The village of Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai in Hawai’i was, between 1874 and 1969, a settlement for people suffering from Hansen’s Disease, also known as leprosy. At it’s height, there were almost 1,200 residents – men, women and children, together with relatives and friends who lived with them as carers. The settlement was ministered to at the invitation of the Hawai’ian King Kamehameha V by Jozef de Veuser – Father (now Saint) Damien and Mother Marianne Cope. Following the end of mandatory isolation in 1969, and the establishing of a National Park on the island, the community gradually dwindled to its current population of 14.

In 2003, Hawai’ian print-maker Maria Lee arrived on the island as part of a team to help record and conserve the gravestones in the Kalaupapa community cemetery, as part of a larger project to help preserve the history of this unique settlement. Inspired by the history of the community, she returned a year later to work on a series of 23 monoprints, now on exhibit in the Father Damien and Mother Marianne Museum in Waikiki on the island of O’ahu, Hawai’i.

The prints blend together maps, photographs and drawings with words and symbols redolent of the community’s isolation and Hansen’s stigma. Juxtaposing her own marks and her own experience of the place with those clipped from the island’s extraordinary photographic archive turns these monoprints from mere detached artistic response to a genuine creative intersection with the community and its historic and medical legacy. The use of words in each print to connect to the idea of imposed definitions and expectations is particularly striking, as is the drawing together of biography and history with an artist’s own experience of place. Lee was obviously deeply affected by the story of the community – who wouldn’t be? It is interesting to note that – with the exception of the images above used on the hawaiimagazine.com site – there are no images of these prints available online or elsewhere: the prints exist only as part of the intellectual property of the community. Thus the artistic response (and product) is not something “from”, “about” or “out of” the community, it’s history and experience – but is instead something which has become part of that community, history and experience.

This is also something else which I found particularly striking about this exhibition. Too often, artists seek their inspiration from places where other deep connections exist – culture, history, community. It is all too easy to “take” inspiration “from” a place or a landscape or a community – it is harder to find examples where artists have consciously “given” their inspiration “back to” the places, landscapes and communities which have helped give birth to their work.

At my most recent archaeology conference, I became involved in the Intellectual Property in Community Heritage initiative, which states that archaeological, historical or anthropological data must in some cases be seen as the intellectual property of living descendant communities. Lee, in Keep In, Keep Out seems to echo that sentiment in her approach to her art and the community of Kalaupapa: that there is something wrong about only taking in order to create art – and that there is something very right about giving back with it.

For more information on the exhibition, contact the Father Damien and Mother Marianne Museum.

Maria Lee is an MFA graduate in Printmaking from the UA School of Art, 2002. She did her undergraduate studies at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, spent a semester abroad in Provence, France, completed a 4 year program at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and worked for 3 years at the Fabric Workshop, also in Philadelphia. She has traveled to Kyoto, Japan and has hiked the Inca trail to Macchu Picchu. Lee has received and completed artist residencies on the wintery terrain of northern Wyoming, and tucked in a hillside studio designed by Richard Serra, on the grounds of an arboretum in northern California. She teaches basic design, screen printing and drawing at Pima Community College.

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