Pow! Wow! has evolved from a gallery show into an organization enriching a global community
Text by Brad Dell | Images courtesy of Pow! Wow!
In 2011, artists from across the globe were set to fly to O‘ahu for a festival in Kaka‘ako, when the event’s sponsors pulled their funding. The festival’s founder and director, Jasper Wong, had less than a week to make a choice: cancel the event, feature only local artists, or pay for it all himself.
“So I pulled out my credit card and just paid for everything out of pocket and put myself into debt,” Wong says.
This investment became the first Pow! Wow! Hawai‘i, a flourishing week-long festival held each February in Kaka‘ako that brings local, national, and international artists to the neighborhood to create murals and installation pieces. The inaugural Hawai‘i event included just 11 muralists. This February, it brings more than 100 artists, deejays, musicians, photographers, and bloggers to the island.
Caption: POW! WOW! SXSW 2015
While Hawai‘i is at the core of the organization, Honolulu isn’t where it all started. Wong, who majored in illustration at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, held the first Pow! Wow! in Hong Kong in 2010, where he had moved four years prior. He had been trying to break into the city’s art scene, but was disappointed by the emphasis on buying art only as an investment. To protest this, Wong gathered four friends for an art exhibition, creating a collaboration that he titled Pow! Wow!
“We had a gallery full of blank canvases and painted them. Then we destroyed the majority of them afterward as a reaction to the financial nature of the art industry in Hong Kong,” Wong says. “We wanted to think of art’s ephemeral nature, harking back to when we were just kids and painted for fun, just to enjoy the act of creating as opposed to selling. For art’s sake.”
Wong toyed with the idea of taking this event to a number of other destinations until his friend Christa Wittmier, aka SuperCW, convinced him to bring it back to the city where he was raised: Honolulu. As this central event gained popularity, Wong expanded the festival to other locations. Since 2014, there have been Pow! Wow! events in Long Beach, California; Austin, Texas; Taipei, Taiwan; and Tokyo, Japan. Pow! Wow! organizers continue to plan festivals all over the world, including a return to Austin this spring and Long Beach in the summer.
Caption: POW! WOW! TAIWAN 2014
“We want to build bridges across the globe and connect people through art and music,” Wong says. “It’s a movement that spans cultures and ethnic groups.”
Pow! Wow! usually selects locations based on opportunities that present themselves, but Wong says he is trying to focus on picking places that are also in need of revitalization. He is most excited about bringing a festival to Kathmandu, Nepal, once he figures out the logistics of getting the appropriate supplies into the country.
“The buildings are in such disarray because of the [April 2015] earthquakes. A lot of guys tell me they would love to have art on their buildings because the damage is such a constant reminder of what happened,” Wong says. “Our art is much more than about aesthetic. It’s about making people feel different about their city.”
This year’s Pow! Wow! Hawai‘i took place February 7–13, 2016 in Kaka‘ako. For more information, visit powwowhawaii.com.