Born in ancient Polynesia, the act of wave riding has been intriguing and inspiring for centuries. The Hawaiians, gifted in the ocean beyond measure, reveled in the art of surfing, or he‘e nalu (literally: wave sliding). Since Western contact, the sport has inspired fantastical artistic renditions. Early illustrations, sometime depicting dubious physics, quickly gave way to the culture and cult of surfing as the sport spread across the Pacific to California and beyond, while keeping its foundation rooted firmly in the islands. This sport of kings, which represents immense technical skill, bravery, and joy, is an art form in itself.
This winter season, a new exhibit at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center seeks to explore the nature of surfing as an art form. Surfing Hawai‘i, an exhibit featuring the multimedia works of a variety of artists (many who are surfers themselves), is gracing the halls of the Schaefer International Gallery through Feb. 17. The exhibit explores the layered meanings of surfing in Hawai‘i through time, and how those meanings have intersected with art.
Artists have created multidisciplinary art to contemplate and explore the themes of surfing. They include a group of accomplished artists from Hawai‘i, including Carol Bennett (Kaua‘i), Pete Cabrinha (Maui), Peter Shepard Cole (O‘ahu), Mark Cunningham (O‘ahu), Charlie Lyon (Maui), Wayne Levin (Hawai‘i), and Noble Richardson (Maui). The history of surfing is explored, including the Native Hawaiian connection to the ocean and he‘e nalu. The evolution of surfing is also explored through the lens of the heavy dose of tourism and commercialism. Beyond paintings, there are surfboard collections, vintage artifacts, and other materials straight from the salty archives of history.
I swung by the exhibit on a quiet, sunny afternoon to check it out. “Each of these pieces was created just for this,” the docent told me as she pointed me to the start of the exhibit. The diverse work was comprised of varied elements in the form of classic surfboards, bronze sculptures, portraits, and modernist takes on surfing.
The display begins with surfing’s origins: papahe‘e nalu, wooden surfboards crafted by Tom Pohaku Stone, a skilled and respected waterman. His remarkable classical boards are made from woods like ‘ulu and uma, with long archetypal shapes and gleaming polished grain. Displays with Hawaiian legends and historic photos add depth and insight to the display.
The exhibit winds somewhat chronologically through the gallery, coming to contemporary themes with striking images of modern greats displayed alongside the expressive surfers of Noble Richardson’s portraits. Peter Shepard Cole’s seascapes – fluid, peaceful and powerful – highlight the striking beauty of the ocean while contrasting with the kitschy elements resulting from the boom and commercialization of surfing. Mark Cunningham’s found-object display of touristy board shorts, barnacle-encrusted snapped leashes, and a starburst of discarded plastic fins provide a haunting realist’s take on the downsides of the popularity of surfing.
As Hawai‘i evolved to incorporate new elements, so too does the art: It moves on to the modernist approach of Carol Bennett and ends where it began, with Pete Cabrinha’s distinctive multimedia style that layers the modern and the historic.
Throughout January, there will be a few events related to the exhibit, both hosted at the McCoy Studio Theater. On Jan. 10 at 7pm, there will be a showing of the historic film The Essence followed up by a question-and-answer session with groundbreaking athletes like Paige Alms and Kai Lenny.
There will also be two lectures on Sunday, Jan. 27 from 2-4pm. The first, “Women and Legends of Surfing” will be hosted by Maui-native and Hawaiian language and culture educator, Pulama Collier. The lecture will focus on elements of spirituality in surfing and stories about Native Hawaiian women and surfing. The other lecture, “Selling Hawai‘i with Surfing, 1880 to 1980,” by author and historian DeSoto Brown, will focus on Hawaiian surfing symbolism as represented in historic advertising and pop culture.
The exhibit speaks to our fascination with the act of wave riding that has been enthralling thrill seekers and spectators for centuries. As athletes keep pushing the boundaries, the athleticism of surfing classifies it as a sport, but it is also more than that, alive with history, context and meaning.
Surfing Hawai‘i Exhibit and Events
Maui Arts and Cultural Center
1 Cameron Way, Kahului
Exhibit: Tue-Sun., 10am-5pm (ex. holidays)
Until Feb. 17. Free admission
Historic Surf Film: The Essence
Thursday, Jan. 10. 7pm
$12 (plus applicable fees)
Surfing Hawai’i Lectures
Sunday, Jan. 27. 2pm
Free admission (limited seating)