Artist Sydney G. James with mural Codeswitchonya. Photo: Ragnhild Hagen
In the world’s most isolated capital Honolulu lies the artistic neighborhood of Kaka’ako. Every February local and international artists enter the sets of Lana Lane Studios to create murals and other street art for one whole week, forming a creative arena where fun and play meets themes of social issues and contemporary challenges. Here the art not only pleases the eye, but confronts ideals and images of our society.
The Pow! Wow!-community
Founder and lead-director Jasper Wong describes Pow! Wow! as an art and mural festival dedicated to bringing people together, beautifying communities and educating the youth about art and music. The festival is a global network organizing gallery shows, lecture series, mural projects, concerts and live art installations.
– It has happened through the hard work of a group of passionate and like-minded individuals. Everyone has a goal of giving back to their city and have been working tirelessly to support the arts community, Jasper Wong tells.
Since its beginning as a group exhibition amongst friends, with only one mural on display, Pow! Wow! has now grown into a large gathering. The number of artists contributing to Pow! Wow! Hawai’i varies from year to year, from around fifty to over a hundred. The festival shows more than fifty murals yearly, and has spread from one to ten festivals around the world. Including festivals in countries like Israel, Taiwan, Singapore, Jamaica and New Zealand, Pow! Wow! is still expanding.
|The term POW! WOW! is Native American, its original meaning describing a gathering that celebrates culture, music and art. POW! represents the impact that the art has on a person, and WOW! represents the reaction the art has on a viewer.
(Pow! Wow! Hawai’i, 2018)
Mural in progress by Ricky Watts and James Bullough. Photo: Ragnhild Hagen
Art that challenges: Codeswitching for black women
One of the murals displayed is the piece Codeswitchonya by artist Sydney G. James. Her mural is captivating to they eye, a powerful display of black and white colours that can hardly be ignored. A repurposed play of the music group OutKast’s album cover Stankonia, the woman in the painting is a representation of a much bigger issue than of one individual: “I have painted two of the same woman, one is her corporate negro self and the other one is her real self.”
Mural Codeswitchonya by Sydney G. James. Photo: Ragnhild Hagen
The message is about black women having to adjust and change their behaviour to fit their environments and other people’s expectations of them, behaviour known as “code switching”, hence the title Codeswitchonya.
– Everybody code switches. How you talk to your parents is different from how you talk to your friends. The basis behind the painting is that black women have to do it the most. Especially white people are intimidated by how we look. Our natural hair, our jewellery, how we speak. If you sound too country or too slang-ish they wanna make you feel like you are not as intelligent because you speak differently than them [white people].
The Detroit based artist does not seem afraid to stand out or be unique. Meeting her on a sunny day in Kaka’ako, her appearance and demeanour is just like her art: powerful and welcoming. Her face is neatly painted with facial paint, her lips purple. The artist is like an art piece herself. She calmly conveys the message of the mural, but one can tell that the message is an important issue to her, as she is sharing the story of social reality for black women:
– We [black women] even code switch when we get back home. Statistically we are the most educated, we might be a CEO or the head of a company but when we get home we are still expected to be a wife or mother and of service to a husband.
The message is universal yet complicated. During our talk she greets several people on the street. She is a woman of the people, smiling a lot, but also showing determination. James tells of finding her inspiration in media and how people are portrayed. Her goal is clear: “I wanna switch the image, I wanna control how our image is. That is what I try to do in everything that I paint”.
The mask of the 2000s: Sandra Chevrier on today’s perfectionism
Sydney James is not the only Pow! Wow! artist portraying empowering art with an umph. The Canadian artist Sandra Chevrier is also showing a mural on the challenges of modern day life.
Her 5th piece, the Pow! Wow! mural on display is a face covered by an old fashioned superhero mask that is usually seen in comic books.
– I have been working on this series for a while. It is called Cages. The message is pretty simple; it is about society or ourselves putting pressures on our shoulders, trying to be perfect in everything that we do. You know, trying to be like superheroes in our day to day life and having bigger expectations on what we should have.
Artist Sandra Chevrier with her mural. Photo: Ragnhild Hagen
The piece is unique not only in style, but also technique. Unlike most murals done with spray cans, her piece is acrylic. A challenge, as the texture of the brick wall complicates the brushwork while snatching some of the paint, requiring more work. The artists still finished in only three days, despite challenging weather in days of not only Hawaiian sunshine but rain.
Painting on a scaffolding, a look of concentration is on her face. Chevrier moves quickly between each stroke of the brush. She looks like she knows exactly what she is doing.
– I’ve been showing this series for almost 5 years now, it evolved a lot. This is more representing of the beginning of my work, more 2D. Now I work more with models, with more of a 3D feel to it; more shadows and more realism.
– There are a lot of people who look at my work and sees empowerment, especially because I do a lot of women portraits. I think it’s a very universal message, it could be men or kids or women. I think everybody feels the same pressure to perform and be a good mom or business woman or business man. Even for kids, we expect so much from them. We should just let them play and let them be.
The artist has previously done murals in Stavanger, Norway, in collaboration with the Norwegian artist Martin Whatson. Now, Chevrier is currently displayed in galleries from London to LA.
– I’ve been doing art for 10 years now. I have been lucky enough to have a lot of success, I have almost two exhibitions a year. I didn’t think it was possible to have a career in art, but now I get to travel and meet amazing people. It is really fun. I’m doing this because I love it. In life you should just do what you want and not have expectations on where it will take you. Just do it for yourself and enjoy it.
Following your dreams: the life of an artist
Apart from living their dreams, what most of the Pow! Wow! artists have in common is that they have been painting and drawing for most of their lives. When being asked about advice for young people who want to start doing murals, they all reply: paint! Practice makes perfect.
One of the biggest challenges for artists doing murals full time is the money. That is why a lot of them also have their own exhibitions and other projects to support them economically. The Pow! Wow! festival is free of charge to the public, but is supported by Hawaii Tourism Authority. The festival also has a number of individual sponsors who provide spray cans, equipment and transport for the artists. Their support is invaluable to the Pow! Wow! community, and helps the festival and artists give back to the thousands of people who can enjoy the free art in Kaka’ako.
Asking artist Sydney James on the challenges of doing murals full time, her response is clear:
– Nothing worth doing is ever really easy. The more you do it, the more you speak from the heart, the more people wanna see it. People can see the passion going, and I think they want it for their areas. I’ve never been anything else but an artist. If you say: ‘This is it’, people think you are arrogant, but I’ve never been anything else. This is it.
This years murals and street art in Kaka’ako will be exhibited until the next Pow! Wow! festival.
Is Hawai’i a little far away? Check out @powwowworldwide on Instagram for more art and information about the street art festival and the featured artists.
Want to see more like Pow! Wow! ?
MURALS. Montreal, Canada
Upfest. Bristol, UK
Meeting of Styles. Copenhagen, Denmark
Stockholm Urban Art. Stockholm, Sweden
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