Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Aliʻi, which recently showed at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, opened May 22 at LACMA, and I was so glad to not only see the show, but also to attend a talk by the curator, Christina Hellmich, and to just generally be there opening day. Though I didn’t get to see any of the opening ceremonies (some, or all, were held in private), and didn’t actually end up talking to very many people, it was a real pleasure to see this exhibit alongside members of the Hawaiian community. Many people in the gallery wore aloha shirts, muumuus, and/or lauhala hats, bringing that feeling of local community, which I always felt when visiting the Honolulu Museum, here to Los Angeles.
The exhibit itself was marvelous. I was excited to see it anyway, even not knowing much about it, simply because it’s Hawaiian art, but I don’t think I knew what to expect in the show. Just from the phrase “Hawaiian Featherwork,” and thinking of textile arts shows, I guess I expected smaller works, and more modern/contemporary fashion accessories, like feather earrings or something. But, no. They were serious when they said “Royal Hawaiian Featherwork,” and we got to see numerous capes and cloaks of the royalty (aliʻi), including pieces associated with such prominent figures as Kalaniʻōpuʻu, Kamehameha I, Kamehameha III, Kamehameha IV, Queen Emma, Kapiʻolani, and Kalākaua, Kekuaokalani from the collections of the Bishop Museum, Honolulu Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, and Harvard’s Peabody Museum. I was extremely pleasantly surprised that they were willing to let these pieces travel – though, as the curator told us in her talk, the featherwork cloaks and the like are far more durable than you might think, and so as long as they’re packed carefully and properly and so forth, really they’re quite okay to travel.
Being there on opening day, it was a wonderful feeling to walk through the gallery amidst a crowd of Hawaiians and Hawaiian locals, to appreciate this significant event and to engage with these powerful objects alongside them. It made me feel like I was “home” in Honolulu again, and at the Honolulu Museum of Art – I have never felt such a sense of community at any museum as I have at the HMA.
It is not often that a major mainland museum devotes this much space to Hawaiian history or culture, and shares those stories with the wider public, and so being there as members of the Hawaiian community engaged with these powerful artifacts, and thinking about how special an experience this might have been for them, was thus a special experience for me as well, secondhand. When we Westerners look at pieces from another culture, hopefully we are inspired, hopefully we learn something, but mostly it’s just another day at the museum – for these people, and I hope I’m not romanticizing overmuch or god forbid orientalizing, or putting too much onto it, but I really felt I could sense (or, at least, imagine) that there’s a real engagement as they connect to their own history and culture, to their own identity. There were also a number of people there who, from their dress, I am guessing belong to other Native Nations, and I overheard as Bishop Museum staffer & Hawaiian traditional arts practitioner Kamalu du Preez was approached by a Hopi woman, who presented her with a few small packets of seeds; I have been reading about, and watching videos of, meetings between the Hōkūleʻa crew and the Native peoples who have welcomed them at each of the places they have visited, and so there was a wonderful sense of interaction and fellowship here, too, between representatives of Native peoples. I’m still sad I’m going to miss the Hōkūleʻa’s visit to my hometown of New York, in the first week of June.
As much as I enjoyed the energy of walking through the exhibit alongside all these Hawaiians and Hawaiian locals, I regret that I was not bold enough to try to talk to anyone, to ask just who exactly they were. After all, if I had been more bold, to try to talk to people, I wonder who I might have met! I wouldn’t be surprised if many were Bishop Museum staff, prominent traditional practitioners, or bigwigs of Hawaiian high society, or of the local LA Hawaiian community – I think I overheard someone say they were a member of the Royal Order of Kamehameha – and, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they were actually quite kind and friendly. But, alas, this was not a reception or mingling event – it was a regular museum gallery space, and you don’t go up to anyone and everyone in a museum gallery and try to engage them in conversation, do you? Right? If only I’d been closer with someone there already, they might have introduced me around a little bit… but, then, that’s why you have to introduce yourself, develop connections, to begin with.
I did get to meet, and speak very briefly, though, with Kamalu du Preez, Ethnology Collections Manager at the Bishop Museum, who was excitedly getting her picture taken in front of the kāhili (feather standards) she had constructed for the exhibit. My sincere mahalo to her for being so accessible, and friendly, and for taking the time, just for a minute or two, to tell us more about the kāhili – the original exhibit design had them at the entrance to the gallery, framing the title, but due to concerns about light damaging them, they were replaced with wall graphics, as you can see above. The kāhili du Preez made were brought into the gallery, where they stand framing a series of photographs of the aliʻi, just as they would have stood to each side of the actual aliʻi or mōʻī (king or queen) during the time of the Kingdom.
Turning to the objects themselves, thanks to http://wehewehe.com/, we can come to understand a bit more deeply the terminology. Many of the key pieces on display are ʻahu ʻula – feather cloaks each made of hundreds of thousands of feathers, and worn only by the aliʻi (nobility, or royalty). As we learn from the Wehewehe dictionary, ʻahu refers to a garment worn over the shoulders, either a short “cape” or the much longer “cloak” in English parlance, while ʻula refers to red color, and to royal sacredness. Thus, these capes and cloaks, both, even when dominated by yellow, are called “red” or “royal capes”: ʻahu ʻula. ʻŌiwi TV has a series of videos for teaching oneself the basics of Hawaiian language (ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi) – hopefully maybe some day soon I’ll start making my way through those.
The capes and cloaks are stunningly beautiful, all the more so because their color shows little sign of having faded – they remain bright and bold – and, LACMA being an art museum, we are certainly there to appreciate the incredible traditional craft techniques, expertise, and unfathomable hours of work it took to produce each of these. But, they are incredible, too, for their historical significance and power. From a Western or modern point of view, we do often speak of artworks as having an “aura” as a result of their canonical status, or historical importance. And as the curator, Christina Hellmich, said in her talk that day, they are touchpoints for history. One could walk through this exhibit and tell much of the history of the Kingdom by pointing to objects associated with each of the kings and queens. But these pieces possess a great mana, too, an aura within traditional Hawaiian belief as well, as they still brim with the mana of the aliʻi who once wore them. It was traditionally considered kapu (taboo) for a commoner to touch anything associated with the aliʻi, not only simply because it was considered disrespectful, or simply not done, but beyond that, because it was believed that the spiritual energy of that person – their mana – was too much for a commoner to handle, and that it would severely injure or even kill them. Today, such kapu are not so strictly observed, but the objects are still considered to be quite powerful, and are still treated with much respect, including ritual. Not only are there various public celebrations, like there were for the opening of this exhibit, and as there were for welcoming Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s ʻahu ʻula and mahiole back to Hawaii a few months ago, but there are also more private rituals performed by those actually handling the objects, as they (I believe, please correct me if I’m wrong) call upon the gods and ancestors for permission to touch, handle, and move the objects.
Doing a little internet research for this blog post, I found an amazing post from the blog nupepa, translating a clip from a 1908 Hawaiian-language newspaper which tells of the Bishop Museum reacquiring from Tsarist Russia at that time an ʻahu ʻula and mahiole associated with Kalaniʻōpuʻu, which had been given to Captain Cook and which had, seemingly by accident, been left by Cook’s men in Russia, way back in 1779-1780. The cloak and helmet were apparently found quickly by Russians, and brought back to St. Petersburg, where they had been preserved all this time. These do not appear to be the Kalaniʻōpuʻu artifacts included in the exhibit at LACMA, which have accession numbers indicating a 1968 date – and as the gallery labels tell us, it was in that year that these were purchased by the Bishop Museum from Lord Bruce of Kinnaird (Earl of Elgin). Neither are these 1908 objects the ones currently on long-term loan to the Bishop from Te Papa. It’s kind of incredible that so many pieces from so long ago – prior to the unification of the kingdom – still survive. Not just one, but at least three sets of ʻahu ʻula and mahiole associated with Kalaniʻōpuʻu, have apparently been maintained in either British, Russian, New Zealander, or Hawaiian hands.
And this, given that Hellmich tells us only about three hundred such Hawaiian featherwork garments are known to be surviving in the world. It’s a small number, but at the same time a large one, considering that in this one exhibit at LACMA alone we have numerous ʻahu ʻula belonging to Hawaiian mōʻī, while only one Ryukyuan royal crown is known to survive, in all the world. This is thanks, I suppose, to a combination of factors, including the fact that Hawaiʻi, for all its troubles, was at least spared the shelling and bombing and devastation of land war visited upon Okinawa; the fact that these objects, however Orientalized and exoticized, were valued and thus carefully preserved in British, Russian, and American collections; and the fact that within Hawaiian culture, too, these things were considered powerful symbols of kingly legitimacy and power, and were passed down from one king to another. Stacy Kamehiro writes, in her book The Arts of Kingship, about King Kalākaua’s possession of numerous key objects belonging to the Kamehameha line. And, indeed, the Sacred Sash of Liloa (Kāʻei Kapu o Liloa) worn by Kamehameha I in his famous statue was possessed, too, by Kalākaua, and survives in the Bishop Museum collection today.
We also learned about the birds used to make this fabulous cloaks. Three of the most significant were the mamo, the ʻoʻo, and the ʻiʻiwi. The mamo and ʻoʻo, used for their black and yellow feathers, are today extinct, though the red ʻiʻiwi can still be found in Hawaiʻi today, and are merely designated as “Vulnerable.” To make a full-length cloak like many of those in this exhibit required the feathers of literally hundreds of thousands of birds, and since the mamo and ʻoʻo were black birds with only a few yellow feathers each, one can begin to imagine how rare, valuable, and precious these yellow feathers were – and thus how a yellow cloak, even a smaller cape, could serve as a great show of wealth and power. Brilliant as the red is – and, make no mistake, the red was considered a royal color too – it was the yellow, really, which made so much more of an impression. This being the case, an all-yellow ʻahu ʻula associated with Kamehameha I and still held by the Bishop Museum today, despite being less visually interesting than the red and yellow ones, must have provided an exceptionally powerful display of wealth and kingly authority.
Moa – a type of native Hawaiian duck far cuter and far less imposing than the large ratites which once lived in Aotearoa – were also used for featherwork, and are also extinct. Green feathers, used mainly in lei and not in cloaks, came from the ʻōʻū, which is today believed to be critically endangered, if not already extinct.
Given that several of these bird species are today extinct, and that it did require so many birds to make a single cape, a number of people in the audience raised the perhaps obvious questions about how exactly the feathers were gathered, and how (why) precisely the birds went extinct. I have certainly in the past, too, heard various rumors about precisely how or why this happened – one that came up among the audience questions was the notion that even if you leave the mamo safe and alive after plucking only its yellow feathers, it won’t look recognizable anymore to the females, and that thus the feather collection has a profound negative impact on breeding, and thus on the mamo population overall. Who knows if this was the case, though. While no people ever truly lives in perfect harmony with nature, and while all human presence has some environmental impacts, Hellmich reminded us, too, that on a very practical level, since it’s clear that these cloaks continued to be made for at least a hundred years (that is, over the course of the time of the unified Kingdom), if not for many centuries before that, clearly people must have had techniques to ensure they were not depleting the bird population too severely. If the feather gathering process had been as devastating as some of these rumors suggest, the bird-catchers and cloak-weavers would have been out of a job in only a few years, or decades, and the existence of these artifacts clearly shows they were not. Further, I thought it interesting that, as Hellmich pointed out, people so often seem so concerned about the environmental impact of indigenous art – and yet, when it comes to Western art, we don’t ask those questions. What about the human & environmental costs of all many various materials collected and used for European visual and material culture?
Further, while all of these audience members were asking questions about the environmental conservation angle, I may have been the only one who asked a question about the significance of these objects to Hawaiians today, and about the museum’s involvement in allowing for the appropriate (pono) ritual protocols to be observed regarding the transport and display of these objects.
A couple of final points. One, that Hawaiian featherwork, though generally quite obscure in the overall treatment of global art history, in fact had its impacts & influences beyond Polynesia. The 1824 visit of King Kamehameha II to England, where he wore at least one of his royal feather cloaks, inspired a boom in English fashion emulating this style of featherwork – one example of such a piece, a British featherwork cape or jacket, is on display in the exhibit. Second, that in Louis Choris’ famous watercolor painting of Kamehameha I in a red vest, he is still wearing the royal red & yellow, even in Western clothing; I never noticed this color significance before, but now that it has been pointed out to me, I think it a very interesting sign of the ways in which Hawaiians – like others, around the world – adapted to modernity while retaining their cultural identity and traditions. Tradition, culture, and identity are not irrevocably tied to the past, nor are they incompatible with modernity; we know this so well for ourselves, even for various minority cultures, but when it comes to indigenous peoples, for some reason we have a lot of difficulty with this concept. Choris’ painting shows that Kamehameha had no difficulty with that at all.
Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Aliʻi is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) until August 7, 2016.
All photos are my own.