The main upstairs gallery at UMOCA boasts a long front room, in which two dozen or so vibrantly colorful paintings of sumptuous foodstuffs currently hang. They surround a couple of tables placed end to end, on which are arranged a dozen pairs of clamshell take-out boxes. The congruence between the number of paintings and the quantity of boxes can’t be an accident: it’s as though each painted meal is matched by its own carrier, waiting to carry it hence. Further connecting them, all the foods depicted are mainstays of the diets of Pacific Islanders, whose culture revolves around these foods, but also the rituals of preparing, sharing, and conveying them. What for Westerners is a mean joke — the comic movie image of a foreign individual or family caught with a pig in their luggage while passing through an airport, or in their carry-on in mid-flight — these Islanders reveal but a tiny fraction of the quantity of these exotic cultural identifiers actually traveling around the world at any time. In fact, a quartet of paintings specifically depict three suitcases and a cardboard box, each packed with something delicious-looking, each labeled with a prominent airline sticker identifying it as checked through to LAX — the port of call that is a revolving door servicing the comings and goings of so many Pacific Islanders.
One of the unsung pleasures of viewing art in public places is encountering other people drawn to the same works. So it happened that I found myself sharing Carried Across, Tali Alisa Hafoka’s show at UMOCA, with a handsome young Dominican couple. Although the island formerly known as Hispaniola is more than a quarter of the way around the world from Samoa, where Hafoka’s family originated, or Hawaii, where she grew up, they are all essentially tropical islands, with similar but distinct climates and cultures that place a similar emphasis on food as source of identity and medium of exchange. Hafoka exactingly presents what might be thought of as “major food groups” —for example, pork, bananas, coconut, and fish — wherein each set of four square canvases (get it?) displays four different ways these foods might be served. My companions enjoyed enlightening me about the dishes and foodstuffs we were viewing together, and it became clear that Hafoka’s treatment of her experience resonated with them as well. It was good practice for the coming day when white men like me will often be the outsiders, and need to know how to behave.
Food, of course, is not the only thing peoples of the Pacific and the Caribbean islands have in common, or the only thing they have had to “carry across.” Hispaniola was the first place Europeans settled after Columbus discovered it, so they have the longest history in the Americas of exploitation, suppression, and the struggle for self-determination. Their story bears comparison with that of the Pacific Islanders, whose predicament Hafoka treats with a light touch, beneath which she conceals her disorientation and perhaps anger stemming from similar accounts and personal experience. In the smaller space of the back room, ten more paintings comment directly on what is only implicit in the front room: the impact on Island cultures on the large and powerful societies that found them to be irresistible, and how that impact shows up in the lives of modern Islanders, Hafoka among them. These works make their points in subtle ways that reward close contemplation.
The “Hula” series includes three very different approaches. The first, “Lovely Hula Hands,” depicts an assortment of island clichés: palm trees, drums, surfboard, Tiki mask, tropical fruits and flowers, in the midst of which the artist dances in a grass skirt and leis. Look closely, though, and the visual ventriloquism is revealed by a shadow around her face, which reveals that she’s standing behind one of those cliché images tourists can stick their heads through in pursuit of a photo to take home. In the second, “We Were Voyagers,” the dancer is a doll lying among children’s toy cars and roads. Our “Wahini” identities, she seems to say, are not real, but roles we affect for the amusement of child-like tourists. And in the third, “Not Me,” the background gives away that she has depicted herself as a dashboard figure, probably one with a spring under her skirt that allows her to shimmy as the dashboard of the car she’s attached to bounces.
The most complex images here are the “Gauguin in Tahiti” trio, in which with impeccable skill she has duplicated some of the French Post-Impressionist’s romantic and deluded depictions of island life, adjusted by the addition of her own image dressed in modern clothes and using a cell phone, or wearing a hoodie, or carrying a soccer ball. Lest she “fit right in,” though, she has painted herself casting no shadow and without the black outlines seen in the original. These “Photoshopped” additions telegraph that they don’t belong. By comparison, in Hafoka’s nearby “Self-Portrait” we see her in authentic Island costume, standing in a modern kitchen, but in an utterly empty house, without a single piece of furniture or a personal possession.
Clearly, there is a problem reconciling the woman and her various settings, in none of which she seems to fit comfortably, if at all. Some hints can be found here and there, but ultimately they, too, question the possibility of adapting to one place or another when neither is correct. Bringing the venerable Island lifestyle into the modern world doesn’t seem to work any better for her than projecting today’s people into a false version of the past. Tali Alisa Hafoka is not alone in this dilemma, but her artistic skill at least lets her diagram the wrong choices clearly enough that she may yet find the right blend of identify for herself.
Tali Alisa Hafoka: Carried Across, Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, Salt Lake City, through Jan. 7, 2023