Story by Samson Reiny
Photo by Olivier Koning
Before the advent of cotton, Hawaiians considered kapa the fabric of their lives. Nearly all their garments were fashioned from bark cloth, and hula practitioners saved their most exquisite kapa malo (loincloths) and pa‘u (skirts) for performance. But as native customs gave way to Western sensibilities, kapa and the time-honored techniques of crafting it faded. In 1870 the historian Samuel Kamakau wrote that “all are dead” who once knew the art. By the 1880s hula dancers performing for King Kalakaua wore Western-style pantaloons and pleated skirts.
But like those who revived the ancient hula during the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s, a determined group of practitioners have revived the art of kapa-making; it is its own rigorous dance, involving stripping, soaking, pounding and dyeing the tree bark to create the Hawaiian version of fine linen.
During their recovery, hula and kapamaking remained mostly separate arts— until now. Twenty-three master kapa makers of the Hula Kapa Collaboration will dress the dancers of Halau o Kekuhi and its head kumu (teacher), Nalani Kanaka‘ole, with traditional attire for this year’s Merrie Monarch Hula Festival. After the April event the halau (troupe) will continue performing in the kapa for at least a year.
Outfitting the eighteen performers and three kumu is no small feat. By the time the hälau takes the stage, more than 350 square feet of wauke (paper mulberry) bark will have been stripped and transformed, a process that, depending on the craftsperson, requires the investment of a few months of sweat equity.
While the artists have free rein over the decorative patterns they use, they have agreed to adhere to methods that made Hawaiian kapa distinct from that found anywhere else in Polynesia or throughout the Pacific, for that matter: fermenting the bark to soften the fabric, pounding it with watermarking beaters and imprinting the finished cloth with a palette of natural dyes.
The aesthetic beauty of kapa is one thing, but for kapa maker Dalani Tanahy, the seemingly simple act of using it to dress a hula dancer is about something much deeper. Tanahy recalls Queen Ka‘ahumanu, King Kamehameha I’s wife, who in the early 1800s issued an edict banning hula. “This could very well be the first hälau to perform with kapa since Ka‘ahumanu’s time,” she says. “It’s about reconnecting two critical pieces of our heritage.”