Mari Matsuda’s exhibition examines the history of labor organizing in Honolulu and the group of feminist, communist, Asian-American women who changed labor laws here during the 1940s. The artist, a recently retired law professor at the University of Hawaiʻi whose fields are critical race theory and intersectional feminism, is the author of several books on these subjects, including Where is Your Body?: And Other Essays on Race, Gender, and the Law (1997).
This show, Matsuda’s first solo outing, features a pair of large wooden shipping palettes attached to a wall, into which the artist carved portraits of nine women. The same number of prints, pulled from these etchings, were hung on an opposite and adjacent wall. The works were simply matted with 1950s Aloha print fabric and jute from rice sacks. Of course, the labor engendering the art is evident, but the palettes themselves make visible the kinds of work generations of immigrants to Honolulu have undertaken. (For instance, the spoils of plantation agriculture were once quite visible at the Dole cannery, now a sad mall not far from the gallery, which used to pack giant quantities of pineapple for export.) At the center of Matsuda’s presentation is a meditation platform with a bell. Some ginger flowers are placed in a vase fashioned from a piece of cut bamboo.
This reverential space is for the people Matsuda has honored in her portraits, such as Alice Hyun, the first Korean woman born in Hawaii, and Jennie Yukimura, an environmentalist who fought to preserve open access to beaches on Kauai. An accompanying brochure highlights Matsuda’s archival research on the Communist Party of Hawaii, circa 1948, via newspaper photos and various correspondences relating to boycotts, protests, and the lives of these women. “As I was carving these blocks, the last of these women passed away,” the artist said at her opening. Part Thomas Hirschhorn and part Käthe Kollwitz, the show—at a gallery in the quickly gentrifying neighborhood of Kaka’ako, which is being filled with new skyscrapers churned out by the Howard Hughes Corporation on ocean-view plots that once belonged to working-class families—is a shrine to the belief that art and politics are not separate.