It is extremely difficult to write about the things you are most passionate about. Where do you begin when reviewing an exhibition you have been eagerly awaiting for a year, and then it not just meets but exceeds your expectations? That is how I felt when I left Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Na Hulu Ali’i currently on display at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.
As I mentioned in my “Fall Forecast” post back in July, when I first announced this exhibition, Hawaiian history, dance, and culture is a private interest of mine — private in that I’ve never written about it before, simply enjoyed reading any and every book I could get my hands on. So, I walked into Royal Hawaiian Featherwork with a rather extensive knowledge of the objects I was about to see and the history behind them, albeit only “book knowledge” because I’d never had the opportunity to visit Hawai’i, or to see examples of na hulu ali’i in person. It is sometimes true that knowing a great deal about a subject can ruin an exhibition for you, this was most definitely NOT the case for me at the de Young last week. Instead, I was almost overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information they managed to get into one exhibition.
The exhibition was full of surprises, the first being its breadth and the range of objects on display from the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. The museum was very coy with its preview images, I now realize, and so I had no idea that there would be a mix of not just featherwork objects, but paintings, sketches, prints, and material culture. This was a wonderful surprise, as these artworks leant provenance to the featherwork pieces and illustrated how various objects might be worn in context.
Royal Hawaiian Featherwork opens with the largest example of an ‘ahu’ula, or feathered cloak, known to survive. It is suitably impressive, with bright yellow trim, and smaller yellow spots throughout its red body, and was owned by King Kalani’opu’u, King of Maui, uncle to Kamehameha I, the king who unified the islands. While the exhibition is not necessarily laid out in chronological order, it does open strongly with pieces from the pre-contact era. This set a strong foundation for the featherwork arts, enabling the museum to take visitors on a journey through the changes that resulted from European and American influence — and even Hawaiian influence on Euro-American fashion (more about that later!).
I have complained before that I often am frustrated by the exhibition layouts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco — but this exhibition’s excellent arrangement brought home to me that this has rarely been the case in the textiles and costume exhibitions. As I said the exhibition is not laid out in a strictly chronological fashion, it instead establishes the Hawaiian featherwork tradition and then skips about depending on the objects chosen, the point to be made, and the aspect of featherwork or Hawaiian history the exhibition wishes to explore. This is done smoothly and subtly, and is something I only noticed at the very end of the exhibition — which made the exhibition extremely educational and delightful.
This was best emphasized through two types of objects: the ‘ahu’ula and the kahili. The latter were displayed in a case very near King Kalani’opu’u’s cape, and are displayed at exactly the right height to enable visitors to examine not just the craftsmanship of the feathered head, but the work that went into the handles. Arranging these so near Kalani’opu’u’s cloak was an excellent way of demonstrating the various ranks within ali’i — not all of them were kings, but they still had rank enough to be allowed featherwork of some kind. The vast array of kahili on display demonstrated the range of feathers available on the islands, and the ways in which they could be used to delineate the complicated rank system of the ali’i.
The shift in the featherwork after contact with Europe was best demonstrated through that most Hawaiian of symbols: the lei. While most of the examples on display were from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and in conjunction with wall text and tombstones discussing how featherwork changed in the late nineteenth century, the examples of lei nulu (feather lei) on display could be compared with paintings of Kamehameha III and his sister, Nahi’ena’ena, painted in 1825. The royal siblings are depicted wearing ‘ahu’ula, carrying kahili, and in Nahi’ena’ena’s case, wearing a lei nulu in her hair. The painting of Nahi’ena’ena in and of itself shows a Hawai’i in transition after the death of Kamehameha I and increased contact with Euro-American culture: women did not wear the ‘ahu’ula, but Nahi’ena’ena insisted that if she was going to be painted, she would be painted in the same attire as her brother. This was also a simple, succinct way of demonstrating the difference in Hawaiian society at the time, that a young girl (she was only ten years old at the time) would be listened to when she made such a demand.
The stars of the show, however, were most definitely the ‘ahu’ula and the mahiole (feathered helmets). The former made up the majority of the objects on display, and understandably so. Feathered cloaks are highly prized within Hawaiian culture, were worn only by the highest ranking kings, and were often given as gifts of respect and honor by kings to European explorers, traders, or in the case of Lady Franklin, out of sympathy. Lady Franklin was the widow of British Naval Officer and explorer, John Franklin who died while trying to seek the Northwest Passage in 1845. As Hawai’i was often the port from which whalers and vessels heading north would call, King Kamehameha IV sent the beautiful ‘ahu’ula at the beginning of this post (shown in full below) to Lady Franklin in sympathy for the loss of her husband.
I do not have words to describe the beauty and intricacy of these pieces. Photographs do not do them justice. By showing so many — and in various stages of wear and tear — you grasp how complex it was to attach the thousands upon thousands of feathers to their netted backing. What’s more, many of the feathers — especially the red and the yellow — were painstakingly collected from live birds over years and years; the animals were not killed, but caught, had the desired feathers (usually only one or two from the tail were the bright colors) plucked, and then released to re-grow the feathers for future harvest. This means that each of the cloaks, leis, and helmets represented not just hours of work, but possibly an entire lifetime.
In addition to portraits and photographs of the last of the Hawaiian monarchy, the exhibition includes pieces from the early days of contact. Among these are the books published by sailors on the first few voyages, and these are used to explain and explore the symbology behind the patterns on the ‘ahu’ula. Discussed briefly in the wall text, the symbology is explained in more depth in the catalogue — a very comprehensive catalogue that I have not had time to read in its entirety, yet.
This exhibition was educational even for me — and not just because I was seeing things I had previously only read about. My favorite new fact about Hawaiian culture: without it we would never have had the tippet. Kamehameha II and his queen, Kamamalu, visited England in 1824. This was an ill-fated trip as they both came into contact with measles and subsequently died of it in London. However, this was not before they had displayed their feathered cloaks to London crowds. So enamoured of these cloaks were the bon ton, that they copied it with their own version, which became what we now know as the tippet.
This is perhaps the greatest strength of the exhibition. Not just the catalogue, but the entire exhibition communicates an enormous amount of information to visitors not only about the objects they are seeing, but about the history of Hawai’i, its complex culture and social hierarchy, and how those two things shifted and changed due to both external and internal pressures after contact with Europe and later America. The brilliance is not that it is so educational, but that it uses the objects to communicate these things, and they make it seem effortless. There are no long, complicated wall texts to read, the labels are equally succinct, but you come away with a deep understanding of not just the beautiful objects you have just seen, but of the intricate culture that created them.
Which is exactly what exhibitions like this are supposed to do.
Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Na Hulu Ali’i is on display at the de Young Museum until February 28, 2016. I will definitely be returning.
Have you been to Royal Hawaiian Featherwork? What did you think? Have you seen examples of na hulu ali’i elsewhere? Perhaps at the Bishop Museum ? What are your experiences with Hawaiian textiles and culture? What exhibitions — Hawaiian or not — have surprised you in a pleasant way, recently? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. And if you have any announcements of exhibitions or events, feel free to include them or to email them to me for mention in a future column!
Opening image caption: ‘Ahu ‘ula (cape), pre-1861 (detail). Yellow and black ‘ō‘ō (Moho nobilis) feathers, red ‘i‘iwi (Vestiaria coccinea) feathers, and olonā (Touchardia latifolia) fiber, 16 3/4 x 36 in. (42.5 x 91.4 cm). Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Ethnology Collection