Queering Native Hawaiian Narratives: Artist Lehuauakea Talks About The Māhū Experience In Art and Life

by Jose Soto

The above photo of Lehuauakea courtesy of Moriel O'Connor

Through strategic partnerships and collaborations with artists from an array of disciplines and backgrounds, HRC has been able to connect with audiences whose lived experiences we attempt to elevate during celebrations such as Asian American and Pacific Islander/Native Hawaiian Heritage Month. We partnered with interdisciplinary artist Lehuauakea as part of our AANHPI Heritage Month celebration in May.

Lehuauakea, a māhū Native Hawaiian artist and kapa maker, explores the relationships between culture and land, observing the significance that location plays in the beauty of heritage and history. To help us honor AANHPI Heritage Month, and to visually encapsulate the joy of celebrating diversity, Lehuauakea provided artwork that speaks to and beyond AANHPI communities. We talked to Lehuauakea about this and other aspects of their work while also discussing the importance of queer intersectionality within progressive movements like the fight for LGBTQ+ equality:

HRC’s collaborative partnerships with artists of various mediums intends to elevate the experience of living within the intersections of LGBTQ+ identities with other identities. How did your artistic partnership with HRC help you showcase your experiences as an artist, as a queer individual and Native Hawaiian?

As a māhū, which means non-binary or queer, Native Hawaiian artist, all of these identities are inseparable from each other and each plays a role to inform the work I create. Through this collaboration, I was able to elevate the voices of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, who are often overlooked within the AANHPI or API acronyms, while also paying tribute to the roles that queer individuals have held within our communities, both historically and today. In Native Hawaiian culture, māhū and queer visibility is something that has much more ground to cover, even though we have made considerable strides forward in recent years. With this work, I honor those who have come before me, my ancestors still living and those who have passed on, without whom I wouldn’t be able to create or confidently know my own identity in the ways I do now.

How often do elements of queer life help comprise your artistic work? As a queer artist yourself, can you describe how queer experiences are manifested in your work, either intentionally or subconsciously?

Within my practice, I often see my māhū and queer identity coming forth in the ways that I intentionally approach the traditions that comprise kapa-making, or bark cloth. In the past, beating kapa was typically reserved for the women in a community, while the painting of the finished cloth as well as the tool-making required for the process was completed by the men. Those who were māhū, individuals who embodied both masculine and feminine energies, were likely allowed to do all of these tasks, as they were granted the ability to move throughout spaces that were otherwise under spiritual restrictions to non-māhū. As a whole, not only am I working to revive kapa-making, a practice that was nearly lost to colonization; but I also aim to reclaim our traditional queer identities that were highly stigmatized after religious missionary contact in the early 1800s.

Lehuauakea's "No Mākou Ke Ānuenue," which translates to "The Rainbow For Us All."

A component to HRC’s collaborative partnerships with artists is to illustrate how our individual culture and heritage intertwines with queer life. Can you tell us how “No Mākou Ke Ānuenue (The Rainbow For Us All),” your artistic contribution to both our AANHPI Heritage Month campaign and the cover to our newest issue of EQUALITY, tells us about queerness in AANHPI communities?

Similar to how so many aspects of Indigenous and Pacific Islander life – from food, spiritual practices, material culture, clothing, language, and more – were stolen or erased from communities entirely, Hawaiian kapa-making was almost lost after colonial contact. So, too, were the important roles that māhū played within our culture. At one point, queer individuals in pre-contact Hawaiʻi were widely respected elders, knowledge keepers, and spiritual practitioners. With projects like this one for the Human Rights Campaign, my goal was not only to raise the visibility for Pacific Islanders as a whole, but also raise awareness that many of our island cultures held LGBTQ+ individuals as valuable parts of a community. I hope that one day we are able to break from the colonial stigmas that were placed on us and honor the multitude of roles that our ancestors once held.

Identifying as LGBTQ+ means something entirely different for people from different cultural backgrounds. What does being part of the LGBTQ+ community mean to you as an AANHPI person and artist?

As a māhū and queer Native Hawaiian, being part of the LGBTQ+ community to me means honoring who we are as individuals who are part of a whole. Being māhū is not as much of an identity label as it is a designation of the responsibility that one assumes within their given community. To me, that means embodying all facets of my work, both the ones that were reserved for gendered women and men in a western sense. It also means showing up for the youth in the Native Hawaiian-Pacific Northwest diaspora, especially those who identify as Queer or are questioning, because I know from personal experience how isolating that can be as a young, Indigenous kid. If my work can inspire or help even one young person or individual along their journey, it will have served its purpose.

As expressive as art can be, sometimes, there are ideas and emotions that aren’t clearly conveyed through the way art is perceived. What would you like people to know about yourself, both as an individual and artist, and about the way you create your artwork?

I hope that people know that the work I do is a reflection of the relationships that I’ve been able to build over the years as a cultural practitioner, relationships that have sustained my life quite literally, for without them I don’t know if I would be here today. Because of the nature of my work as a kapa-maker, I wouldn’t be able to perpetuate this practice without my connection to land through the trees I make the kapa (bark cloth) from, and the earth pigments and plant dyes I utilize for paint. I also wouldn’t be here without the understanding of my ancestry, which is also inherently tied to my queer identity, and it is my hope that when one looks at my work, they see these relationships reclaimed, remembered and celebrated.