President Obama’s Next Job Might Already Be Waiting for Him at Ward Village

Medium White Tee, a new art installation by Brooklyn-based artist and writer Emily Spivack, sells plain, white, size medium T-shirts in honor of President Obama.
Obama shave ice
Photos: Medium White Tee


As President Obama’s last day approaches, we’re sure he’s looking forward to spending time with Michelle and the girls, go on vacation and maybe finally get some rest.


But let’s face it: Obama’s a productive guy. He’ll be looking for a job pretty soon. Luckily, there’s a new opportunity for him at Ward Village that the Honolulu-born-and-raised president could consider.


Presenting Medium White Tee, a new art installation by Brooklyn-based artist and writer Emily Spivack. It’s a T-shirt shop that sells—you guessed it—plain white size medium T-shirts. Why?


In June 2016, The New York Times published an article called “Obama After Dark: The Precious Hours Alone.” It was a story about the President’s evening routine: sending emails, working on speeches, reading letters from Americans, paperwork and eating (usually) seven lightly-salted almonds. You know, presidential stuff.


At one point in the article, now-mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel recalled a vision for life after the White House: “He and Mr. Obama once imagined moving to Hawai‘i to open a T-shirt shack that sold only one size (medium) and one color (white). Their dream was that they would no longer have to make decisions.” During tough meetings at the White House, when there wasn’t a good decision clearly visible, the article reported that Emanuel would sometimes turn to Obama and say, “white.” Obama would reply, “medium.”


Medium white tee


This concept struck a chord with artist Spivack last summer. Over the next few months, she conceptualized what this fantasy T-shirt store might look like, in collaboration with GRT Architects in New York. And, seeing as how Obama envisioned this shirt shack to be in Hawai‘i, they decided to bring it to O‘ahu. Obama has an open invitation to begin running this shop as soon as his term is up in Washington.


“I can’t begin to fathom the kind of stress the president deals with every day,” Spivack told The New York Times in a recent article about her new installation. “But everyone suffers decision-making fatigue, and the concept of a durable white T-shirt as a symbol of a kind of freedom from that is something I can relate to.”


Here in a glass-walled corner space, guests are invited to stop in and look around, stand on the repurposed wooden deck from Re-Use Hawai‘i, sit in the beach chairs under the shade of the real palm trees on loan from an O‘ahu plant nursery and contemplate Obama’s presidency.


Of course, people can buy the shirts, too, for $44 each, 44 as a nod to Obama being the 44th President of the United States. Yes, they’re expensive, but proceeds from the shirt sales go to benefit two local causes: The Bus Federation Civic Fund, a get-out-the-vote program for youth, and Mala ‘Ai ‘Opio Youth Community Food Systems Initiative (MA‘O). There are only 1,000 of these limited-edition medium plain white T-shirts available (we can’t believe we just wrote that), so get your wallets ready.


Does the President know there’s a T-shirt shack at Ward waiting for him? Yes, he does. Over the holidays, his sister Maya Soetoro-Ng gave him Medium White Tee No. 1 when he visited. Soetoro-Ng will also be giving the opening remarks at the installation’s opening reception Wednesday, Jan. 11 (tonight) from 6 to 8 p.m. Can’t make it tonight? There’s also a talk-story session with artist Spivack and local organizer and architect Stephanie Hsu at the Surfjack Thursday, Jan. 19 from 6 to 8 p.m. They’ll chat about alternative art markets, the Medium White Tee installation in the context of the islands, and architecture. And, while you’re there, you can order the special “Presidential Martini” ($14) with Grey Goose and extra olives, the one ordered by Obama when he dined at Mahina & Sun’s in December. Medium white T-shirt fever is sweeping the Islands!


Artist rendering of Medium White Tee


It’s all pretty silly, even by contemporary art standards. But this new art installation/exhibition/T-shirt shop/nonprofit fundraiser is well-intentioned and has heart. It’s an earnest expression of gratitude for Obama’s time in office; eight years of making careful, thoughtful, impossible decisions. He deserves to not have to think about what color or size a T-shirt should come in.


Medium White Tee’s website sums it up: “When things got tough, you didn’t leave it all behind to go sell T-shirts in Hawai‘i, and we’re better off for it.”