this for American audiences to have access to the see other burgeoning art markets. And Hawaii is not really considered yet a burgeoning art market, in my opinion. That probably contributes somewhat to the hesitation for publications to pick it up.

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Theresa Papanikolas, curator of European and American art at the Honolulu Museum of Art, left, and Healoha Johnston, the museum’s new assistant curator of arts of Hawaii.

Shuzo Uemoto/Honolulu Museum Of Art

Why do you think that is? We’ve got interesting work, and we’re in an interesting time of transition: Kakaako’s development, the bicycle and rail infrastructure; growing homelessness — a lot of things that artists can and are sinking into and responding to, and these are relatable issues to other cities and markets. So why do you think it feels stuck?

Why are people’s perceptions of Hawaii stuck? I think people perceive Hawaii in a particular way. There isn’t really any information there for them to access that proves otherwise. The arts that are produced here — there is a parallel between the arts of Hawaii and global art trajectories, but those art trends were always adapted and made relevant to Hawaii’s unique political experience and social context. With a limited understanding of that context, it’s difficult for people elsewhere to understand what these artists are even doing. It doesn’t necessarily fit or translate exactly like that global trajectory, because it’s got its local iteration. There’s a lot of room to explain and translate this visual culture for a bigger audience.

Looking at how those experiences can affect and relate to what people make today.

Yes, exactly.

Stephan (Jost) has said he’s looking to you and sees you capable of breaking new ground in this area. Where do you go for research like this if it’s such a little-understood area?

Right now is a really exciting time to be researching in Hawaii, because I’m not alone. There’s a lot of exciting young scholars coming out of the University of Hawaii who are doing really interesting work. So, starting with my own group of fellow scholars is one place to go. Otherwise, the Pacific collection at UH and the Bishop Museum archives are great. Those are great places to start.

Any old newspapers or publications? Do art provenances play a role?

That’s an interesting trail to follow, the provenance of certain pieces, because they have their own little autobiography. It’s like they’ve got their own lives. I look for primary sources as opposed to secondary sources because, a lot of times, when you have a history that is so unwritten, people rely on what little has been written, whether or not its accuracy is valid. Primary sources take a lot more time but tend to be much more reliable.

Which of the artists from this period would you consider to have the biggest influence?

The most exciting figure, if I were to pick a figure in Hawaii’s visual history, would have to be King Kalakaua. So although he wasn’t an artist, he was a patron and he was a patron with the government behind him. That made him a crucial figure in Hawaii’s art history. To me, understanding what Hawaii’s artists are doing today — when I first started studying Hawaiian art, I wanted to understand contemporary art. And then I realized, whoa whoa whoa. I’m not going to understand any of this unless I know what went on a long time ago. So I found King Kalakaua to be my anchor, really, in visual culture, based on his interpretations and the way he modified different influences and engaged different materials. That’s how I’ve been able to better understand what’s happening today. So although not an artist, he is a very important person.

Do you have any advice to local artists making things today who could use the work and information that you’re going to provide?

So, just so I understand your question. You’re saying there are artists working in Hawaii who aren’t necessarily referencing Hawaii’s personal experience, but I think that some of the artists working today who make really powerful work are able to pick up momentum from Hawaii’s political undercurrent, whether or not their works are specific to it. Reem Bassous is case in point. Her work is very politically driven, but it speaks to the Lebanese historical experience. She’s looking at the Lebanese civil war, in which she grew up, yet her work resonates so closely with a lot of the work created by the Hawaiian artists. So it would be ridiculous for her to start making work about Hawaii when that is not her personal experience, and she wouldn’t not be able to speak to it as honestly as a Hawaii artist could. Yet, she’s able to pick up on that energy and explore her own experience in a place that has its own political base.

In the press release announcing your hire, there’s a quote by Theresa Papanikolas that I want to break down: “We’re all going to learn a lot from Healoha about Hawaii’s singular art history, how it plays within the local community, and how it resonates in its broader context. I can’t wait to see what interesting projects and initiatives she develops.” How does HMA’s art collection interact locally and elsewhere, and what kinds of programs will you put together?

I think a starting point is with the collection. Both Jay (Jensen, curator of contemporary art) and Theresa have been kind enough to take me down to the vault and introduce me to some of the work in the arts of Hawaii collection, being able to see what pieces were acquired, and researching why they even exist. How did they get here? And connecting those pieces with the social story of Hawaii. And I think that’s where I’m going to start. I don’t know what form it will take — I’ve only had one week — but that is something that I’d like to see: just start with the collection and go from there.

Any concepts yet?

Not yet! I’ll keep you posted. Jay and I are both open to collaboration, because it is an important link to make, the contemporary experience being rooted in a historical experience and understanding that through the arts.

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