Lehuauakea Fernandez is a mixed Native Hawaiian interdisciplinary artist from Hilo, Hawaiʻi. She has participated in several group shows in Portland, Oregon, most recently the 23rd Annual Recent Graduates Exhibition at Blackfish Gallery. Through a range of craft-based media, her art serves as a means of exploring ecological relationships, mixed-Indigenous cultural identity, and what it means to live within the context of contemporary political, social, and environmental degradation. She currently lives and works in Portland after recently earning her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Painting, with a minor in Art + Ecology at Pacific Northwest College of Art.

Lehua writes:

Before coming to PLAYA in September 2019, I had only a vague idea of what to expect. I had been in the high desert before, in the lands of the Diné, Hopi, Ute, and Ancestral Puebloans (also known as the Four Corners region) so I knew I’d be seeing the familiar curvy silhouettes of the juniper trees and would be smelling fresh sagebrush on the wind. I figured I’d be fairly unplugged from the rest of the world and was prepared for the thrilling uncertainty of an unstructured, unsegmented experience of time. When I first arrived, I was immediately taken aback by the vastness of the desiccated lakebed — it seemed to go on endlessly, so bright and still and empty! That first evening, following my suggestion, my cohort walked with me onto the playa at dusk. Looking out across the pale, cracked sediment, then up at the darkening sky as it shifted from hues of salmon and guava to shades of deep blue ocean, I was reminded of landscapes back home.

Home for me is the Hāmākua Coast on Moku O Keawe, otherwise known as the Big Island of Hawaiʻi. There, too, things feel endlessly big. Back home, the arms of the sky stretch out to embrace the wide expanse of ocean on the horizon, the rolling hills never tire, fields of lava offer no relief for miles, with the center of the island, our piko, being the tallest mountain in the world (yes, greater than Everest) from sea floor to summit — Mauna Kea. She is the sacred home to four goddesses, Poliʻahu, Kahoupokane, Lilinoe, and Waiau. She is also a significant pillar of Native Hawaiian spirituality and ceremony; her body holds the central freshwater aquifer for the island; and her summit offers some of the clearest skies to peer into our universe.

This last reason is why a really big telescope, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), is slated to be built atop sacred Mauna Kea. When I say big, I don’t just mean a large telescope apparatus. Currently, the largest ground-based optical telescope in the world is the Gran Telescopio CANARIAS in La Palma on the Canary Islands. Its aperture reaches a total of 10.4 meters in diameter. That is large. The TMT, on the other hand, will be huge — to the tune of an aperture reaching 30 meters — with its resulting development complex being the roughly the size of a football stadium.

TMT has, as a result, become the center of a mounting controversy amongst Native Hawaiians, who argue that this project is only another episode along an ongoing string of state-enforced unlawful action against its Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) citizens. For many back home, the sway of foreign moneys (TMT Observatory Corporation is a multi-billion-dollar, international, non-local enterprise) funneled through the government of an illegally annexed island nation echoes decades of systematic racial marginalization from political representation, denial of the constitutional right to access (un)ceded Kingdom lands, and outright environmental degradation of sacred sites.

This summer, in response to the slated construction date in July 2019, the issue has grown into a highly tense situation between law enforcement and kiaʻi (mountain protectors). So, I decided to make work about this while at PLAYA for their “Dark Sky” theme: work that addressed the ongoing tension between Kānaka Maoli, the TMT project, the mauna, and the integration of new and old ways of knowing within the astronomy science. Following my medium of choice and traditional practice, I set out to design and carve a new series of ʻohe kāpala, patterned bamboo stamps made for generations, and print a new kihei (ceremonial cloth garment) to tell the unfolding story of the events at Mauna Kea.

PLAYA allowed me to process these complex tensions and highly emotional events in a very special environment that often resembled the expansive waters and landscapes I know so well back home. The familiarity of the stars and Milky Way held me as they do in the darkness on the Hāmākua Coast, and truly gave me a sense of home away from home. My residency also allowed me the opportunity to collect a wide variety of earth pigments to use with my ʻohe kāpala going forward, and the space and comfort to dance hula outdoors for the first time since I’ve been based in the Pacific Northwest, connecting ancestral movement to present environment to trans-generational mythology all the way back into the new work I was creating at PLAYA as an Indigenous maker. It’s all one interwoven cycle.

Going forward, I have a new sense of clarity surrounding these wearable kihei cloth garments as a mode of storytelling across space and time, using my ʻohe kāpala to carry a tradition of ancestral pattern-making well into the future. I will soon be making more, several to be worn by members of my Native Hawaiian community once I return to Portland.

Endless and big thanks to everyone at PLAYA, the Modoc and Klamath tribes whose land I was held by during my residency, my very special talented cohort who kept me company, and all that this environment shares to remind me that home isn’t too far away after all. Mahalo piha, me ke aloha i nā hōkū a me nā ʻina, until next time.

Edge effects in ecological science are the “influences of border communities upon each other” (Brittanica.com). PLAYA alumni, friends, guests, and neighbors are invited to submit blog posts that explore the diverse influences experienced here or because of time spent with us—whether the effects are among disciplines, environments, relationships, or communities. Email PLAYA’s Executive Director to join this conversation.