Uncovering Traces of Hawaii’s Ancient Ancestors with Brendan George Ko


The Hawaii of Polynesian voyagers still exists today, often hidden but available for those it calls to.

enRoute What drew you to photography and when did you realize you loved it?

Brendan George Ko I got into photography in high school. My mom was a photographer and I wandered into her closet one day and found an old Nikon that she learned photography with. She let me use it, but with the caveat of her teaching me to use it. We went to Pensacola, Florida with the camera and that first roll was what got me hooked. Half a lifetime later, I’m still doing it. In a place like Hawaii where the camera is seen with a negative connotation, I like being able to use it in a way that it hasn’t been used in a long time, acting as a lens that tells a different story of that place.

ER What story do you want your images to tell us about Hawaii?

BGK It’s the fact that I live between Canada and Hawaii that I see how Hawaii is perceived from the outside. Everyone seems so interested in that place, but they don’t know much about it, and what they do know is based on an image that has been prescribed to them since the 1950s. When you type “Hawaii” into Google, you get pictures of beaches and a luau. I want my work to correct that image. We see it as a destination, as an escape, and that’s fine that people are going there to relax, but the culture has so much value that we can all learn from.

April 9, 2019
A group of people operating a Hikianalia, a voyaging canoe
The rising of the mizzen sail on “Hikianalia”, a voyaging canoe similar to those used by ancient Polynesian voyageurs. “Hikianalia” was gifted from Aotearoa (the Māori name for New Zealand) and represents a new type of voyaging canoe that uses modern and traditional methods of construction and includes technological additions such as solar panels and electric outboard motors. It even has a toilet.

ER Your work explores the hidden traces of the ancient Polynesian explorers who settled on the shores of Hawaii. What draws you to these people and their experiences?

BGK We see and experience Hawaii very differently from those who first arrived there some 2,000 years ago. We can only imagine what it looked like to those ancient voyagers who had sailed thousands of miles from Hawaiki. In the 1970s, there was a movement to legitimize Polynesian voyagers because, at the time, Andrew Sharp and others were saying that Polynesians were hapless explorers that drifted to Hawaii from South America. But people pushed back, saying Polynesians were probably the world’s best ocean explorers and that the feat they accomplished was, at the time, equivalent to space exploration. They went into the void. Hawaii’s legend was that people felt a calling to this place and it took a lot of ingenuity to reach it.

ER In 2017, you crewed on a replica Polynesian voyaging canoe, along with a fleet of other boats. What did you learn from that experience?

BGK There’s this notion of ’ohana, which translates to “the family of the canoe.” If I arrive on a different island by canoe, that island has its own voyaging society and they host you and treat you like family. In 2017, since there were all these gatherings of voyagers from all over the Pacific, we became friends and we all sailed to Oahu and were living on our canoes and we spent two weeks with each other. I realized how big and accepting this family is and how passionate we all are, how much we share the same love. There’s a North American notion of “you’re family with your immediate family.” With ’ohana, you become part of a bigger family.

A Hawaiian fertility sculpture depicting a human figure in grey clay.
A basalt sculpture of Puino Kolu o Hina (“Three Winds of Hina”) by master sculptor and cultural practitioner, Alapai Hanapi, in Kaunakakai, Moloka’i. Hina watches over the land and when it is mistreated, she releases a series of winds from her gourd. The greater the mistreatment, the more severe the wind.
A nature scene from Hawaii depicting beautiful purple ferns
Lana’i looks like a forgotten place, far from the reach of change that has spread throughout Hawai’i nei. I found stones with petroglyphs of people, animals and a Polynesian–style double–hull canoe (wa’a kaulua) with its crab claw sails. It was like seeing an ancient spell written into the stone, there to remind future generations of the people who first arrived and flourished on these islands.

ER You were born in Toronto, raised in New Mexico and Texas and you’re currently based in Maui and Toronto. What has the experience of living in a number of different cities taught you about yourself? About other people? About your art?

BGK One of the most important things I learned is the value of storytelling. I became an artist when I lived in New Mexico. Oral tradition is the highest art in New Mexico and it has so much magic to it. I like to go somewhere that’s either misconceived of or unfamiliar and try to convey that cultural perspective to an outside audience. Having lived in different places for long enough that I started to understand that culture has given me a lot of perspective on that place. I go to places that I want to understand more and will spend a lot of time doing that.

ER What do you miss about Maui when you’re in Toronto? What do you miss about Toronto when you’re in Maui?

BGK I’m a very rural person in Maui. I work a lot on the land or go sailing and there’s a different pace and a different set of values that I have there. When I’m in the city, I’m talking about ideas and I’m surrounded by creative people. If I come from the city and go to Maui, I’m used to being surrounded by other artists and talking about concepts and theories and ideas that we’re exploring with our work. When I’m back in Maui, I don’t talk much about that. I’m absorbing and learning from people and I’m a lot quieter. What I miss about the city is that creative reflex that I have as an artist. But when I’m in Toronto, I don’t feel nature’s presence as much, and I miss that sense of the spirits around me.

A view of the Mauna Kea Observatories below the mountains
Rising 13,000 feet above sea level, Mauna a Wakea (Mauna Kea) is one of the most sacred places in all of Hawai’i Nei. It’s a ceremonial site, as well as the burial site of the highest chiefs, and it’s considered the birthplace of the people of Hawai’i. The Mauna Kea Observatories were built here in 1967 and the Submillimeter Array radio telescopes now dot this sacred land.

ER You shoot mostly on film. What can you achieve using that medium that you can’t achieve with digital photography?

BGK Film is very process–oriented. When I do shoot digital, it’s out of convenience. But film has a nice challenge to it because it’s harder to photograph with and you have to trust your gut to know if you have the shot. I use a digital dark room, but I learned how to work with colour in the colour dark room, where we were taught to do a perfect white and then tone it. The toning is emotional value that you add to the image. If the image is slightly warmer or slightly cooler, it will affect the human psyche when they’re reading the image. I like to summon the spirits that were captured. I’m not interested in accuracy, necessarily; I’m interested in invoking those spirits and film is the best medium for that.

Follow Brendan George Ko on Instagram to see more of his work.