Story by David Thompson
Photo by Elyse Butler
In 2009 Big Island artist Terri Lei Napeahi was preparing an exhibit of Native Hawaiian artwork for Hilo’s Prince Kuhio Plaza during Merrie Monarch week. How many eight-foot-long tables, mall management asked, would she need for her displays? The answer, Napeahi said, was none. This wasn’t going to be some rinky-dink crafts show with wares splayed out on tables. This was going to be a genuine art exhibition, with paintings hanging on walls and artifacts in glass cases.
With the help of cousins and carpenter friends, Napeahi transformed a cavernous retail space once occupied by Jeans Warehouse into an intimate art gallery. The week-long show she curated brought together everything from antique lauhala hats and precious feather lei to drawings and paintings by Native Hawaiian children.
In 2010 Napeahi’s temporary gallery found a home at the Merrie Monarch Festival. In 2011 temporary became permanent when Napeahi returned to the mall to open a year-round art space called Papa Mu Gallery. Today it occupies an old Foot Locker, and where once you could buy sneakers, now you can see the work of sixty Hawaiian artists, many of whom have never sold their art before let alone displayed it in a gallery. When visitors question the exclusion of non-Hawaiian artists, Napeahi explains that art by Hawaiians is a unique product, one in which this particular gallery specializes. “The whole idea is the perpetuation of Hawaiian culture through the arts,” Napeahi says.
Prices ranges from $6 for a small ceramic piece to $160,000 for a twelve-piece set of kou wood calabashes and bowls that would look right at home in Hulihe‘e Palace. Many of the pieces are fully functional objects, so beautiful in their simplicity or ingenious in their craftsmanship that they have no trouble standing side by side with paintings, fiber arts and other more traditional media. So on one pedestal you see a bronze sculpture of Pele while on another you see poi pounders—all on pedestals, by the way, that were constructed from the shelving Foot Locker left behind.