Issue 20.3: June/July 2017

Faces of the Ancestors

Steeped in history, artist Brook Kapukuniahi Parker paints the chiefs, warriors and battles of ancient Hawaii
Story by Catharine Lo Griffin. Photos by Elyse Butler.

At 7:30 on a Saturday night, most of the crowd attending the annual Made in Hawaii Festival has trickled out of the Neal S. Blaisdell Center, and exhibitors are wrapping up their business for the day. Artist Brook Kapūkuniahi Parker notices a big, strapping Hawaiian guy silently staring at his painting of Alapa‘inuiakauaua, the pugnacious ruler of Kohala at the time of the birth of Kamehameha I.

In the portrait, Alapa‘i is wearing a mahiole (feather helmet) with a red-and-yellow feathered cape draped around his shoulders. His tattooed face is turned just enough for him to cast a piercing look, with one eyebrow raised in indignation.“Excuse me, brah—you looking at Alapa‘i,” Parker says to the guy. “I know,” the guy says. How in the heck does he know? Parker wonders. The portrait has no label.

“I already get ’em hanging in my house,” the guy continues. “You sell your stuff at Nā Mea, yeah?” He’s referring to Nā Mea Hawai‘i, the Native Hawaiian bookstore in Honolulu. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Parker replies. “You the artist?” the guy says. “Yeah,” Parker says.

“Nice to meet you,” the guy says. “I got one question for you. My great-grandfather looked just like that. My last name is Alapa‘i. How you know that’s how we look like?”

Parker is floored. “You know what, brah? I was looking at you and thinking, man, you look like my painting—the high cheekbones, the jawline. Just no more the goatee.” “That’s my tūtū-man,” the guy says, meaning his ancestor. “How you know that’s how we look like?” “I don’t know. I get help,” Parker tries to explain. “I just know he some punchy guy, so I made him like, ‘What? You talking to me? What?’ I made him like that.”

That was the first time Parker crossed paths with a descendant of someone he painted or was planning to paint, and it’s happened many times since. The 55-year-old Hawaiian artist specializes in depicting ancient chiefs, warriors and battles, bringing to visual reality some of the most notorious and revered leaders in Hawaiian history. While his inspiration comes from stories retold by the great Hawaiian historians—among them he names Samuel Kamakau, Abraham Fornander, David Malo, John Papa ‘Ī‘ī and Stephen Desha—Parker’s passion is rooted in his own family’s history.

One of six brothers who grew up in Kahalu‘u, O‘ahu, Parker was the one who followed in the footsteps of his father, the artist and historian David Parker. Surrounded by the books in his dad’s library—biographies of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, encyclopedias of ships and aircraft, Kamakau’s Ruling Chiefs of Hawaii, Malo’s Hawaiian Antiquities and plenty of Mormon Church books—Parker drew Hawaiian warriors and his favorite cartoon heroes, like Speed Racer and Conan the Barbarian, on brown paper bags. Years later he relied heavily on his father’s feedback. “Every time I finished a new painting, I would spin by his Kāne‘ohe home and ask if he could critique it,” Parker recalls. “He was very supportive, from when I started painting with a brush all the way until the day he passed in 2015.”

Parker specializes in painting the warriors, rulers and battles of ancient Hawai‘i. Seen here, Parker’s “The O‘ahu Eight” depicts a group of fierce O‘ahu warriors who held off an invading Maui army of several hundred.

I meet Parker for lunch at Treetops Restaurant in Mānoa, where several of his paintings hang. He pulls out a laminated page with thumbnail portraits and arrows that map out his genealogy. It includes Drena-Jo Kauakoko‘īpohaiāpunināmoku Kalani, his industrious business partner and wife of twenty-seven years, and their five kids. They’re excited that the family tree will soon grow another limb—they’re expecting their first grandchild this summer.“My dad said, ‘To know your Hawaiian history, you have to know your genealogy,’” Parker explains. “I did this for my kids so they could know.”

He points to his great-great-grandfather John Palmer Parker, the founder of Parker Ranch, one of the largest cattle ranches in the United States, and his wife, Rachael Keli‘ikipikanekaolohaka Ohiaku, who was a great-granddaughter of King Kamehameha. One of Parker’s first paintings was of Kame‘eiamoku and Kamanawa, Kamehameha’s twin uncles and close counselors—and the namesakes for his own twins, who are now 16.

His best-known painting, “‘Aha ‘Ula,” features the lively congregation of the high chiefs that comprised Kamehameha’s council of advisors. Many in this circle, Parker says, are Kamehameha’s own trusted uncles, who served dual roles as warrior generals and high priests. In 2012 this work became the first piece of art by a Native Hawaiian to hang in the office of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in Washington, DC. It now hangs in Senator Brian Schatz’s office. A twenty-by-fifteen-foot version graces the Hawaii Army National Guard headquarters in Kalaeloa.

Above, the artist working at his home in Kalihi. Parker’s paintings are inspired by both his own family history and the stories of illustrious Hawaiian historians such as David Malo and John Papa ‘Ī‘ī.

“Brook has always felt a connection to our ancestors,” says the artist’s wife, Drena-Jo. “He can work twelve- to fifteen-hour days if the creative juices are flowing. He feels it’s his kuleana [responsibility] to share their stories and do his best to make sure they are historically accurate.”

When Parker talks about the ali‘i (chiefs) he has painted, he traces their bloodlines for several generations with hardly a breath between names—who was the father, who was the mother, who was the father’s mother and the father’s father, the mother’s father and the mother’s mother, how many siblings were there and so on. And while the names of people he randomly meets might quickly slip his mind, the names of his ancestors stick.

“These names are much more than street signs,” Parker stresses. A wave of emotion moves across his face. “It’s like I always knew them, but I just missed them. They’re my family. I love them.”

“I believe someday that I will have a stewardship interview with my ancestors. They’re going to put their heads on my shoulder, and they’re going to ask me, ‘What have you done with my name?’ And I’m going to look them in the eye, and I’m going to say, ‘I did the best I could with the talents I had to keep your name and memory alive and teach my children to do the same.’”

“When we first got married, I took a painting class at UH night school,” Parker says, recalling his first formal art class at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. “At the first class, I’m looking for the instructor—there were about thirty people in that class —and I see a lady start taking off all her clothes.” Oh man, he thought. This is one of those classes. “I just ended up painting from her neck up,” he laughs. “It was a four-week class and I already spent the money, so I had to go back. I made sure I sat in the back. That was my introduction to painting. After the four weeks I put away my brushes and said, ‘Nah.’”

Parker honed his skills by studying with local artists Patrick Ching, Edwin Kayton and the renowned author, painter and historian Herb Kāne. Above, a painting titled “Niuhi, Land Shark.”

Twenty years later Parker decided to give painting another shot. Through classes with one of his favorite Hawai‘i artists, Patrick Ching, he learned to paint landscapes. Another one of Parker’s favorite Hawai‘i artists, Edwin Kayton, taught him how to paint with oils. With Drena’s blessing and willingness to manage the administrative side of the business, Parker quit his job selling commercial paint and made art his full-time profession.

In 2010 Parker was in Kona and had the chance to meet the renowned artist, historian and author Herb Kawainui Kāne, someone he admired and one of his father’s colleagues. “The first thing I say to him is, ‘Whoa, Mr. Kāne, you tall, huh?’ He looks at me, and he goes, ‘Six-four. What about you, Brook? You six-five?’ I go, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘But I’m 80.’”

That was the beginning of a friendship in which Kāne would critique Parker’s work via email. Parker is humbled when people tell him he’s “the next Herb Kāne” and he’s going to be famous, but he’s quick to insist, “I’m still learning. None of that was ever on the agenda. All I want to do is help take care of my family and help tell the stories. That’s all.”

“What was unique about Herb’s work, in my opinion, was that it gave us for the first time a visual presentation of the dignity of the Hawaiian people,” says cultural advisor and Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee Peter Apo, a good friend of the late Kāne. “Until Herb came along, the graphic documentation of Hawaiians was generally by early European explorers who had artists that traveled with them. In the absence of cameras, that was their way of recording what they were seeing. Those images captured some of the culture they were seeing, but they were not to scale and lacked detail.”

The artist and his wife, Drena-Jo Kauakoko‘īpohaiāpunināmoku Kalani, pay their respects at Mauna ‘Ala, the royal mausoleum where members of the Kamehameha and Kalākaua dynasties are interred.

“As a Hawaiian growing up in the lost generation in the ’40s and ’50s, I had no clue what Hawaiians looked like,” Apo continues. “Herb started to create this time tunnel because he was a historian and an architect, so his talents were perfectly merged to actually re-create what the culture looked like and what people looked like and how they dressed, the way a canoe was lashed, how the ropes went together, down to the nth detail.”

Referring to “‘Ahu ‘Ula,” Apo points out, “If you look at Brook’s painting of all the chiefs, where he represents the differ-ent colors of the different districts, the tattoos—again, the level of detail—wow. Brook’s carrying on that tradition, and that body of work is so valuable for us.”

Before Kāne passed away in 2011, he was working on “Kamehameha Landing,” a wall-sized painting of King Kamehameha’s war canoes landing in Waikīkī, commissioned by the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Unfortunately, his health was quickly declining and the painting was never finished. “But Herb was thinking ahead. He said that should something happen and he wasn’t able to finish it, Brook would be the guy to do it,” says Apo, who had acted as the liaison between Kāne and the hotel owners.“Herb was very, very particular about his work. For him to entrust that kind of integrity to finish his own work was a pretty awesome validation of Brook’s talent. But Brook never knew this, which was kind of a cool thing. We never talked about it until a few years later.” Ultimately, the hotel decided to leave the painting hanging unfinished. “Every time I go to the Royal Hawaiian, I go to the painting and have my little time there. I study, I look at the brushstrokes,” says Parker. “He’s not here, but he’s still teaching.”

A few years ago Parker was watching the boys play football at Punahou School, where his daughter is a junior. He noticed the “O” with wings on the sides of the football players’ helmets and suspected it was a throwback to Oahu College, the school’s original name. He asked one of the boys, who confirmed, “All of the men’s teams, Uncle, are known as the Sons of Oahu.” Wait a minute, Parker thought, as he remembered the epic blitz by eight rogue O‘ahu warriors who fended off six hundred Maui invaders. It’s time to paint the original Sons of O‘ahu.

“History is written from the point of the victors,” Parker says, explaining that this raid was embarrassing for Maui chief Kahekili, who later went on to conquer O‘ahu. In his painting, “The O‘ahu Eight,” the eight chiefs are emerging from a fiery blaze of war, their chiseled bodies ready to leap off the canvas with spears and shark-toothed clubs in hand.

The invasion, Parker relates, happened following a similarly dramatic plot that involved Kahekili tricking O‘ahu chief Kahahana into murdering his high priest, Ka‘opulupulu, who had been the main obstacle thwarting Kahekili’s plans to take O‘ahu. As soon as Ka‘opulupulu was out of the way, Kahekili prepared his navy to attack. “Never before and after will you hear a story like that, so few against so many. Why it’s not widely known is because all these guys died in battle,” Parker says. He points to the man in the painting leading the charge. “Except the middle guy. He escapes to Kaua‘i, he changes his last name and he lives.”

Parker then launches into an epilog. “I finished the painting, and it’s hanging in my booth at the Hawaiian convention, where you got kānaka [native people] from Kaua‘i to Ka‘ū. On the last day of the event, early in the morning, a gentleman walks in. He walks right up to the painting.” “Pupuka, yeah?” the man says, referring to the middle guy. “YES,” Parker replies in amazement, because most people don’t recognize the warriors, and very few can name them. “How in the world did you know that?” The man says, “That’s my name.” “Your name Pupuka?” Parker says in disbelief. “Nice to meet you, brah.” “Yeah, that’s my tūtū-man,” the guy says.“I saw the painting the first day. I was talking to my great-great-great-grandfather and them guys.” “What you mean?” “They were all here the first day,” the guy says, meaning his long-gone ancestors. “What?” “They were all in your booth. They were all looking at the painting.”

“And?” Parker asks apprehensively. “They happy someone telling their side of the story,” the man replies. “You the artist? You know who Pupuka was?” “I know he was one of the generals,” Parker offers. “Pupuka was one of Kahahana’s sons,” the man says. “He escaped to Kaua‘i. That’s why you’re talking to me. My great-grand-
father looked just like that!” HH