Kālewa Correa, Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, and Adriel Luis on Radical Curation

Jun 14, 2017

What would happen if we designed art exhibitions around social justice community organizing principles? How can collaboration between artists, curators, scholars, and participants generate a radical art making experience? What might an event premised on radical curation look, sound, and feel like?

In episode 40 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews curators Kālewa Correa, Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, and Adriel Luis, who share their experiences curating the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Museum’s innovative ‘Ae Kai Culture Lab exhibit in Honolulu, Hawai’i.

‘Ae Kai is organized by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC). Following 2016’s transformational Culture Labs—CrossLines in Washington DC and CTRL+ALT in New York City—‘Ae Kai will continue APAC’s practice of community building through curated art making. ‘Ae Kai is the biggest Culture Lab to date, and most of ‘Ae Kai’s participants are based in or rooted in Hawai‘i, with the majority of artists identifying as Pacific Islanders.

Across the three episodes of this miniseries, Cathy talks with curators, artists, and scholars involved with ‘Ae Kai about the themes that this Culture Lab brings together, including climate change and environmental activism in Hawai‘i, solidarities and activism across the Pacific archipelago, queer and trans Indigenous art, radical curation, Hawaiian sovereignty and the ongoing fight against US colonialism in the region, and the way that the racial, gender, national, decolonial, and environmental convergences of Hawai‘i help us imagine and produce different worlds.

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Guests: Kālewa Correa, Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis, and Adriel Luis

Kālewa Correa serves as curator of Hawai’i and the Pacific at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. He is a graduate of the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa Kamakakūʻokalani’s Center for Hawaiian Studies with a focus on traditional Hawaiian society. Additionally he holds advanced degrees in the Information Science and Education technology disciplines. Over the years Kālewa has partnered and initiated a number of national and international conservation education projects within the Pacific. Since 2011 he has worked with Google Street View to map Polynesia’s remote islands and atolls bringing “the place to the people”. Some of his key projects include the spatial mapping of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, American Sāmoa, Kaho’olawe Island; partnering with Liquid Robotics Inc. on the Aloha ʻĀina learning initiative; the expedition and mapping of Rose Atoll with XL Catlin Seaview; and establishing the new NOAA Mokupāpapa interpretive ocean center for the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. One of his major focuses as curator of Hawai’i and the Pacific with the Smithsonian Institution’s Asian Pacific American Center has been on presenting and preserving access to cultural landscapes throughout the Pacific using immersive spatial imagery.

Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis is the curator of Asian Pacific American Studies at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. He is also Founding Director and Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Asian American Literary Review. Since 2005 he has taught Asian American literature, Asian American film, and mixed race studies for the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Maryland. His fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction have appeared in Ploughshares, McSweeney’s Quarterly ConcernGastronomicaKenyon ReviewAGNI, and Fiction International. Together with Mimi Khúc, Lawrence-Minh is also the co-editor of a special issue of the Asian American Literary Review called Open in Emergency: A Special Issue on Asian American Mental Health, which we featured on episode 26 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast.

Adriel Luis is the curator of Digital and Emerging Media at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, and is focused on exploring intersectional identities in the US and contemporary Asian diasporic art. Adriel is a self-taught musician, poet, curator, coder, and visual artist who believes imagination is key to transforming cultural paradigms. He is also a part of the iLL-Literacy arts collective, and sometimes moonlights on design projects with various artists and non-profits. Adriel frequently travels to different parts of Asia with particular interest in how digital space shapes global communities, and how varying levels of freedom of expression channel artistic political imagination.

We chatted about

  • A preview of what participants can expect to see at the ‘Ae Kai Culture Lab
  • ‘Ae Kai’s role as the third installment in the Culture Lab trilogy
  • The social justice community organizing principles that shape ‘Ae Kai’s radical curation and the previous two Culture Labs
  • The central tenets of Culture Labs: collaboration, participation, and intersectionality
  • The role that Hawai’i’s history and local community plays in ‘Ae Kai
  • How the Culture Labs radical curation model can transform traditional museum exhibitions
Adriel Luis wearing a denim shirt. Quote reads: The concept of a culture lab, the third of which is ‘Ae Kai, is all about how we can put together something reminiscent of a museum experience but using community organizing practices of leaving a space better off than when you arrived.


‘Ae Kai Culture Lab: Collaboration, participation, and intersectionality

Adriel: Intersectionality is about the collisions of the different ways that we identify, and it’s not limited to multiculturalism, and in fact it’s a huge leap from just thinking about how different cultures collide, it’s really thinking about the ways that race and gender and sexuality and class and those kinds of identifiers create really complex ways that we interact with each other and perceive ourselves.

Kalewa Correa wearing a yellow shirt with brown flowers. Quote reads: The concept of a culture lab, the third of which is ‘Ae Kai, is all about how we can put together something reminiscent of a museum experience but using community organizing practices of leaving a space better off than when you arrived.

The role that Hawai’i’s history and local community play in ‘Ae Kai

Kālewa: ‘Ae Kai in the Hawaiian native language, Ōlelo Hawaiʻi, means ‘the shore line.’ The shore line is where you have fresh water and salt water meeting. In traditional Hawaiian society you would have the farmer and fisherman meet there. It’s a place where you can go into the ocean whether you’re rich or poor, it doesn’t matter, there’s no boundaries there.

Lawrence: The unique history and circumstance of Hawai’i as a contested space—and a history of people from the US from major institutions dropping into Hawai’i and taking stories, narratives, experiences, and information while not necessarily reflecting the community or leaving the community better off—is something we were made very well aware of as soon as we began doing our research.

Adriel: For the APA center and the Asian Pacific American community in general, one of the big issues…is the fact that we call it ‘Asian Pacific American or Asian American and Pacific Islander,’ but generally Pacific Islander experience has been marginalized within the field. So…it seemed very appropriate and organic for us to see Hawai’i as a site where we could address that issue head-on.”

Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis wearing a blue checked shirt and grey hoodie. Quote reads: There's something to be said about community-based art or situations where an artist can develop something in real time or be present while visitors experience it. An artist can learn more about their own work or the subject matter.

The progression of culture labs

Lawrence: CrossLines took place Memorial Day 2016 and we popped up for two days in the Arts and Industries Building, which is the original Smithsonian museum. We were thinking of it as refiguring this museum space, which has been closed to the public for quite a while for historical preservation, and rethinking what a museum now would be, especially one that was created not by collecting and gathering materials from all over the world, sometimes in illicit ways, but in this case by working with local community, working with artists of color and creating a pop-up—not so much a collection but an experience in a museum. Moving forward to CTRL+ALT, we popped up in New York City in SoHo, right on the border of Chinatown, as a way to think about gentrification and changing cities and changing urban space. And the theme of that Culture Lab was imagined futures. That’s a natural transition for us to now pop up in Honolulu, in the Ala Moana Center, in a Food Land there, just a short distance from the beach and move away from just the urban and be thinking about ecological futures and thinking about our responsibilities to land and water.

How culture labs do the work of imagining otherwise

Kālewa: As we’re doing more and more of these Culture Labs, the [Smithsonian] institution itself is actually starting to see the value in the way that we’re presenting these stories differently.

Adriel: Our hope is that if we can show that even the Smithsonian, as this really old institution, can be at the forefront of thinking about new ways—ways that in some ways are the antithesis of what museums have traditionally done—then that will inspire people.

More from Kālewa, Lawrence, and Adriel

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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