When I think of “home,” Ehukai’s Molokai Slide starts to play. The slow strum of ukulele chords wrap me in a familiar embrace. I see idyllic memories strapped to the backs of angel wings, crystal clear water, and country roads. The sun hovers above the horizon and asks, who are you without this place when you still see it even with your eyes closed? Growing up in Hawaii was easy; becoming was harder. The community is tight-knit, the connections between land and people run deep. It is contingent upon balance, a kind of stasis that breeds homogeneity. There’s a prototype for paradise, hula hips not included- read the instructions for how to build contentment. After years of living in New York, I find myself putting certain parts of me away before I go to Hawaii. There, I am a version of myself stripped of residual expression. I become palatable and forgiven.
Since I left, Hawaii has changed. Many aspects of Hawaiin culture, however, remain resilient. Gentrification is everyone’s neighbor. Your neighbors are no longer locals. Cultural objectification is a bitter pill best taken on an empty stomach. Yet, there is now a community of creative individuals who have more courage than I did when I was living there. They’ve found each other and built a foundation for a different kind of aloha. They writhe in their own becoming, hosting art openings at gallery spaces and creating garments with lace instead of gaudy floral prints.
Uluwehi Kang is a performance artist, clothing designer and PhD Art Crit candidate. Lehua Pelayo is a spiritual healer and artist. STP’s Lindsey Okubo brings the two friends and creatives together to talk about the troubles in paradise.
Lindsey: We are all children of this land. We have the same stomping grounds. The same memories at Sandy Beach, Shirokiya and Kahala Mall. Can you start by telling me about your childhood?
Uluwehi: I was raised on O`ahu. I lived in Kaneohe and Haiku, then Norfolk when I was in High School. I’ve always been on the windward side. I have a distant connection to Hawai`i, I don’t identify as being Korean or Japanese or Spanish, even though that’s what I am ethnically. I don’t have contact with those places. I’m American but not on the mainland, and [I’m from] Hawai`i but not quite Hawaiian. I’m always struggling to carve out a space in my environment that I can identify with. When you’re young, you try on all these looks and become a different person while not knowing “who you really are.” I have a personality disorder, which puts me in a position where I’m dissociated from myself and my environment. Creating garments is one way that I try to formulate my identity.
Lehua: It’s necessary for survival: you have to make things. That’s the only way to exist, by constantly creating.
Lindsey: What are your markers of success in terms of creation?
Uluwehi: Balance. Borderline personality disorder presents two opposite poles. I’m always going back and forth between extremes. I feel better if I can maintain equitable energy flat-across instead of ricocheting from high to low. In my work, that manifests in color. Red and green remind me of matter, plants and animals. These should be coupled with yellow and blue, forces or energies, air and water.
Lindsey: Balance leads me to think about wholeness. To what extent is your sense of wholeness enhanced because you get to see yourself from different perspectives?
Uluwehi: Everyone is constantly looking for a wholeness with their image. It’s like the “mirror stage,” where you look at yourself and see a complete person instead of fragmentary senses and thoughts. In moments of dissociation, [it’s like] I’m watching this person, seeing her movement as Other. I’m trying to reconcile the idea of seeing myself as whole, from the outside, versus dealing with a persistent internal lack. A back-and-forth.
Lindsey: Lehua, I know you’re interested in the practices of psycho-spiritual healing. Where does that interest come from? How did it feel to wear Uluwehi’s garments?
Lehua: Balance has always been a major focus in my life, too. I’ve always been hypersensitive and aware of the way energy and emotion becomes stuck in our bodies in the form of physical ailments. I saw spirits from a young age and didn’t know how to integrate that into everything else. As I aged, I struggled with my mental health and saw how my emotional wellbeing (or lack thereof) would show up in my body. After I graduated college, I thought I wanted to work in public health. I was excited to get a job at a highly esteemed healthcare organization. The corporate structure of doing computer work from 8am-5pm in a cold, gray office was not aligned with my values. I felt very unstable, and I was struggling heavily with addiction. I got the courage to quit that job a month before the COVID shutdown.
Over the course of quarantine, I realized my gifts lie with being able to work with energies for improved circulation and rebalance. I’ve been studying Usui Reiki Treatment. Even before I had mentioned healing methods, Uluwehi told me that one of the bustiers I tried on was “a good rebalancing top” (itʻs made of pleasing, evenly distributed blocks of different colors – I agree). It’s such a pleasure to try on, wear, and play in the clothes that Uluwehi makes! Being able to adorn myself with garments that are rainbow, beaded, ribboned, laced, and absolutely dreamy… this is what I needed for my soul when I was working in that gray corporate office.
Lindsey: Realistically speaking, to what extent does Hawaii nurture those who might [not fit in] a cookie cutter? Do you mind sharing your personal experiences with struggling to find a place to be accepted by your peers?
Uluwehi: Due to the small-community aspect of Hawai`i, we are all instinctively self-censoring. With less eyes, the magnitude of the gaze is heightened. It’s like constantly being at a family reunion. In terms of an “art world”, or an attempt to cultivate an arts scene in Hawai`i, it’s such a small-community, mostly emerging from a single area, Kaka`ako.
My introduction to Kaka`ako was through 808 Urban and Pow! Wow! Hawai`i, street-art organizations that are gentrifying Kaka’ako, a former warehouse district. My experience with 808 Urban was negative, which had to do with the lack of options for young artists here. They take advantage of Hawai`i’s children, using their talents and making promises with the intent of gaining self-satisfaction and status. Dealing with minors [in this way] is a cover-up to present themselves as charitable when what they’re doing is predatory. It’s a grooming process of both the children and the community.
Lehua: Wow. They work with schools?
Uluwehi: Yeah, and they shouldn’t. Some of us former members have tried to sound the alarm to other organizations, and a few have sworn off working with 808 Urban, but Pow! Wow! is still going. They continue to perpetuate a program that takes advantage of people and spaces that could belong to individuals and local artists. They’re bringing in people from outside Hawaii to cover walls (physical space!) while pretending it’s something greater than it is. [They act like] they’re a gift to Hawai`i’s art scene.
Lehua: Pow! Wow! tends to be an extension of the tourism industry. Tourist artists get to fill our public spaces year after year.
Uluwehi: I’m skeptical and jaded, in that regard. On the flip side, I’ve had great support and seen active efforts (to put Hawai`i first) from mentor Drew Broderick and gallery Aupuni Space. I also think that Maile Meyer (Na Mea Hawai`i) taking over the Pegge Hopper space is a great symbolic act for the community. Natanya Freidheim wrote a piece about the former gallery, where Pegge Hopper was quoted saying, “I am not painting Hawaiians, I am painting a myth… it has nothing to do with Hawaiians. I am merely using them as a beautiful thing just like an orchid.” The idea of taking the Hawaiin citizens and converting them into commodities… I mean, it’s one thing to mythologize yourself, but to mythologize the Other? It’s really sick.
Lindsey: It’s ironic, right? You’re supposed to find strength in community, but to what extent is being part of a tight knit community sometimes silencing?
Lehua: The tight knit-ness can feel like a loss of freedom. If you wear something unusual, people are like, “where are you going? Why are you doing that?” If you say, “because I want to honor myself! Because it’s fun and makes me happy!” people will give you shit and imply you’re high makamaka or strange. People here look down on dressing playfully, asking, “who does she think she is?” t’s not a bad thing to shine.
Lindsey: This is tangential to the deep-seated resentment towards tourism we’ve all had. It’s akin to cultural objectification, and notions of outside people coming in and taking up literal space, whether it’s on walls or in our valleys.To what extent do we need outside people to expand what we know about Hawaii and how we continue to define it?
Lehua: Hawaiians have been travelers from day one. It’s important for there to be exchange, but frustrating when a lot of the policy decisions made are for the benefit of tourists, not for the long-term viability of Hawaiʻi. The state is in a lot of debt and tourism has been a huge source of income for them. They keep making policies to reinforce our dependence on that income. This government is mainly structured for the outsider.
Uluwehi: Enclosing ourselves completely would be self-stifling, however, opening the state opens our local people to marginalization. The question is, how do we foster an influx of ideas without necessarily giving ground, literally?
Lindsey: Hawaii has to ask itself how it can begin to reclaim its own narrative.
Lehua: Practice and constant effort.
Uluwehi: Physically making things lends itself to commoditization. How much are you feeding into that? Thinking about the future, what kind of making would transgress the [existing] system in and of itself? That’s what I want to study. I don’t know what the answer is. We commoditize ourselves to survive within this capitalist hellscape.
Lehua: I think that a lot of our self-commoditization feels necessary for survival under these societal infrastructures. These days, we each have to individually pay for our own food that comes in plastic packaging, individual housing, coverings for our bodies. These structures are built in concrete and reinforced daily by the U.S. Military. I heard about a man who tried to start a public garden in Hilo during the pandemic. Local officials uprooted everything he planted and arrested him. That’s a type of making (farming) that will transform our communities. I’m thinking about the ahupuaʻa system and how it was systematized to support everyone, specifically [by providing clothing for] everyone. Skilled kapa makers built a hale kuku house and had groves of plants to work with the help of others in the community. Itʻs a system of trade that shows that community value [is not just monetary]. We need to create modern versions of that. For example, an arts nonprofit where people donate their old textiles to be repurposed.
Uluwehi: The gift economy works in that way, but it’s very insular. It’s only used with the people who are already in creative spaces. A system of trade would be great, but there needs to be more production in order for it to actually be viable.
Lindsey: Lehua had sent over some notes this morning and the first thing listed on the page was Brother Noland’s lyricsfor “Coconut Girl”. Ultimately, the song is about departure. I know both of you left Hawaii to attend college in Los Angeles and San Antonio. Could you touch upon this [idea of] coming and going, leaving home and now, for both of you, staying?
Uluwehi: Growing up, California was this golden, gorgeous place—idealized and almost holy. At the time, Hollister was really big. I would go into the Hollister store and think, “yeah, I feel cool in here,” because it’s dark and smells sexy. I fantasized about moving to California and believed that when I did that, I would become beautiful because California is beautiful. Lana (del Rey) [once sang], “I moved to California but it’s just a state of mind, it turns out everywhere you go, you take yourself, that’s not a lie.” After leaving Hawai`i I experienced a deep disenchantment with Los Angeles. Unconsciously and naively, I still associate California with personal progress and living in Hawai`i as a sort of regression.
Lindsey: Your battle here is having to carve out a space for creation. What happens when you don’t have to work so hard to do that?
Uluwehi: I am still “myself.” Self-aestheticization becomes almost like a “safe space.” I hate that term, but the practice reminds me that I have a body, and that I exist in the concrete world. I can interact with materials on a sensory level; [I can] actually feel the pieces against my body or see somebody wearing something that I’ve made.
Lindsey: Do you crave understanding? I feel like the ultimate validation of existence is being understood.
Uluwehi: I’m trying to work on spiritual self-validation right now. It mainly stems from faith. I don’t know if the work I make needs to be seen, but it needs to be made. If these things can exist, then I can create balance in the world. It’s like large-scale Feng Shui. In Johanna Hedva’s Sick Woman Theory, she asks, “how do you throw a brick through the window of a bank if you can’t get out of bed?” I reel with my morality on an ongoing basis, since I can’t physically be out there…maybe my contribution right now is through material—items and thought. I don’t know how valuable that is, but I it’s all I can contribute as of now.
Lindsey: The concept of faith is interesting. How much faith you can place in this place when it is a proprietor of its own cultural gentrification? How much of stability is actually the product of risk?
Uluwehi: I think a lot of the energy in Hawai`i is radically in service of maintaining the status quo—a revolutionary conservation. Often what seems like risk-taking is more of an idealized return to a past greatness. “Make Hawai`i Great Again.”
Lehua: The place is changing so quickly, it feels like it’s gotten even more crowded in the past year. A lot of tourists with non-Hawai’i-based-jobs are moving here to “work from home in Hawaiʻi” It’s a slap in the face. So many Hawaiian families are being priced out of their life here. I guess thatʻs just the system of capitalism: “growth” for growth’s sake. Some people talk about Hawaiians being so against “progress,” when much of the “progress” that Hawaiians oppose is harming the viability of our land. Oʻahu has changed a lot since I was a kid. My memories of being a teenager here and finding a beach to myself are so luxurious and distant from the current reality.
Lindsey: What is your relationship like to change?
Lehua: On one hand, thank God for change. On the other hand, thereʻs a lot of change that I mourn. It can be challenging to integrate new ideas, especially when so much of Hawaiian cultural preservation is about reviving and preserving practices that had been outlawed for years.
Lindsey: What are your markers for growth?
Lehua: My measurements for growth are mostly internal. I used to have a super high strung, anxious baseline. All of these small efforts I’ve made [over the past few years] have added to my own clarity. It’s all these tiny steps toward wellness, like practicing speaking my truth, asserting boundaries, or committing to flossing my teeth every night. Isolation can be so regenerative.
Uluwehi: It’s been a really health focused year. I had the time to center myself. This is the most clear I’ve been in years. I can read. I can speak— I was a zombie before. I’ve been grappling with thoughts that have been piecemeal for years. To actually write it out with a sense of focus and singularity feels like growth.
Lindsey: Do you want to share what your writing is about?
Uluwehi: I’m thinking about America as a body with different energies within it. Thanks to neoliberalism, working people are increasingly faced with false choices of individual expression in order to maintain our existent property system and massive wealth inequality. A lot of the maintenance of this injustice requires literal violence and bloodshed, in terms of neoconservatism. I’m trying to approach America [how I approach] my body: a borderline subject with two poles, two parties, that are becoming more and more fractured. With this dissociation, how can we aim for collective healing as a nation, as a body? This healing can become an ecosystem.
Lindsey: How are you defining healing? Is it the individual’s physical and experiential wellness?
Uluwehi: I’m thinking of a whole rerouting of what our economic system is. When THEY say, “communism kills,” how many people does capitalism kill every year? Whether it’s failing to provide people with health insurance or fracking our land, building pipelines to bring in oil (and the offensive and illegal wars conducted in order to do so), all of these things feel very big. But they [can be shrunken] down to the individual. When I say my health, I mean my ability to function within that system. I have this issue with the word freedom. What is “freedom” in this system? What does it look like? How can I make it?
Lindsey: It’s really an emotion. Making it totally subjective is the problem.
Uluwehi: It’s very categorical right now. Everything is very separated, polarized, and you feel as if you have to give yourself a category. There’s the proliferation of identity politics, it’s seductive to endlessly self-define, and effectively self-alienate, instead of participating in greater continuity.
Lindsey: It’s like we exist through language. We are defined by meanings or feeling ascribed to us by others.
Uluwehi: Yeah, that language system is arbitrary because while it’s constructed, you still have to fit yourself into labels when communicating.
Lindsey: Identity has become such a buzzword this past year as we’ve had to confront our innermost selves and values; and yet identity is also a commodity. What is your relationship to identity in general? How are you defining and redefining it through active making?
Uluwehi: We’ve seen that exact phenomenon in the aestheticization of politics. The “left” has rainbows and black squares and pussy hats”, these are all empty symbols or a means of selling more products. These signs/images are designed to appeal to a certain market, [not an ideology]. The same goes for the “right.”
I’m like a chameleon, I like to invent myself as different characters: Princess, Pariah, both and neither. I’m not really sure what I am internally, but I’m trying to come to terms with being enough as a human—as a part of a living continuity, it’s enough just to exist. It’s hard when we’re caught thinking, “I am my achievements; if I don’t do this then I am nothing.” Faith is a constant reminder that I am already here and present beyond ethics, aesthetics, and what can be symbolized.