Exhibition 'Art Deco Hawai'i' displays early 20th century images

Eye-catching. Dream-inducing. But did Hawaii ever look this way?

In the 1920s, '30s and '40s, when Matson Navigation Co. dominated the Pacific steamship business between Hawaii and the mainland, the company built posh hotels and luxury liners and commissioned a sweeping advertising campaign depicting the islands as an untouched utopia filled with carefree natives dancing the hula and climbing palm trees.

Some of these images, along with less commercial art and prints of that era, form an exhibition at the Honolulu Museum of Art titled "Art Deco Hawai'i." Curator Theresa Papanikolas has focused on the streamlined design and graphic boldness of Deco cityscapes translated for a different landscape: tropical paradise.

One of the most interesting aspects of the show is how such beautiful imagery was built upon layers of stereotypes and misrepresentation of authentic Hawaiian culture.

"Native Hawaiians became ciphers for the 'exotic other' in contrast to the white sophisticates coming to Hawaii at that time," said Papanikolas, who started research for the show almost four years ago.

The exhibition closes Jan. 11, but the work can be examined further in a related book, also titled "Art Deco Hawai'i," by Papanikolas and historian DeSoto Brown.

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