Interview with Aaron Wong and Don Felix Cervantes

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Interview with Aaron Wong and Don Felix Cervantes

By Shahrzade Ehya January 30, 2018

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


Aaron Wong and Don Felix Cervantes founded the artist-in-residence program TRADES in 2017 as a means of fostering wider appreciation for O‘ahu’s vibrant but underappreciated and geographically remote contemporary art scene. Bringing national and international visiting artists to Honolulu for up to six weeks, TRADES gives them access to a studio space and opportunities to interact with undergraduate and graduate students of the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Hawai‘i Mānoa, local artists, and the public. Grounded in the principle of reciprocal exchange, TRADES benefits visiting artists through their exposure to Hawai‘i’s unique artistic and cultural landscape, while facilitating local artists’ engagement with broader voices and perspectives in contemporary art. Having introduced their first artist-in-residence, Amy Yao, in October 2017, and with their second artist-in-residence, Michael Wang, arriving in February 2018, the TRADES co-founders spoke about the challenges of starting an arts program in Honolulu, as well as their early successes and goals for the future.

Shahrzade Ehya: Let's start by talking about the origins of, and your mission with, TRADES.

Don Felix Cervantes: The origin of TRADES was through visiting here, visiting Aaron, and being a person who seeks out what’s happening in contemporary art whenever I go to a city—what museums exist, what can I go see, how can I connect with this city as somebody interested in art—and I found Honolulu challenging to connect with as a visitor. There’s the Honolulu Museum of Art, and what’s known as Spalding House, which is part of the Honolulu Museum, and beyond that it wasn’t very front-and-center to me how I could reach that vector of contemporary art in Honolulu. That definitely got us thinking about creating a project here, who we could reach, who we could serve, and how we could benefit artists living and working here. We felt that bringing in visiting artists and exposing the local community to their work, as well as them learning about what’s happening here, could benefit the entire community by bringing attention to contemporary artists living and working here, and exposing the mainland and the rest of the world to things happening here, with its vital community of working artists.

SE: I read an article from 2015 in Honolulu Magazine that described Hawai‘i’s art scene as “weak” and as a “perennial underachiever.” That description came before some recent developments like the Honolulu Biennial, which had its inaugural year in 2017, before the revitalization of Kaka‘ako as an artistic and cultural hub, and before you started TRADES. Could you describe Honolulu’s contemporary art scene, talk about why someone might have made those claims in 2015, as well as speak about how it has changed since then?

Aaron Wong: We like to think about all these efforts as raising the tide. We’re excited about the things going on now, but we’re trying to contribute to and approach the community from a different perspective than something like the Biennial or Kaka‘ako.

Amy Yao visits the exhibition Maybe Later: Kainoa Gruspe and Mark Yoshizumi (Sept. 17—Nov. 10, 2017) at the Hawai‘i’ Pacific University Art Gallery in November 2017. Courtesy of TRADES A.i.R. Photo: Don Felix Cervantes.

SE: Could you talk about that more specifically—how is your perspective and approach with TRADES different from events like the Honolulu Biennial, exhibitions like Contact, or other things that are going on?

DFC: Well, I can speak to the Honolulu Magazine article a bit. Before I moved here and scratched the surface, I could have agreed with the description of the art scene as “weak” or “perennially underperforming.” Once we did scratch the surface and met artists working here, though, I would totally disagree. If anything was “weak” or “underperforming,” I would say it’s the local support of contemporary art. There is limited support from local philanthropic initiatives and limited engagement with the public. That’s part of what we’re trying to change.

AW: Something Hawai‘i does well is support Indigenous and Native voices.

DFC: Regarding the Biennial and Contact, everyone has their own idea of what they would like to see happen. The Biennial is a large-scale project very dependent on fundraising and focused on a “spectacle”-type event every couple years. What we’re doing is extremely grassroots and small in this moment. We’re doing our program with the resources we currently have, and as those resources grow, our program will grow. The Biennial wants to make a big name for contemporary art in Hawai‘i. We are not in opposition to that, but…

AW: We see something powerful in making a small intervention and doing that in a sustainable, long-term way, building it as we go. We’re also excited about broadening the scope of the audience so that the interest isn’t occasional or intermittent. The Biennial is a biennial, so it’s attracting people every two years. We want to be something steady that grows slowly and has an audience that grows with us.

SE: Donnie, you were saying the current support of contemporary art is underperforming…

DFC: The Twigg-Smith family looms very large over the art scene here as major benefactors, so we did some research on their support specifically of contemporary art. The family was the publisher of the Honolulu Advertiser newspaper, and Laila Twigg-Smith started a gallery, which was a kind of organic and grassroots space for local artists to show their work. The gallery later became the Contemporary Arts Center of Honolulu, and eventually the Contemporary Museum located at Spalding House. Through their personal stewardship, they were able to create a support system and a place for local artists to show their work, where people could meet and appreciate contemporary art. Then, in 2011, it was folded into the Honolulu Museum of Art. So that loss of a specific hub for contemporary art here is something we would like to address with measured growth.

An untitled ceramic work by Amy Yao made in her University of Hawai‘i Mānoa studio during her TRADES residency (October—November 2017). Photographed at TRADES residency location. Courtesy of TRADES A.i.R. Photo: Don Felix Cervantes.

AW: It’s also about cultivating that stewardship and a new cohort of philanthropists to support that effort. There are very dedicated and active people trying to work together in similar ways as we are, and it’s exciting to look forward to what we can achieve together. But it’s also about encouraging the audience, about making people who find art intimidating or challenging feel welcome, and making things approachable and amenable.

SE: Aaron, you mentioned earlier that Hawai‘i does a good job supporting Indigenous and Native voices. TRADES’s mission is obviously different, so I’m curious if that has anything to do with the caution I hear in your voices—you both speak of “measured growth” and of “slowly” building support. Relatedly, maybe you could also speak to how TRADES has been received by the local art scene.

AW: You’re correct in assessing that we’re cautious on some level. That impulse of celebrating what’s here and being protective of it is something that characterizes this place in general. But on the flip side, our primary economy is tourism, so there’s the sense of there really being an aloha spirit, and of that being about being welcoming. That’s a dual impulse, and both are equally real here. To preserve the specialness—and on the Native level, the sacredness—of this as a place, while also being welcoming to people coming and sharing in that. It’s genuinely an aspect of our program that we envision it as a mutually beneficial exchange. It’s important to us to share what we feel is special about here and to preserve that, while also giving access to a broader art world for students and local artists.

Aaron Wong (left) and Don Felix Cervantes (right) at Sandy Beach Park, Honolulu, January 2017. Courtesy of TRADES A.i.R. Photo: Drew Broderick.

DFC: We are attentive to that, for sure, and Aaron is a fifth generation, born and raised on O‘ahu, yet neither of us has any connection to what’s considered Indigenous. We’re focusing on what we’re familiar with, and there are so many different organizations that are focusing on what they’re familiar with, so there should be room for an organization that is focused on contemporary art as its mission. 

AW: Our caution is about telegraphing respect for Native Hawaiian culture and being clear that we’re not trying to make claims on that space. The Hawaiian word is “kuleana”—knowing and respecting what your responsibility is, what your area is.

DFC: There’s also a respect for the arts organizations that do exist and that came before us, even if we share a different idea about how things could have gone or should go. That being said, we have been very much embraced by the local community, including by organizations that focus on cultural practitioners and Indigenous forms of art-making and preservation. They have been very welcoming of our program and how it could serve the rest of the community. We’re very grateful for that.

SE: Can you tell us about your first two artists-in-residence, what Amy Yao did during her residency, and what Michael Wang expects to do once he gets there?

DFC: Amy was our inaugural artist. She came at the end of October [2017] and stayed through the end of November. What was really interesting about her visit is that her work has a somewhat challenging and conceptual bent. On the other hand, Amy herself was so open and giving to be involved in whatever situation we put her into—whether it was meeting with undergraduate students in a classroom setting, doing studio visits with graduate students at UH, giving a lecture for the students at UH, or participating in a public conversation with local curator and arts organizer Yoko Ott at Fishcake, another hub for local artists and craftspeople to sell their work. Amy was able to reach out to a lot of people.

SE: She sounds like the perfect inaugural artist-in-residence for your program.

AW: Michael similarly makes what could seem like challenging work, but it’s deeply researched and interested in global-scale issues. His most recent show traced World Trade Center steel, and he actually got some of the panels from China and Malaysia and installed them in a gallery space in New York. The project he’s continuing here is called Extinct in the Wild, which was in a recent biennial in Chile and also at the Fondazione Prada in Milan this year [2017]. He’s using this scientific term, “extinct in the wild,” which means a species is no longer naturally occurring but that it can continue to exist exclusively through human intervention. It’s this specific category that’s conceptually interesting, because something may be extinct in the wild but may also not be that rare. One species he’s interested in here is the Hawaiian crow (‘Alalā), and the others are plant species. He thinks about the category “extinct in the wild” as marking a transition from something being natural into it being something cultural. And there’s this added layer of what he’s doing by introducing it into an art space. Here he hopes to document the last known location of where things were observed in the wild and the conservation efforts behind how those species continue to exist. We’re excited about how his project will broaden our scope by opening the conversation to a science-conservation audience as well as a K-12 audience for conservation education. So a very different kind of approach than Amy.

SE: Yes, but still very much about dialogue with local communities there. What are some of the difficulties you’ve faced starting TRADES, and what do you consider some of your successes?

AW: One of the biggest difficulties for us is figuring out ways to grow sustainably, and one of our greatest successes was getting a grant from the Atherton Family Foundation that has basically been our startup. On a more micro level, seeing the way Amy interacted with local artists, and with students who were excited to ask her specific questions—practical questions, mentorship questions—made me feel like we were having an immediate impact.

Amy Yao studio visit with Hadley Nunes at Lana Lane Studios, Honolulu, November 20, 2017. Courtesy of TRADES A.i.R. Photo: Don Felix Cervantes.

DFC: On the difficulty side, we’ve learned that the community here wants to see results. They’re a bit wary of people coming and going with big ideas, people who show up and then, after they hit a rut in the road, close up and move on. I think that’s happened a lot here, so they want to see consistency and a track record being built. The fact that Amy has now come and done our first residency and we have the next one coming, we feel there’s a momentum building and that we will be able to successfully seek out private philanthropic support. We spent about a year laying the groundwork for the program, and that was based on the advice of people we met here: really get to know the community, be on the ground, participate, show your faces a lot, and meet everyone you can. So when we debuted the first artist, there was already a support group of people interested in what was to come.

AW: Part of it has been adjusting our pace to what’s going on here, and putting in the time to be present and identifiable. Also knowing that things can take a bit longer to happen here, and making that time investment.

SE: Do you see your backgrounds as at all influencing your approach with TRADES?

AW: Having done a fair bit of writing and having taught in a university setting—understanding different needs and ways of maximizing opportunities that exist outside of the classroom—those are skill sets I’m tapping. The other thing that is maybe different about here is it’s a small town, and what I’m activating as part of what we’re doing [laughs] is connecting with people from high school, really reengaging with my own sense of being from here.

DFC: I have to point out my own experience in education as well. In the five years previous to moving to O‘ahu, I was working at USC, and that administration experience really gave me the confidence to feel we could really run the organization. Also, the benefit in the program I was in at USC of bringing in outside artists, and the direct effect it could have on MFA students who were working with two or three long-term professors or advisors—seeing the way bringing in an outside influence can really change what you’re thinking about, the direction of your work, expose you to new points of reference and thought patterns—that’s really important, going back to what local artists are getting out of these experiences.

SE: It will be interesting to see the ripple effects TRADES will have on Honolulu’s art scene and beyond. Thinking now into the future, what are some of your goals with TRADES?

DFC: There are different levels of goals. A brick-and-mortar TRADES space in Honolulu where people know things are happening, become familiar with stopping by, coming to a talk or a lecture or a musical performance, that is the most near-term goal. Expanding to outer islands and really trying to fill out the mission of being for the state of Hawai’i is a longer-term goal.

AW: The things we’ve said about sustainable and measured growth. And making this be something that could be a durable legacy in O‘ahu.

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