story by Dennis Hollier
photo courtesy Bishop Museum
These are strange and surprising days at Bishop Museum. Hawaiian Hall, which normally houses the museum’s unparalleled collection of Hawaiian artifacts, is closed for long-overdue renovations. Only the life-size model sperm whale still hangs in the rafters. And yet, because of a special exhibit called Na Hulu Ali‘i (“the royal feathers”), there may never have been a better time to visit the museum.
In old Hawai‘i, feathers were the symbol of royalty. Kings draped themselves in ‘ahu ‘ula—cloaks sometimes made from millions of the red and yellow feathers of small forest birds. They strode into battle wearing mahiole—crested helmets, velvety with the scarlet feathers of the ‘i‘iwi and ‘apapane birds. Kahili—tall feather standards—guarded royalty wherever they went. For Hawaiians of old, feathers were the crown jewels, and the color and beauty of Hawaiian featherwork is to this day astonishing.
Na Hulu Ali‘i is the largest-ever exhibition of Hawaiian feather work. More than forty of these delicate works of art are on display—many of them for the first time in decades. Among the highlights is Nahiena‘ena’s Pa‘u, a rich yellow sash made almost entirely of mamo feathers that shimmer like satin. Completed in 1824 for Kamehameha II’s sister, this pa‘ü was originally twenty feet long and meant to be wrapped about the waist like a sarong. After Nahiena‘ena’s death in 1836, the pa‘ü was cut in half and the two pieces sewn together lengthwise, forming a broad sash. In this form it draped the caskets of Hawaiian kings through the time of Kalakaua’s death in 1891.
Na Hulu Ali‘i also includes Liloa’s Sash, which has carried the mana of Hawaiian chiefs for more than 700 years. And for the first time, the museum is displaying three rare “Kü” masks simultaneously. One, livid in red feathers, is said to have been handed down to Kamehameha the Great. Another, its feathers nearly worn away, beautifully shows the delicate basketry beneath. The enormous Kintore Cloak, resplendent in red, black and yellow, hangs on a wall. Its feathers have never touched the ground.
Not too surprisingly, the beauty of these pieces sometimes outshines their history. As you admire these works, don’t forget the lives behind their creation: bird catchers setting their lofty snares; artisans spinning cordage or tatting fine nets; taxmen taking their payment in brilliant feathers. Like all great works of art, feather work is the legacy of a civilization—Na Hulu Ali‘i is a living link to this past.