These aloha shirts are partly bleached by the artist Mario Lemafa. They hang on the wall at Interstitial gallery in Georgetown.
These aloha shirts are partly bleached by the artist Mario Lemafa. They hang on the wall at Interstitial gallery in Georgetown. All images JG

Sponsored

For the exhibition last_resort at Interstitial, Seattle-based artist Mario Lemafa redesigned two mass-manufactured aloha shirts by selectively bleaching them. One is bifurcated into a shadow side and a side still garish with the printed pastiche of tropical sunset imagery.

When Lemafa bleached the other shirt, the result was a torso with a blast of color right in the middle of the belly. That blast has burned edges, like if someone were wearing it, there'd be a smoking hole right through their middle.

Lemafa, of Polynesian descent, hates aloha shirts, those visually bright and culturally dim oversaturations of color pre-bleached of meaning. So these half-and-half version hints at divided or multiplied selves. The shirts are titled aitu 01 and aitu 02, using a word that in Polynesian languages means something like ghosts with bad intentions.

"I was laughing to myself—okay, I'm tired of seeing aloha prints, they’re garish and I would rather take all of them away from Seattle so no one has to wear them: I will make them better," Lemafa said to me on the phone. "I had to laugh about it."

Pain, internal division, and conflict are components of the peoples represented by these shirts. So are wit, multiplicity, and adaptiveness.

Each of Lemafa's works in last_resort ingeniously and warmly highlights the ways that solidarity can become caricature while also insisting on the fact that shared cultural identities, and sharing strong and differing identities with each other, is vital to being alive and together.

How is that balance struck in this society of mass-manufactured bullshit and digital mediation?

Lemafa—who prefers the pronoun "they" for reasons I don't know but didn't need to ask, because the preference seems so appropriate for an artist conjuring complex multiple selves—well, Lemafa feels like a guide in finding that balance between lived personal experience and group identity.

Each of these bottled-up scents is either a cleansing agent or a tropical-scented product (and maybe more than one at a time). You smell them. Theyre called haole whiff, and haole refers to a person who is not a native Hawaiian, especially a white person. (I am a white person who had to look that up.)
Each of these bottled-up scents is either a cleansing agent or a tropical-scented product (and maybe more than one at a time). You smell them. They're called haole whiff, and haole refers to a person who is not a native Hawaiian, especially a white person. (I am a white person who had to look that up.)

Lemafa's materials are ones that are close at hand and come with associations.

These can be cheap shampoos, lotions, and cleaning agents, as in the series of tiny bottles of colored liquids that sit on a low shelf at Interstitial, waiting to be individually sniffed. As I sniffed them, the man next to me announced the contents of each one after sniffing with a fair amount of certainty. I felt less certain.

The materials are listed as "cleansing agents & tropical scented products." They bring associations of vacation and island breezes, and of hard domestic labor, the labor of cleaning. More bleaching.

Sometimes I found it hard to say which was a lotion and which was a cleaner. And there was always the question of approximations versus authentic chemical identities. Was it pure coconut oil (still a distillation, note) or was it a chemical approximation of coconut scent made chiefly of other raw materials? Each scent strives for its identity, to be recognized, to be known and understood, to make its intended associations successfully.

But in Lemafa's work there is a grounding of instability. Lemafa is diasporic in experience and indigenous by story, with Samoan and Maori family backgrounds. (I wonder whether the DNA test that Lemafa plans to take will feed into future work.)

Lemafa doen't associate indigenousness with authenticity. There is home in nomadism. Lemafa's materials often gesture toward a sense of home but leave the sense that there is not really any home to go to. There are a pair of barely visible prints on the wall of the gallery. The prints are a hibiscus design originally created by a California commercial artist commissioned to market Hawaii as a resort destination. In Lemafa's versions, the bright patterns become light gray, barely visible on the white paper, which is barely visible on the white gallery walls.

How visible can people make their cultural identities? And how do people hide or reveal their selves when the mainstream culture is repressive of or illiterate in their symbols and signs?

"I think about how to be who to be," Lemafa told me.

Support The Stranger

island gurl haunt, 2016, by Mario Lemafa.
island gurl haunt, 2016, by Mario Lemafa.

A few weekends ago, Lemafa and two other artists with Polynesian roots—visual artist Roldy Ablao and writer Sia Figiel—sat on the floor at Interstitial and talked openly with a crowd of people who filed in and grabbed food before they sat down. The food was all associated with the islands, and some of it was homemade while some of it was, you know, Girl Scout Samoas.

Because of the talk, the video last_resort wasn't on the wall, but I was able to watch it later, online, which seemed right, anyway. All of Lemafa's works are transportable, nomadic, diasporic. Last_resort is a 10-minute video in which digital windows keep opening up on the screen of more and more waterfalls, falling and falling in blind repetition. I remembered a question that was posed in the invitation to the talk: "Will the death of inequality render vacations obsolete?" Does a great vacation mean you're doing life wrong? Spring break approaches.