The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2020

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MAR 2020 Issue

Michele Zalopany: Nānā i Ke Kumu ‘Pay Attention To The Source’

Michele Zalopany, <em>HRZ</em>, 2019. Pastel On Canvas, 68 x 70 inches. Courtesy the artist and Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects.
Michele Zalopany, HRZ, 2019. Pastel On Canvas, 68 x 70 inches. Courtesy the artist and Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects.
On View
Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects
Nānā i Ke Kumu ‘Pay Attention To The Source’
February 12 – March 15, 2020

HRZ (2019), a pastel on canvas of Michele Zalopany’s father in his white communion suit with lei, functions as the key to unlocking a memoryscape, recalling the photo of the page boy with cape, in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. A floodgate of childhood memories opens revealing places lost by migration, cultural genocide, and occluded histories. In the case of HRZ, Zalopany’s father, a young hapa, or mixed-race, Hawaiian boy, is taken to Detroit when his father is shot in the leg by a jealous husband in a Honolulu brothel. The boy in Sebald’s Austerlitz is taken by Kindertransport to England, and a photo triggers memories of a lost Austrian existence. Zalopany’s exhibition functions like a scrapbook. For this series, the artist began with family photographs and then researched in Hawaiian ethnographic archives. It is not surprising that she was the last person to hold the personal scrapbook of Princess Kawānanakoa, before it was deemed too fragile to handle by the archivist at the Iolani Palace.

Michele Zalopany, Waipio, 2015. Pastel on canvas, 50 x 70 inches. Courtesy the artist and Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects.

Zalopany is a master of pastel drawing, an artform usually associated with French masters like Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin, Edgar Degas, and the American Mary Cassatt. While many artists work from photographic and archival material, the artist’s images of native Hawaiians resonate because they are part of a personal journey to recover a culture destroyed by missionaries and colonial exploitation. Zalopany wants to return these plantation workers to their former nobility in their sacred landscape. In works like Waipio (2015), an image from the Princess Kawānanakoa scrapbook, plantation workers on their day off sail outriggers, some in native dress, some covered in missionary garb. This is a culture already seeing their rituals outlawed, and territory stolen. What makes works like Waipio so stunning is how an archival image comes to life, shimmers transformed in the sunlight, and becomes an entry point to a magical and liminal realm through the artist’s mastery. Zalopany’s works contain that rarest of attributes, the numinous. These images are heartfelt in a way that captures the viewer with their sincerity.

Zalopany writes of finding her own face with its masculine aboriginal features staring back at her from photos found in drawers. She states, “Before extensive miscegenation occurred, the faces of indigenous Hawaiian women could be considered masculine, aboriginal faces.” Caroline Gurrey, a photographer from Honolulu, exhibited photographic portraits at the Alaska–Yukon–Pacific Exposition (AYPE) in Seattle in 1909. In an era when Pictorialist style and ethnographic photography were the rage, these stylized and glamorized portraits of young men and women from Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu of either Native Hawaiian or mixed-race heritage were popular. Gurrey chose subjects with finer, more European features. These portraits were meant to aid in the “settlement of the newly-acquired Territory of Hawaii by white agriculturalists,” by making the native Hawaiians look like “friendly and benign occupants of the islands.” Wahine And Kane (2019) depicts a husband and wife with identical features, restoring Polynesian women to their original physiognomy with their own beauty. 1

Michele Zalopany, Wahine and Kane, 2019. Pastel on linen , 29 x 80 inches, diptych. Courtesy the artist and Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects.

“I’m hoping that by putting more images of an older Hawaiian reality out into the world, I may provoke interest in the true history of the Hawaiian people and their land, and thus chip away at the false narrative that overwhelms most peoples’ current perception,” explains Zalopany. What makes this exhibition so memorable is the tenderness and care with which this is accomplished. A haunting portrait of a girl, Vertical Hula Dancer (2019), presents a young dancer in an earlier style of dress. The sacred hula, mele, and oli were religious practices performed by both men and women to commune with their gods found in nature. With dancers costumed and eroticized, often in grass skirts originating from the Gilbert Islands, a sacred dance was reduced to a tourist attraction. In Vertical Hula Dancer, we are given a glimpse of the original. The exhibition both celebrates and restores the native Hawaiians to their rightful place in the universe through art. The artist’s mixed Hawaiian-Polish heritage takes discussions about race, gender stereotyping and colonialization into the realm of the personal, and the works have a haunting authenticity.


1. Waldroup, Heather. “Ethnographic Pictorialism: Caroline Haskins Gurrey’s Hawaiian Types’ at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.” History of Photography 36, no. 2 (2012): 172–83.


Ann McCoy

Ann McCoy is an artist, writer, and Editor at Large for the Brooklyn Rail. She was given a Guggenheim Foundation award in 2019, for painting and sculpture.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2020

All Issues