The power of images

Gaye Chan, chair and professor of the photography program at University of Hawai‘i-Manoa, has been working on an extensive collaborative project that redefines the history of Waikiki and provides a foundation for revisiting what has been a place of cultural transformation over the past six decades.

“Historic Waikiki” was created by the arts and activist community to examine the impact of colonialism, capitalism and tourism in Hawai‘i — books, exhibitions and many mixed media works have been created under the auspices of this project.

In a presentation on Sunday in Lihu‘e, Chan will present a history of Waikiki through archival photographs, focusing in particular on the role of photography as a colonizing tool and its counter-hegemonic potential within the “politics of forgetting and remembering.”

“We distribute information and agitprop commodities through the marketplace and e-commerce to help tourists and locals alike understand our complicity in the decimation of Hawai‘i’s land and people, and to imagine different relationships with each other and with our own desires and longings,” states the Downwind Production Web site that sponsors the collaborative project.

Chan’s photographs are featured in the book “Waikiki: A History of Forgetting and Remembering,” released in October 2006. The provocative coffee table book is a mix of a critical history and investigative journalism that “offers little-known facts about Waikiki as well as theoretical and poetic reflections on the very process of memory and history making.”

Challenging cultural stereotypes and historical assumptions is a cornerstone of Chan’s work. Images are a paradoxical medium as they often add to misinformation and perpetuate distortions even though they are seemingly neutral. Through collage and photographic manipulation, Chan converts social memory and explores issues that are of interest to those who live in the islands and tourists who come to experience a more authentic version of Hawai‘i.

Chan’s presentation will take place at the historic Wallis Estate, formerly part of the Lihue Plantation and presently owned by Wilcox Hospital. The house was built by well-known Kaua‘i contractors, the Hironaka Brothers, in the late 1940s. Following the death of Dr. Samuel R. Wallis, the property was used as temporary housing for the many doctors and nurses arriving on Kaua‘i to staff Wilcox. Later leased to Kaua‘i Hospice Foundation, the property is currently being used as a cultural venue for visiting artists and events. It seems fitting that Chan’s work of recreating anthropological memory will be presented in a structure that has gone through several transformations.

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