Ian Kuali’i fell in love with the process of the cut.
It started with stencil-making, when the Hawaiian artist with a graffiti background decided to pursue a professional career. But rather than using stencils for spray-painting, he became more interested in them as the actual art form.
As a result, he says, he discovered his own original approach to paper-cutting, engineering intricately designed “bridges” without them falling or collapsing. And for more than 15 years, hand-cut paper has been his main artistic medium.
“I was drawn to the beauty and the delicate nature of it,” Kuali’i said during an interview at his studio at the School for Advanced Research, where he’s been a Dubin Arts Fellow for the past year. “I felt there was something beyond precious, with the time, the care and the delicate nature of the piece after it was completely cut.”
Using only an X-acto blade and a solid sheet of paper, Kuali’i creates his detailed, largely freehand patternwork. The resulting images, which often feature figures, abstract designs and sometimes veiled words, can tackle themes like the environment or urban decay, or topics related to his Native Hawaiian culture.
“I feel like I’m trying to create my own visual language and speak to things that are dear to me and in a manner that’s culturally relevant to me,” he said.
Kuali’i will be showing off a range of his paper-cut images and techniques in his first solo show in Santa Fe. The new works will be displayed at Canyon Road’s Hecho a Mano starting Friday.
The following week, on Aug. 8, Kuali’i will be offering an artist talk and open studio at SAR to discuss his evolving artistic practice.
The medium of hand-cut paper is not one that gallery owner Frank Rose says is well represented in the art community, which is one of the reasons he was drawn to Kuali’i’s work.
“There’s a sort of urgency,” Rose said. “It’s all in a line, if you mess up a stroke with the X-acto blade, you’re done. I love that there’s that kind of pressure behind it, and I love that he’s exploring Hawaiian ancestry and identity through the work, as well.”
Kuali’i relocated to Santa Fe about a year and a half ago when he was selected for a monthlong National Endowment for the Arts residency at the Institute of American Indian Arts. An outdoor mural based on one of his smaller paper works is still on the grounds at IAIA’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts downtown.
He came to New Mexico after years of living in the Bay Area and New York City. The artist, who has Native Hawaiian and Apache ancestry, grew up between Southern California and the island of Maui. He spent the majority of his teen and young adult years in Maui before moving to New York to pursue his art.
Introducing himself to the Santa Fe art scene, Kuali’i described the 13 or so works that will be in his Hecho a Mano show as representative of his traditional culture, while also distinguishing him as a modern artist and individual.
A six-part series in the show depicts various images of the deity Ku. The god, one of four main deities in Hawaiian mythology, is incredibly complex, Kuali’i said. He is the god of war, but also represents elements of agriculture and other parts of cultural life.
Ku also has hundreds of different names. Kuali’i based his portraits on old woven effigies of Ku, typically decorated with the feathers of now-extinct Hawaiian birds, dog’s teeth, black and white pearl for the eyes, and sometimes human hair.
These special “living objects,” however, now reside in museum and private collections around the world, which Kuali’i cited as a reason for making his paper versions. He wanted to pay tribute to a deity whose representations aren’t immediately accessible to the Hawaiian people.
“Most of them spend most of their time in archives, even,” he said. “We as Hawaiian people don’t have access to them for the most part and don’t have the ability to observe our protocols when it comes to them or leaving them offerings. We don’t have that ability. We don’t have the ability to sing or chant to them.”
To make his portraits, Kuali’i used a new “half-tone” paper-cutting strategy he’s been experimenting with for the past year. The process uses a variety of thin- and thick-cut lines to create one large image visible from a distance. The half-tone technique, which more commonly uses dots instead of lines, can be seen in how old newspapers or magazines reproduced photographs
“I’m doing this so individuals have to kind of step back from the piece in order to make out the imagery, but (it) also allows them to see the complexity of the cut when they step in on it,” Kuali’i said.
In another series of four small works, Kuali’i used his regular practice of including semi-hidden words throughout the freehand cut pattern work. Some of the specific veiled statements in these pieces derive from words related to the cultural practice of Ho’oponopono. He described the practice as one of forgiveness, not only of others but of oneself.
Veiling things like words also relates more generally to the Hawaiian idea of kauna, he said, in which words and phrases within the traditional language can have more than one meaning.
“One phrase my have layers upon layers of meaning, where something that seems like it might be about something as basic as the strength of a tree, (it) may actually be about the strength of a female or masculine form, and the strength of their sexual virility, all in one go,” he explained. “There’s no separation between it all.”
Kuali’i described the concept of kauna in his work as applying not just to his words, but also to his more abstract patternwork. Though his intentions and inspirations are clear to him in the process, the result can be ambiguous to the viewer.
“A pattern may have multiple meanings within it,” he said. “Certain things may symbolize mountains, certain things may symbolize warfare, certain things may symbolize the head of a spear. There’s always some kind of meaning behind it, but I always try to make something that is engaging aesthetically so people can step in on it and pick up their own.”