Native Intelligence: Moloka`i

The Three Hoaloha

Story by Shannon Wianecki. Photos by PF Bentley.

Ten years ago Kala‘e Tangonan returned home to Moloka‘i from the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo with an art degree and a warning. Her college counselor advised her that pursuing an art career on the remote and rural Friendly Isle was a lost cause. That didn’t dissuade Tangonan. She turned her open-air garage into a creative factory. In between feeding and shuttling her six youngsters to school, she produced gorgeous batik scarves, wall hangings and jewelry. Neighbors dropped by whenever they needed gifts or something decorative. They repaid the artist’s generosity by bringing her cans of paint, fabric, airbrush equipment and sewing machines.

That didn’t dissuade Tangonan. She turned her open-air garage into a creative factory. In between feeding and shuttling her six youngsters to school, she produced gorgeous batik scarves, wall hangings and jewelry. Neighbors dropped by whenever they needed gifts or something decorative. They repaid the artist’s generosity by bringing her cans of paint, fabric, airbrush equipment and sewing machines.

“People knew she wouldn’t say no or ask for money,” says Mikiala Pescaia, Tango-nan’s friend and now business partner. Their collaboration started with a fundraiser, as so many things do on the community-minded island. The women, along with Tangonan’s sister Leimana Ritte-Camara, volunteered to silkscreen three hundred T-shirts for a local preschool. They worked so well together that they kept at it, ultimately launching Kupu A‘e, a wearable art company.

Tangonan provides the raw talent, Ritte-Camara the fashion sense and Pescaia the business savvy. All three speak fluent Hawaiian and draw inspiration from their culture and environment. Using silkscreen, stamps and batik, they create whimsical scarves, sarongs, pillows and onesies. One of their loveliest motifs features hinahina, an endemic shrub that grows on the nearby Mo‘omomi dunes. Kupu A‘e, the name the women chose for the company, refers to a fern’s unfurling and spreading. “That’s what we are,” says Pescaia. “We hope through our work, more plants will grow.”

Those “plants” are budding artists. The Kupu A‘e entrepreneurs welcome Moloka‘i residents to join them in making art for personal use or to donate. In November 2014, the trio outgrew Tangonan’s garage and moved to Holomua Junction, a collection of shops just outside of Kaunakakai. The new boutique practically vibrates with color. Every piece in the store is one-of-a-kind, from the necktie sporting a black mamo bird to the silk scarf splashed with banana leaves. “It’s not just something to make you look fashionable, edgy or whatever,” says Pescaia of the work. “It has mana [life force].”

Story by Shannon Wianecki. Photos by PF Bentley