National Museum of the American Indian

Time-lapse video of artist Ian Kuali'i working on a paper-cut portrait

Ian Kuali'i with some of his cut-paper art, June 2019. (Courtesy of the artist)
Ian Kuali'i with some of his cut-paper art, June 2019. (Courtesy of the artist)

The 20-second time-lapse video below condenses a couple of hours of work by artist Ian Kuali’i (Native Hawaiian and Mescalero Apache) making an image in cut paper. The step shown here comes in the middle of the process. Kuali’i has sketched the outlines of the cuts on the paper, though he also cuts freehand. (We asked if he ever uses a projected image as a cutting guide. He doesn’t and offers the advice, “Simplify!”)

After cutting the image, Kuali’i sandwiches it between two sheets of glass or plexi. Sometimes he colors the verso (opposite side) of the paper so that when it’s mounted, there’s an illuminated effect from the reflection against the wall, as in the work We Mourning Your 50 Stars (on the left, below).

This art is Hawaiian because Hawaiian hands make it. In all his work, Kuali’i embeds the Hawaiian idea of kuleana—embracing responsibility as a fundamental value. He is honored to be given the opportunity and responsibility to bring further visibility to his people. “Knowing I was given these gifts, he says, I have the responsibility to be able to honor and bring forth the individuals who move me, Kānaka Maoli [Native Hawaiians] and other Indigenous, to figure out ways to bring further visibility to their causes and the issues they face, the crafts they’ve mastered.”

Left: Ian Kuali'i, "We Mourning Your 50 Stars... So We Navigate by Our Own" (study), 2019. Freehand cut paper with painted verso, 22 3/4 x 19 in. Right: Ian Kuali'i, koa wood kapa beaters etched using cut-paper stencils. (Courtesy of Ian Kuali'i)

Kuali’i was also brought up believing that the traditional and the contemporary can collide and exist together. One way he shows this in his art is through his kapa beaters: He uses paper-cut stencils as patterns to carve into koa wood kapa beaters (above right).

It’s not always about bringing tradition into modernity, he points out. Sometimes you take modernity and layer it over tradition. It goes both ways.

Kuali’i, the 2019 Ronald and Susan Dubin Native Artist Fellow at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, will be at the museum in New York City tomorrow (Saturday, October 19, 2019) from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4 p.m., demonstrating his art and talking with visitors. You can see more of his art on Instagram at @iankuali'i.

Lisa M. Austin is a press and communications specialist on the staff of the National Museum of the American Indian. She grew up in Hawai’i.