Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

In The Pandemic's Wake: Artists in a Pandemic Landscape

In The Pandemic's Wake: Artists in a Pandemic Landscape

Aired November 17, 2022

Andrea Kim Neighbors:

Good evening and welcome to In the Pandemic's Wake: Social Change and Reflection with Asian-American and Pacific Islander Leaders. My name is Andrea Kim Neighbors and I serve as the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center's Head of Education. I am a dark-haired woman wearing a white sweater with black polka dots, wearing eyeglasses and sitting in front of a blurred background. And on the screen is our introduction slide with photos of today's speakers, as well as the title, date, and time of today's program in the pandemic's wake artists in a pandemic landscape. There are three other people showing on my screen, our speakers for this evening, Kālewa Correa, Hina Kneubuhl, and Monica Jahan Bose. And we're all excited to be here together across many time zones for this conversation. This program is offered as one part of a virtual series presented by the National Museum of Natural History and the Asian-Pacific American Center, and receive federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool.

The Center is pleased to partner with the Natural History Museum and our esteemed panelists for this important discussion about art that addresses climate change, social justice, and women's rights, intersecting topics of great importance for both organizations. At the Natural History Museum, the exhibition Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World and all of its related programming had an overarching message of global connectedness that emphasized how pandemic risks are shared by everybody worldwide. The exhibition's main message was, "An outbreak anywhere is a threat everywhere." Although it closed earlier this month, themes from the exhibit provide a framework for these conversations in tonight's very important discussion. To learn more about the rest of the series and the final installment taking place next month in December, please check the Q&A box below. The Q&A box found on your Zoom toolbar is where we'll be sharing relevant links and information throughout the program.

That's also where you can submit your questions for our panelists anytime this evening so that we can have them ready for the audience Q&A toward the end of our time together. If your question is for someone specific, please share their name in your question. This program offers closed captioning and ASL interpretation. You can turn on the closed captioning by clicking the CC button on your toolbar. The recording will be available at the link found in Q&A shortly after the program. Finally, it is my honor to officially introduce the other people on your screen, our exciting panelists and moderator. The moderator for today's discussion is Kālewa Correa, who serves as the curator of Hawaii and the Pacific with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. His primary program is the Digital Storytelling Initiative titled Our Stories. The Our Stories Initiative is in place to present and elevate the voices of Pacific Islanders on the national and international stage through mixed media formats such as film, podcasting, composition and mixed realities ... Or mixed reality.

Our two artists for today are Hina Kneubuhl and Monica Jahan Bose. Hina Kneubuhl was born and raised on the island of Maui in occupied Hawaii. Hina is of Hawaiian, Samoan, and European ancestry. She's a language advocate, translator, researcher, writer, storyteller, and kapa maker. She's one of the founders of the Hawaiian Fashion Company, Kealopiko, and is an intern at Awaiaulu, an institute that specializes in Hawaiian language translation training. She spends time in both Hawaii and Rotorua, New Zealand, where her husband is from.

Monica Jahan Bose is a Bangladeshi-American artist and climate activist whose work spans painting, printmaking, film performance, and public art. Her socially-engaged work highlights the intersection of climate, racial, gender, and economic injustice through co-created workshops, art actions and temporary installations and performances. Bose uses the sari, a pre-colonial, 18-foot-long unstitched garment that is always recycled and never discarded, to represent women's lives and the cycle of life on our planet. And with that, I'm going to turn it over to Kālewa. Kālewa, thank you.

Kālewa Correa:

Mahalo for those introductions, Andrea. Aloha and greetings to everyone joining us today. I'm your moderator, Kālewa Correa, coming to you from beautiful Waimea on Hawaii Island. I'm humbled and honored to be in our session with our two panelists, Monica Jahan Bose and Hina Kneubuhl. Our panelists today will be sharing short presentations on their practice and methods, and I'd like to invite Monica to begin her presentation.

Monica Jahan Bose:

Thank you so much, Kālewa and Andrea, it's such a pleasure to be sharing space with all of you and Hina too, and it's really a huge honor for me to be here. Thank you for inviting me and I'm going to share my screen. Let's see. You're seeing my screen? I wanted to start, I'm going to speak a little bit about one of my long-term projects, which is called Storytelling with Saris. It's a project that I've been doing for a decade. It's a climate justice, art and advocacy project, and it was definitely impacted by the pandemic, like all of our practices. And I'm going to talk a little bit about that. So this project began in 2012, and this is the picture right here of the 12 women that I began the collaboration with. They are Bangladeshi women farmers. They are from the island of Barobaishdia.

And these are the first set of saris that we made collaboratively. And I like to start all my talks, people who've heard me before, with honoring my grandmother. Her name was Johora Begum. She was married at age seven. She was a fighter. She made sure that all of her daughters went to school and did not have early marriage. And she was also a climate survivor. She survived a cyclone, and she also was a seamstress and she made kantha. She recycled saris to make kantha blankets. And the edge of this painting actually represents a sari border, also has the stitching painted, and it also says the words for water, pani and jal. And just a picture of where the island is, where my maternal ancestors are from. It's in the Bay of Bengal where that arrow is. That's Barobaishdia Island. Katakhali Village is in the middle of that island, and it takes 30 hours to get there by boat from Dhaka.

It's really the only way to get there. And you can see where Bangladesh is situated, there's India all around and Myanmar over here on the east. So I am mainly a painter. I still paint. I have paintings in my studio. But I started doing performance and using the sari as a decolonized symbol in my work. And I also started doing installations with the actual sari and performances. And I started thinking about directly engaging women from my ancestral village. I had been doing portraits of them. I had been in doing eco empowerment projects with them, but they weren't collaborators in my art practice. And I got this idea back in 2011. Then I did research and I started communicating with them, and they were very interested in working with me. They had recently learned how to do woodblock printing. And so we decided that would be great.

They could teach me how to do woodblock printing. And I started designing these. I designed these woodblocks with words and imagery with input from them. And then I went to the island after many years. I hadn't been there since my grandmother's funeral in 1993. And then this is what the side of the island looks like. It's definitely in the front lines of climate change. There is a lot of salt incursion, sea level rise, impacts on food security, reduction in crops, reduction in fish, and a very stressful time for everyone there. But the people are resilient and it's really kind of amazing to see how everyone's coping. So anyway, I started this project and then I started making saris with the women there. And then I brought some of the saris back to the US and some saris were worn by them. The first set of worn saris after a year was stitched together by hand, by me and my daughter, into a 216-foot-long sari and used in a performance on Miami Beach, another island with a group called One Billion Rising, a diverse group of women there.

And it was an idea to link women from island to island and bring these saris that have been worn by these women from Bangladesh to the Rising Sea and sort of juxtapose physically and psychologically and sort of link people together in this way. And then I went back to Bangladesh and I started doing a lot of workshops with the women there. I did a climate conference that I organized with the International Center for Climate Change and Development. We shared knowledge about climate change. We learned from the villagers what's happening there. They learned from us, from me and the scientists, about what the reasons for climate change are. They did not know that it was caused by fossil fuel burning, because they don't have any fossil fuel burning in that area. It's very much a low carbon area. Anyway, it was fascinating, over a hundred women and children, and men too, joined the workshops.

And out of the workshops, we started doing some projects to help address the issues that were discovered. So one project I helped start was a coconut nursery to help replenish coconut trees, which I know is also something that is happening in other island communities, like in Hawaii, to try to shore up the shore, right? Because coconuts prevent erosion. Another thing I've been doing with women there is actually trying to capture intangible heritage. One of the biggest things that's going to be lost because of climate change, that's already being lost, is oral history, songs, stories, dances. A lot of these things are being lost. So I'm trying to record some of those. But then I got the idea that I should really be making saris with Americans and people in other countries, people that really need to be reducing their carbon footprint. So I started doing these sari climate pledge workshops in 2015, and people would join me in making saris, standing around a table, making climate pledges and actually doing woodblock printing on the saris.

And I did a number of workshops, a lot in D.C., but also youth from Sierra Club would come to D.C. and would join me in making these saris. And then we would have this conversation and it would be an actual commitment that you would make on the sari. And so hundreds of hands would touch these saris. And then that sari from Sierra Club and others went to Hawaii for this amazing project that Kālewa and Hina were involved with, the Ae Kai project. I just wanted to show an image of the room that Hina and I co-created with her team with saris and video about climate change. We had two videos, we had just thousands of people coming every day. And Hina and I made this collaborative sari that you see on the right, the green sari with my woodblocks. And Hina wrote a poem about climate change in Olelo Hawaii.

So that was ... I think that was the first sari that had poetry on it, actually, Hina. And then we did a performance. We actually went from the Ala Moana Center. We walked quite a while to the ocean and had this performance with the community in the water. And then those saris and the climate pledges have been continued. And they went to different places around the world and the US. So it was in France. And then I created this house of saris in a project called Footprint in Greece, which was talking about displacement and migration. And then I started getting into public art. I co-created 65 saris with low-income black residents in DC and the women, the brown women of Bangladesh, 65 saris covered five historic buildings for a temporary public art project. And then the pandemic hit. And the last time that I was able to go to Bangladesh, right before the pandemic, was in February 2020.

And I was working on a project called Warming Waters, speaking about the seas warming. And we were working on 22 blue and white saris. And you can see all these new wood blocks I'd made all about sea level rise. And then I came back to D.C. We had our last in-person workshop before the lockdown on March 11th, 2020. And you can see this picture of us. We're still in person. We don't have masks because we don't have masks. They were not available. We did use sanitizer. I was trying to keep people six feet apart and then ... And we were scared. We weren't sure what was going to happen, how we were going to finish this project. And then March 13th, D.C. went into lockdown, everything shut down, schools, federal government. So I basically wasn't able to work. What did I do? First thing I started doing actually was making masks.

So March 21st, I put out a Facebook message that I have masks. The CDC was telling us not to wear them yet. But I've lived in Japan, I've seen that people cover their face, doctors wear masks. I talked to my artist friends, also my friend Robin Bell, filmmaker. And we agreed that people should be wearing masks. So I started making them. My daughter was home from school. I used old saris. I used my husband's Italian shirts. I used whatever fabric I could get. My daughter and I made hundreds of masks and I did a lot of ... Whatever platform I have as an artist, I used that to try and encourage people to wear masks. So my whole team, I have probably a hundred people in DC that helped me with these saris. I gave masks to them. And I also trained the women in Bangladesh, the Katakhali women, to make masks.

I sent them little videos, I sent them little patterns and I told them to start doing it. And so we were masked in Katakhali Village early on. And one of my collaborators did perish during the pandemic. And she may have had COVID, but she's the only one I know of in the village that possibly died from COVID. So that was good. I mean, for various reasons. It's an outdoor space. People don't live near each other. So how do we pivot? So we were supposed to do this big public art project on April 22nd, 2020, called Warming Waters. It was this massive project in Georgetown with projections at night. We couldn't do it. We were not allowed to have permits. It was a National Park Service permit. My permit was revoked or suspended. I wasn't able to do it. So we ended up using the digital platform.

Robin Bell is a filmmaker and he's an expert at live-streaming. So we did this whole livestream. We didn't even meet. He was at his studio and I was in my studio and he had actually had COVID, he had had COVID. He got COVID at the very first round, and was coughing. April 22nd, we just were in separate studios, not touching, not meeting. But we did this livestream project together and we streamed it around the world, in Bangladesh and everywhere. And we talked about masks. We tried to do a simulation of what our outdoor project was going to look like... Is going to look like when we finally do it. And then I started doing Zoom... I trained, I was trained on Zoom. Actually, it was really lovely. A friend of mine, a colleague from Arts and Democracy who's invited me to do work in New York, trained me on Zoom.

She said, "Monica, let me show you how to use Zoom." And so I started doing Zoom workshops and I focused more on poetry. And it's interesting because I noticed... I had noticed for a while that a lot of my participants in DC they sing and they rap and they recite things, words while they're working on the saris, while they're stamping the saris. And I'd been doing these poetry breakout sessions already before the pandemic and had made a soundscape from poetry. So I thought it would be interesting to actually focus on the poetry and focus on poem drawings or concrete poetry, visual poetry, because that you can do on Zoom. So I used mail, I mailed people little kits of paper and notebooks. And we started doing Zoom workshops. And then once outdoor events were allowed again, I concentrated on outdoor public art and some performance.

I really haven't... I've only done two performances since the pandemic, but it's been mainly public art. And let me just show you a couple of images. So this is the project I did in July 2020. The Warming Waters project that was delayed, finally happened in July. We were finally able to get our permits, and this was 22 saris on a wall, historic wall on the C&O Canal in Georgetown, with projections on it at night. We were only allowed to have 50 people at a time viewing it. We had to have tickets, we had to have masks. So we had limited viewing, but it was still very beautiful. And it was a really beautiful respite for people to have art outdoors, during the pandemic. The museums were closed, the Smithsonian was closed, galleries were closed, everything was shut down in DC. There was really nothing for people to do.

So people did come. Georgetown was full of people walking along the canal during the pandemic, especially on the weekends. It was just mobbed with people walking around with masks. Masks were required even outdoors in D.C. at that time. So this is a view of people sitting outside, watching at night. And it was actually a very beautiful thing that we were able to do that. And we live-streamed it. So we actually did very nice, beautiful live-streaming of the projections and people discussing. And we live-streamed it around the world. So I did pivot a bit to live-streaming during the pandemic. And then the next year I did another public art project. Again, really no in-person workshops, no performances. All my engagements shut down like nothing... Canceled, canceled, all my shows canceled. So I did a public art project called Concrete Dreams, sort of using concrete poetry, visual poetry, and also trying to think about humans, our dreams during this pandemic.

And we wrote a lot of poems. And it was also right after we also ... This was during the whole insurrection thing that happened in D.C., January 6th. We wrote a lot of poems about the Capitol and the building and the Constitution. And then I made these sculptures with some of the poems printed on them. And I also made ... There were saris also on top of this building. We did this outdoor project in my neighborhood. We had to be sort of in the neighborhood. You couldn't even go far. People weren't even taking metro, people weren't going far. So that's something I did during the pandemic. And then this last year was celebrating my 10th year of storytelling with saris. And I got a grant to do a project called Sustain, talking about sustained engagement, how many projects go on for 10 years, and sustainability. And so we did a lot of on poetry, we did poetry on Zoom, and I wanted to record the poems.

We recorded outdoors, see that in and behind the Hirshhorn, actually, at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden, because we didn't want to be in an indoor studio recording. So we brought all our equipment outdoors and it was a really beautiful community event, like all the poets and people that have been helping me. They also became sort of the filming crew. They learned how to be on a film crew. We did it outdoors. And then the event ... Then I went to Bangladesh. Finally, I was able to go to Bangladesh, February of this year, to work on the saris. And I think we did have some trouble, and I can talk about that later. Getting the materials, supply chains were affected. A lot of people died in Bangladesh, a lot of weavers died. I couldn't get the exact same saris that I had used before.

I actually had to go into my storage in Washington. I carried 20 saris from Washington to Bangladesh. And because I had some of these saris here and I couldn't get them in Bangladesh. And then we painted them with poems in Bengali and English. And then we came back to D.C. and we had a sewing workshop. We did do it in person, wearing masks. And then this installation happened. It was very beautiful, 10 days, I think 10 or 12 days in D.C. It's a park called Unity Park. I had this whole passageway of saris. It was oh, about a hundred-foot-long sari sewn-together panels. And you could walk and bike through it. It's a sidewalk with panels of saris on both sides. And then just opposite it, this is the women working on it. And these are my handles on my website.

And then opposite this park is this historic building that's now a kind of arty hotel. And I had recovered these massive columns with saris that were wrapped in a 360 wrap with poems in Bengali, in English. And I always have ASL at my events. All my workshops have sign language. They're very accessible. Everyone gets paid for their work and participation. And we had poetry slams, we had poems in Bengali and English and ASL. And then we also had seven soundwalk stations.

So as I mentioned, I was trying to capture intangible heritage. I've been capturing songs in Bangladesh and also poems that have been created with the prompts that I give, poems about sustainability. And I'm, we had seven soundwalk stations also with ambient sounds from Bangladesh, from the farming, the women's farms, sort of captured and interwoven. And then we also had video with it, so the deaf people could see video. So they were QR code accessed. So that's basically what I've been doing. And I think I sent a link to the people running the webinar. We can put ... I'll put a link to a little video in the chat later. But that's all I wanted to say for now. And I'm going to turn it over to Hira.

Hina Kneubuhl:

Mahalo nui loa, Monica. I'll share my screen. Is everyone able to see my screen? Awesome. Aloha nui mai kakou [foreign language 00:23:01]. My name is Hina Puamohala Kneubuhl and I come from a very beautiful mountain on the island of Maui. I grew up in a place called Waipouli and the view from where I grew up is here, looks out over the Mauna Kahalawai or the West Maui Mountains. And so we're up on this 10,000-foot mountain at about 4,000 feet, looking down. And that was the view I grew up with during my childhood. My parents lived there because they were farmers. So this is my dad in the middle here with my younger brother on his lap, on the tractor. My parents grew lots of vegetables, mainly Kula onions, which are famous for being sweet. And this is my great-grandmother, my mom's grandma, myself and my younger sister. And I found that as I've grown up, the values that are kind of embedded in farming have followed me throughout my life.

And I think that that's why kapa making is enticing to me because you have to grow your medium. You have to be a farmer, which for me as a Hawaiian in 2020, recovering all kinds of knowledge about the ways my kupuna saw the world, my ancestors saw the world. For me, that means cultivating living relationships with akua and aumakua of kapa making. So those are deities and deified ancestors connected to this practice. So the spiritual dimensions of kapa making were something that really brought me a lot of joy and comfort in the time of the pandemic. And I'll talk about that a little bit more later on. But first, what is kapa? Kapa is a traditional Hawaiian fiber art. It's taking the living bast of the wauke tree, which is here on the left, also known as paper mulberry.

And you strip off the inner bark, you peel off this brown outer bark, you soak it in fresh and salt water. And then sometimes, depending on what sort of kapa you're making, you ferment it to make it easier to beat. Then you move it to the beating phase that starts on a kua pohaku, which is a stone anvil. And then it goes to a wooden anvil called a kua la'au. Once you finish your kapa and beat it all out and dry it and get it all ready, then you can decorate it through a variety of traditional techniques. Or non-traditional, some folks use new materials. I prefer to stay with traditional inks and things that are all completely non-toxic and natural. And that's another thing that's wonderful about the practice of kapa is that it doesn't involve any chemicals at all. Everything is natural, completely biodegradable. And these fabrics just kind of melt back into the earth with very little impact.

Kapa was really sort of the fabric of life in pre-contact Hawaii. It received newborns at birth, shrouded the bodies of transitioning ancestors in death and at every stage in between played critical roles, especially as everyday clothing. So it spanned the human experience from the very kind of functional everyday uses to high level ceremonial uses. And we don't have time to talk through all the reasons why it went from this very thriving practice to almost nothing. It's a lot of social, political, religious upheaval that happened. But basically by the end of the 19th century... By the end of the 1800s, kapa was almost gone. And in the 1960s and 70s early workers like Malia Solomon and Pua Van Dorpe and Kana`e Keawe revived this art and kind of opened the way for the rest of us to come into it, so mahalo nui [foreign language 00:26:46]. I could never have started in kapa making if it wasn't for my wonderful kumu friends Kaliko Spencer and Lisa Schattenberg-Raymond.

Although I had planted wauke on my parents' property 20 years ago, I never actually got into kapa making until they came into my life. And so it's through their generosity and their aloha that I've been able to get started. And I can't say enough about what wonderful wahine and kapa makers they are in their own right. Another reason that I've been able to become a kapa maker is because I've always had a roof over my head, food to eat and a family that's loved and supported me. Without that, I don't think I could have gotten started. Really, it would have been an uphill struggle. We are on a half acre of land here in Pukalani. So we have the privilege of being able to plant wauke and cultivate other heritage crops. But many, many Hawaiians in Hawaii do not have land on which they can cultivate traditional foods or other crops and they don't have free time to dedicate to kapa making.

It requires a lot of time. Most Hawaiians can't take time off work to do this kind of thing because they're holding two and three jobs to support their family in Hawaii, which has become a highly overpriced place and a really hard place to survive. So I acknowledge all of the privilege that I have. And I'm really, really thankful that I'm able to participate in this practice that came from my ancestors. I think one of the most powerful things about having a kapa-making practice for me has been seeing how it's shown me a way to recover a Hawaiian sense of time and relationship. And when I say that, what I mean is that this art requires you to submit yourself to the larger cycles and things that are out of your control. We don't exert all the control as kanaka over this process. We have some hand in it, but there's a lot that's out of our control that we have to work with, which is why the spiritual aspect of things becomes important.

So in kapa making, it's the earth, the moon, the sun, the rainfall, the plants, the processes that all dictate how it goes. And if we can submit ourselves to their guidance and wisdom, then they really have a lot to offer us. And so that's been a really rich kind of place to explore. And when you start to let yourself go into that process and learn about the practices, where kapa sat in the community, then you get a sense as a wahine Hawaii, a Hawaiian woman, of what your ancestors had to do to clothe their family and provide for them. And there's a lot of hard work involved in that. But it's also really, really beautiful to be able to provide clothing for your family and to wrap them in cloaks of your love and protection. So there's some people here who are really important to me on the screen.

On the right is my dear friend Ane Bakutis. That's a kihei I made for her for her 40th birthday. On the left is Timoti Karetu, he's a Maori language expert and someone who I deeply respect and admire. And in the middle is my grandmother on her 90th birthday. And that was one of the last times I saw Kalewa in person. And so at her 90th birthday I wrapped her in this kihei. About a week later, Kalewa's wife, my friend, my cousin Kaleo'o said, "Because, there's some something coming." And we were about to get on the plane, my family and I got on the plane, flew back down to Rotorua, New Zealand where my husband is from. And I wasn't able to come home for two years because of the pandemic. So I was essentially cut off of my wauke patch, my living medium, my 'aina, my family. But I wasn't cut off from my kupuna, and I wasn't cut off from the generosity of the people who love me that are here in Hawaii.

So my teacher, my dear kumu friend Lisa, as soon as she knew that I couldn't get wauke, she started sending me material to work on. And that was one of the biggest kind of take-homes or biggest things for me in the pandemic was the generosity that she showed me and that I saw in many communities happening. Personally, I was really so honored and fortunate that she would share her resources with me. What I'm holding in my hands there are two hoho, or large rolls of dried, partially-processed wauke. And to both she and I, that represents true waiwai. So the words on the screen here say "Ia mea waiwai," what that thing that is known as a resource, what is that to each person? So to she and I, it's really this material which takes so much time and energy to create. What you're looking at there is probably 40 wauke trees that have been processed down, that then I was able to receive, pound out and continue making cloth and continue my practice while I was isolated. So that was a really beautiful thing.

And then another fascinating thing that I did during this time, because we're all at home, right? Everybody's got to just hunker down. I started researching kapa and historic kapa in collections in museums online. And this picture here up on the left-hand corner, it comes from the British Museum. The one down here I believe is at the Scottish Museum. And these are pieces that our ancestors made hundreds of years ago that have survived, and they live in museums overseas. And a lot of this we don't get to see, but the particular technique of decoration that I became fascinated with is called lapa. And these are both extremely stunning pieces that show you just how much design and skill can be applied with these very simple bamboo forks. So I started learning about this and I was like, let me try this out.

We weren't supposed to be driving, so I rode my bike to this bamboo grove down the street in Aotearoa and I cut down some bamboo, brought it back to my house, started carving lapa and trying this technique out because it's something that fascinated me. It's kind of fallen out of popularity, I think, amongst kapa makers. You see some of it, but not the intricate sort of really complex pieces that our ancestors produced. So I was fascinated by this technique. So I took the wauke that my kumu sent me and my developing knowledge about lapa and I produced a body of works during the pandemic. This is some of them. I can only take credit for what's here bordered in white. These three pieces, as well as this one, are all old pieces. And then these are some of my works here, that's beautiful Piha Beach in New Zealand. That's just a closeup of some cloth that's been sort of stretched and that's another one of my works.

So it was amazing to be able to keep practicing kapa and to open into this new space, because I had been really afraid to apply decoration to the kapa that I had made. It takes really a long time to grow it, process it, beat it out. And I was always afraid to decorate. And so I kind of got over that hump during the pandemic and just really went for it. And there was a piece at the British... Or there is a piece at the British Museum here on the left that I tried to replicate also during that time. This is one of the other things that I created. And that was just a really fun way of trying to get into the design sense that our ancestors had. I had to look at this piece for a really long time before I was like, okay, that's what they did. And then try to replicate those same techniques.

So there was a lot of really rich learning in that for me. And that was something that I could do at home with my family while the pandemic is happening outside. But I think, for me, one of the most enriching things that happened was another thread of research that I kind of got really into. And it's bringing it back to where we started, which is the idea of the spiritual implications of this art, but really where it sits in the Hawaiian universe. So how my ancestors saw kapa, where it fit into their world. And that's ended up taking me back. I didn't realize it would, but to the very origins of our earth and our universe. One of the female deities that's very connected to kapa that I didn't realize is Haumea. But the reason probably that she's so connected is because Hina and Haumea... Hina, who's the goddess that most people associate with kapa making, Hina and Haumea are, I believe, two different faces of the same feminine creative potential.

And so I began studying Haumea realizing that Hina and her were the kind of this one thing and then looking at all the different things that she birthed as a creatress. And so one of those things is the Ali'i bloodline, the bloodline that the chiefs come from, according to our genealogies and some of our most ancient stories. And so up in the upper right-hand corner is a piece that I created in honor of her doing that. Another wonderful prayer that I found that talked about her, this is just a section of it, is here on the left. And it talks about her celestial and physical forms during really high level ritual. So where the wahine poo aupini or female heads of state are bringing in ceremonial, ritual kapa that they have made to dress kihei and heiau.

And essentially, again, these ideas of recreating the world because that is what Haumea does. That is what wahine do every time they birth keiki. And my favorite line from this pule is: Kaa ka honua i ke kapa a ka wahine, which means the world turns on the kapa made by the woman. So I think the power of that statement speaks for itself. And in the middle here, there were so many wonderful things that I came across as I dove into our written resources. We have a huge body of mo'olelo and writings that are kupuna produced and published in the newspapers and all of that is online and searchable now. So I really dove into that and really turned to this ancestral knowledge in this time as a source of comfort for me, because I was cut off from my home and I just wanted to fill my time with things that would make me feel connected. And so there were many things that popped up out of that.

But the other one that I will mention quickly here is this, in the middle, is a piece of a genealogy called... From the Opukahonua genealogy. And in that mo'oku'auhau, the new world is born as a child that is both male and female at once. And that child is assigned caretakers and one of those caretakers then provides the necessities that the child needs, the pono. And one of the pono for kanaka is kapa. And so this blue sort of ocean of sky is put up as the kapa for this keiki. And so just as an infant is wrapped in a kapa, our earth is wrapped in this blue sea of sky and that is its kapa. And so these old, old connections to kapa making were really exciting things to kind of get into at this time and to... There's many other things that gave me, or are starting to give me a picture of how kapa fit into the world of our kupuna. And that was really exciting.

And again, I just want to underscore how it is ancestral knowledge that we need to turn to in these really difficult times. I believe that all indigenous peoples have knowledge that their ancestors carried that may live with them or not today, but that we can tap back into to help us figure out new ways of being, living and interacting on this earth that has very real limits, which we're starting to see around us with things like the pandemic. And so the story doesn't quite end there, almost. The world is starting to open up again.

So a fortuitous turn of events and the generosity of the British Museum's Benioff Oceania Program and Dr. Alice Christophe and Froya Crabtree, I was able to go to the British Museum and look at kapa that I had been marveling over on the internet for a whole year. All of a sudden it was like unfurled in front of me and the brilliance of my kupuna, our kupuna, was shining back at me. And it was an experience I'll never forget. I had four days here with these two lovely wahine and we just geeked out and to spend four days in the presence of these kupuna and their work is an experience I'll never forget. So I think I'll leave it there. Thank you all so much for your time, mahalo nui. I'll stop sharing my screen.

Kālewa Correa:

Mahalo for those wonderful presentations by both Monica and Hina. Listening to you two, it's been very interesting because we have gone through this shared experience, humanity on earth, of being locked down for almost two years. Monica, you in DC. Hina, you in Auckland in Aotearoa, with varying degrees of access to materials, people, culture. But what I'm getting from both of you is there have been some positives that have come out of this experience. Oftentimes when we are thinking about the pandemic itself, we're looking at mental health, we're looking at the things that affected us, we're looking at family or ohana, death around us, or maybe neighbors and stuff like that. But I do think that listening to you two, what I'm getting is that there was a period of time where you actually got the chance to slow down and think about your practice and your medium and the way that you were both interacting with your fiber arts and with your craft, but also interacting with the history that surrounds it and the stories that are surrounding it.

So I was kind of curious, I'm going to start us off here, but really this time is for the audience, and I want to thank the audience for joining us this evening. And I'd like them to please put in questions that we can ask our panelists. But I'm going to start us off here. I guess you folks have talked about some of the positives that have come out of it. I'd also like to know how maybe your experiences around your relationships to nature and family changed within that sort of time period and flow too. And Monica, we'll also get to... You talked about access to the artisans that make the saris from natural fibers, which is cotton generally. But I'd like to start us out on a positive note and think about how that slowing down of time really was able for us to reflect. So I don't know who wants to start off. Maybe Monica, if you'd like to start us off, if you were able to slow down.

Monica Jahan Bose:

Sure. No, I definitely slowed down. There was basically a long period when I was doing a lot of walking. It's the only thing you could do is walk. There was a lot of walking and observing nature because I was walking so much instead of ... There wasn't much, there was a lot less rushing around there. I used to spend a lot of time driving my teenager to her karate matches, karate stuff, not a soccer mom, karate mom. So I was always driving her because she's become tall. And so in the city, we didn't have classes for her. I had to drive her to the suburbs. So that stopped. I used to spend several hours a week driving her in the evenings to these classes. And so that stopped, and she was doing Zoom classes, although there were mental health issues from just being in your room and watching Zoom.

But yeah, so there was a lot more time. And I did find myself feeling much more connected to my neighborhood, and I sort of learned all the trees on my walk. I was basically doing these three or four different walks. It wasn't going that far. Occasionally, I would drive to another neighborhood and try and walk there because I got so bored. But I did become very connected. And one of the things that I did during the pandemic, I was supposed to be going to France and doing this project with this French musician, Nirina Lune. And we were supposed to do a performance, she was supposed to come to Washington. We were supposed to do a live performance together. So instead we decided to have a series of WhatsApp and Zoom talks. We called it Slow. Slow in Bangla, aste, in French, lent ... A la monde. And so it was all about slowing down during the pandemic.

And we basically spent a whole nine months talking and creating this sound piece together based on walking. We recorded ourselves on our walks and the sound of your footsteps on ... So it's interesting, I did get into music-making and sound, so it's true. Which I had done more... I had done some of that before, but I really got into sound art during the pandemic. So that kind of slow down and the listening. I was listening, all the sounds became much more pronounced. There were fewer people driving for a while, so you could really hear the birds. There were a lot of birds. You could hear the birds. You were just quiet more. So yes, it was... That's interesting. I hadn't thought about it, Kālewa, but it's true. I developed this whole sound art stuff, for me, it came out of the pandemic, out of this sort of slowing down and making that first piece.

And then in the installation that I just discussed where I did the seven sound pieces, that was something that came out of the pandemic. I'm not sure if I would've spent that much. I'd been thinking about it, I'd been thinking about I had been recording songs and oral history, but the idea of actually making these public art pieces of sound, it grew out of the pandemic. So yeah, you do learn different skills and I did connect a lot more with nature, I would say, during the pandemic, just from my walking outside. So much time just walking around.

Hina Kneubuhl:


Kālewa Correa:

And for you, Hina, you jumped into you ... Well, you jumped off the cliff to be able to do pieces that you probably wouldn't have done in the past and research ... And gave you more time to do research is what I'm understanding. Were there other influences that came out of the pandemic through nature or the relationship through family that then showed up through your artwork?

Hina Kneubuhl:

Yeah, I kind of tried to pull my kids into some kapa making over the pandemic, which I was kind of successful at. They cranked out a couple of pieces and it was really beautiful to do that. I've pulled them in at different times, but it's such a time-intensive process that at eight and 10 they weren't really ready to sit down and beat pieces all the way out. But that was beautiful, to sort of share that with them and to have the time to slow down and be like, "Hey, we can make kapa today." But I think one thing that I do want to reflect on and what you're saying is that because there is such a strong... Because it's a living medium, and that's a relationship with an aumakua essentially, right? Maikoha is the deified ancestor whose body was buried and the wauke plant grew from the grave of Maikoha.

That's one story about where wauke comes from. That's a living relationship that I couldn't have anymore. But what I could do was write a pule that kind of provided me spiritual connection because I couldn't be physically there. And for me as a Hawaiian, it's really important to be in direct relationship with that thing. So being cut off from it was really hard. I knew that my plants were suffering. There was drought during the pandemic here in Maui. I came back, my patch was in terrible shape, eventually when I did come back. And so not being able to be in relationship with that aumakua was hard. But I kind of went around that and just thought, here's all this beautiful material I have. I can really honor this, what I have here with me right now. And so I wrote a pule for beating, for before starting to beat, and it kind of has a rhythm so it could take you right into beating.

And so I wrote the words and I collaborated with my friend Pulama Collier, lovely wahine who lives here on Maui. And she put leo to it. So I texted her the words and she texted me a recording and there was this beautiful collaboration. And then I had this leo, this thing that I could do to acknowledge these aumakua, talks about Maikoha, Lauhuiki, La'ahana, who are three of the main aumakua associated with kapa making. So it was little things like that, like making a pule for my practice, that helped me kind of sustain that spiritual connection because I couldn't have the direct physical relationship.

Kālewa Correa:

That's beautiful. Both of you diving into sound and having that space to actually hear and listen to those inner voices, inner singing, inner composition that happened. We have a couple of questions here from our audience, thankfully, that I can ask. Here's one by an audience member. As you both look back on your past and current works, and you've worked together, what are some of the new insights you have about your own journeys as artists? Sorry, it was cut off. So as you both look back and your work together, what are some of the new insights you have about your own journeys as artists? I guess, I'll rephrase it, maybe. I guess, how working together has changed your perspectives and how it's gone beyond something like Iki into your own practices, learning from each other, that you're working in different fiber mediums and different approaches, but how has that maybe working together gone beyond your own practice itself?

Monica Jahan Bose:

Well, for me, it was a huge eye-opener to meet all these Hawaiian artists and you, Kalewa, and see the connections that we had to our ancestors and also the impact of colonization and the impact it's had and cut us off from our heritage, from our language, me as a South Asian Bangladeshi, very different stories, but still the common threads of colonization, cutting off from culture, imposition of... A forcible imposition of other cultures, loss of autonomy. So, for me, that was really very exciting to actually meet Hina and other language activists and learn that you all have actually revived a language that was literally beaten out of you. I was very inspired by that. I was very... And it really, I've been trying to do this kind of connection, decolonized practice, connecting people and learning from each other. And I really learned a lot. And I think I also worked with another artist, Sloane Leong, and we worked on a little story about our language movements in Hawaii.

I think it was an important moment in my practice to connect that way. And since, I've continued to try to... My work really believes in Asian Pacific, brown-brown, brown-black solidarity. And so working to decolonize across cultures. So I think that was very exciting for me. I think in terms of... And I guess maybe thinking back, your poetry too was inspiring to me. I ended up getting into a lot of poetry, I'm thinking probably soon after we met, Hina. And I think that could be... I've been writing some poetry myself. I'm not really a poet, but I've been activating poetry, I've been doing a lot of public poetry. I did this performance recently where I got people, I would give them a timer, and I would ask them to write six-word poems about climate change. And I would give them prompts, and it's been really exciting. And they would text them to me and then I would perform them. So maybe, I just realize it now, but maybe that your poetry also inspired me to do poetry. I don't know.

Hina Kneubuhl:

That's cool. Mahalo. I think one of the really neat things that I learned working with Monica was... Well, what I got to see about her work is that it's very direct action-oriented. For me, I'm kind of this nerd and I've been in this... Because I'm a language person, what I do for my work is, alola Hawaii, work. I am in my head all the time and I'm really concentrating on this recovery of knowledge space. But seeing, for Monica, how knowledge translates out to practice has been amazing, because she's so active in her community and especially the Bangladeshi community. Like the videos and things, she showed a video for the installation that we were involved in together. She sent me the saris, we collaborated. These saris arrived and I had to unfold them down our whole hallway. And we just happened to have a really long hallway in Aoeteroa and I didn't know. We had met on, I think maybe on Skype or something.

Monica Jahan Bose:

Skype. We didn't have Zoom yet.

Hina Kneubuhl:

And so this box arrives and these saris, I lay them out and I just, they're so visually striking. And so one of the first things I realized was like, wow, fabric is connective tissue in culture and in community. And to see the way that saris connect Monica to her community was beautiful, so inspiring. And so I've been in this recovery of knowledge kind of concentration phase, but I would like to see that knowledge translate out more. And one of the ways that I think I could talk about that is that wearable kapa is something that's kind of coming back, but a lot of kapa up till this point has been for decorative purposes and usually hangs on walls, which is awesome because it still connects us to the design sense that our kupuna had. But getting it back into this functional realm is now starting to come back with kapa.

And that's really exciting, because to me that's taking it out of the knowledge recovery space and bringing back its function within our community. And so what does that mean? What does it mean to make kapa for Lono, for Makahiki? Whether that's the actual banners that hang on the Lonomakua or the things to make puolo or whatever it might be, kapa that's needed for other ritual uses. Those kind of things are really exciting to me and that's where I'm hoping to get... I've had this whole phase of decorating and stuff, but I'd like to get back into how does kapa connect me to my community, making kapa for the burial of ancestral bones that have been on earth, which was actually something that I did during the pandemic for ancestors of mine that were dug up in a church graveyard, very bad thing that happened and now they're trying to make it right.

And so I did some kapa for two ancestors who will be going back into the honua. But things like that, where does the practice connect you to your community? That to me is such an exciting space and I was really inspired and motivated to keep making tracks in that direction and not just stay in my own brain. And which, that knowledge, I try to disseminate that through the platforms that I have with Kealopiko. So we have a mo'olelo site where there's a couple different mo'olelo that I produced over the time of the pandemic that you can read the one on Haumea, also one on lapa. And so you can go to this site and reap the benefits of that knowledge for sure. But again, that connection, that being face-to-face with your community and your practice meeting up there, I learned a lot from Monica with that.

Kālewa Correa:

Awesome, thank you for that. With our last two minutes, I'm going to ask Monica the last question and if there's enough time, we'll see if Hina can answer too, but it sounds like she just did, with where she's going with her kapa, is into wearable. So a viewer asked what is next for your practice? So Monica, what is next for your practice? Two minutes, go.

Monica Jahan Bose:

I am ... Well, one of my projects that was stopped during the pandemic has reemerged. I'm going to be going to Canada in March, my first time in Canada doing a performance for this conference called Gendered Threads of Globalization. And I'm actually going to be creating a new performance that involves community sewing with multiple threads and needles, and it's about the garment industry and art. So that's a project I'm working on and I have a bunch of films I'm working on.

I'm planning to go back to Bangladesh next year and do a show there, which is very important, I think, to show the work that I'm doing there as well, so people know what I'm up to. And I've also working on a number of films I really wanted, I've been doing ... I've gotten a lot of footage of what's happening because of climate change and some really, really dramatic and upsetting footage of the impact of coal and fossil fuels on farmers, women farmers in Bangladesh. And I'm hoping to do a big installation next year that brings these home to actual policymakers and hopefully get some change going on that. So I'm working on a bunch of films and film installations and performances.

Kālewa Correa:

That sounds exciting. I'm looking forward to that, to checking that stuff out. We have actually hit the end of our conversation. Can you imagine we've gone on this journey so quickly? I wanted to thank our panelists, I would like to thank our interpreter, our hosts, and I'd like to thank everybody that tuned in to listen to both Monica and Hina this evening. And we look forward to seeing you folks again in the wake of the pandemic, here coming up in the next month. And I appreciate it. And Mahalo everybody here, and thank you for joining us this evening.

Monica Jahan Bose:

Mahalo, thank you. Dhan'yabada.

Hina Kneubuhl:

Mahalo hui kako'o.

Archived Webinar

This Zoom webinar aired November 17, 2022, as part of the "In the Pandemic’s Wake: Social Change and Reflection with Asian American and Pacific Islander Leaders" series.

Accessibility Notes

This video includes closed captions and American Sign Language interpretation.


Art has the power to reshape how we understand the world, to call out inequality, and demand justice. Watch this conversation moderated by Smithsonian Curator of Hawai’i and the Pacific Kālewa Correa with artist Monica Jahan Bose and designer Hina Puamohala Kneubuhl, who each create works that address climate change, social justice, and women’s rights. Hear how the pandemic affected their art practices, as well as their perspectives on how COVID was received in different political, cultural, and community areas.

Host: Andrea Kim Neighbors, head of Education at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center

Webinar Series: In the Pandemic's Wake

This program was offered as part of the virtual series "In the Pandemic’s Wake: Social Change and Reflection with Asian American and Pacific Islander Leaders," presented by Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and Asian Pacific American Center with federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

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