David & Goliath

A groundbreaking exhibit at the Honolulu Museum of Art examines how King Kalākaua used foreign technology to promote Hawai‘i on the world stage
Story by Ronald Williams Jr.. Photos by Michelle Mishina.

Healoha Johnston’s office at the Honolulu Museum of Art is a beehive of activity—an installer asks if two pieces can switch places; a catalog designer needs a final decision on colors; the event planner wants a list of VIP attendees; I’m here for an interview.

Who knew so much went into an art exhibit? You’d think Johnston would be frazzled, but she stays calm and, well, confident. She’s been preparing for four years to give these works of art a stage, and they’ve been waiting for what seems like forever to tell their stories.

In September, Hawai‘i’s preeminent art museum launched the groundbreaking exhibition, Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i: The King Kalākaua Era. For locals who’ve grown up visiting HoMA (formerly the Honolulu Academy of Art), the latest exhibition isn’t what they’re accustomed to. The current star of the museum’s stage is not the eleventh-century wooden Guanyin from China. Nor is it the Japanese woodblock prints gifted to the museum by James Michener, or the dramatic tenth-century sandstone naga from Cambodia. Temporarily stealing the spotlight from these imported treasures are the art, material culture and voices from the nineteenth-century Aupuni Hawai‘i (Hawaiian Kingdom). Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i, which runs through January 23, 2019, explores the ways Kānaka ‘Ōiwi (Native Hawaiians) appropriated foreign technologies, blending them with their own traditions to develop a distinct national identity on the world stage. The more than one hundred and thirty objects included in the exhibit examine different aspects of Kalākaua’s reign and illustrate how the king attempted to fashion Hawai‘i’s future while retaining—and in many cases reviving—its connections to the past.

The Honolulu Museum of Art’s Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i is a watershed moment for the museum and its Hawaiian collection. The exhibit features “a Hawaiian-centered perspective,” says HoMA’s new curator of the arts of Hawai‘i, Healoha Johnston, on the period of King Kalākaua’s reign (1874 to 1891).

This ambitious show, spread over eight thousand square feet of gallery space, marks a turning point for a venerable Honolulu institution that the former director of the National Gallery of Art, J. Carter Brown, called “the finest small museum in the United States.” Despite universal accolades for its collection of Asian and European art, many in the Islands have noted HoMA’s somewhat obvious blind spot. “Prior to 2015, the museum did not even have a specific curator for the Hawaiian materials,” says Karen Kosasa, director of the museum studies program at the University of Hawai‘i. Founded in the 1920s by Anna Rice Cooke, a descendant of missionary families, HoMA holds an important collection of Hawaiian art, but until recently those pieces were subsumed within its European and American collections; shows were rarely built around them and curators with little specific knowledge of Hawaiian art were tasked with interpreting the collection.

The hiring of Johnston, a Kanaka ‘Ōiwi scholar, as the museum’s first curator of the arts of Hawai‘i, brings attention to the museum’s Hawaiian collection and offers a new lens through which its art and artifacts can be viewed. Johnston describes Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i (“to grow Hawai‘i”) as the first exhibition in the museum’s history to “employ a Hawai‘i-centered perspective … Previous exhibits have looked at nineteenth-century Hawai‘i from an outsider perspective, ‘encountering’ or ‘discovering’ the Islands and its people but generally missing how Hawai‘i engaged the world.” The museum’s current examination of the reign of Mō‘ī [King] David La‘amea Kamanakapu‘u Mahinulani Nalōia‘ehuo-kalani Lumialani Kalākaua, makes clear the value of its newly-added perspective.

The Hawaiian Kingdom’s seventh ruling monarch is notable for his embrace of foreign material culture. This openness does not mean, however that the Hawaiian monarch was simply enthralled by foreign trinkets. Rather, Kalākaua deftly applied some of the most sophisticated technologies of his time, integrated them with traditional Hawaiian values and established his Island nation among the world’s great powers.

Kalākaua’s reign from 1874 to 1891 was distinguished by a number of progressive achievements. The Hawaiian king was the first head of state to address a joint session of the United States Congress. He was the first monarch to circumnavigate the globe, beginning in 1881. After meeting Thomas Edison in Paris, Kalākaua had ‘Iolani Palace wired for electricity—even before the White House. His statehouse had telephones, also installed prior to its US counterpart, two of which are included in the HoMA show. “The reign of King Kalākaua marks a time of innovation, experimentation and cosmopolitanism in Hawai‘i,” says Johnston. “Kalākaua’s vision and dynamic spirit were based on aloha ‘āina [love of land, love of country] and inspired by his extensive travels and diplomatic missions, the accelerated pace at which Hawai‘i was interacting with new markets and materials, and the rapid influx of immigrants who recontextualized their traditions after settling in Hawai‘i.”

Kalākaua and his kingdom were both blessed and cursed by geography. Hawai‘i’s isolation protected it, but its location as a nexus between East and West meant that fate eventually delivered both worlds to its shores. Accepting that there was no keeping out the new and foreign, Kalākaua sought to assimilate the other nations’ achievements in education, transportation, art and other domains. “When you look around the world in the late 1800s and see how in many places systems of colonization were stifling ideas and marginalizing people, you start to see how extraordinary the Hawaiian Kingdom was under Kalākaua,” Johnston says. “There was a circulation of ideas, a thriving support for creativity. In the show we have a book gifted to Kalākaua while he was in Siam, from Bhaatta Halayudha, one of that nation’s great poets and thinkers. Here was their ‘renaissance man’ passing knowledge and art from his corner of the globe to Hawai‘i’s‘renaissance man.’” The Eastern philosopher gave a copy to England’s Queen Victoria soon after.

Foreign inventions that were adapted in Hawai‘i are featured throughout the exhibition. Photography, all the rage in Europe and the United States, became an instrument of Kalākaua’s effort to claim space on the international scene. “Whenever and wherever Kalākaua traveled, he visited photographers’ studios to have his photo taken,” says Johnston. “It wasn’t just that he liked having his picture taken. He was a celebrity and knew that these photographs of the ‘Hawaiian king’ were popular. His image would be sold by each studio he visited.” Well aware that great nations had their own currency, in 1883 Kalākaua had one million dollars in silver coins minted. The face featured his likeness; the reverse featured the Hawaiian coat of arms and the nation’s motto, “Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono” (“the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness”). Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i has the coin dies used to stamp the Hawaiian national coins, on loan from the Hawai‘i State Archives. During Kalākaua’s era, foreign symbols were also embedded within native art; for example, the exhibition features a sheet of traditional kapa (bark cloth) imprinted with the Maltese Cross, a European emblem of excellence. This combination of the introduced and traditional was seen in Hawaiian Kingdom exhibitions at nineteenth-century world’s fairs. Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i displays side by side an 1880s Western-style painting by Iosepa Kaho‘oluhi Nāwahī and a traditional ‘ahu ‘ula (feathered cloak), both of which represented the Hawaiian Kingdom at the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris.

One potent example of the way Kalākaua purposefully appropriated foreign symbols is an original oil painting he commissioned in 1890. Throughout Europe, portraits of monarchic lineages adorned the walls of castles, palaces and other seats of power. These images bestowed legitimacy on the current occupant of the throne, affirming their right to rule through genealogy. Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i features a painting not of a royal person but an object: the fifteenth-century Kā‘ei kapu o Liloa (sacred cordon of Liloa), a feather sash bounded on each end with human teeth, given to Hawai‘i Island chief Umi by his father, the ali‘i nui (high chief) Liloa. From a Hawaiian perspective, the object is animate—it contains mana (spiritual power)—and bestows the divine legitimacy of nā akua (the gods) to its possessor. Kalākaua employed not only the symbol itself to assert his right to rule but also a painting of the sash.

The interactive elements of the exhibit along with many of the items on display epitomize Kalākaua’s progressive spirit and his effort to present Hawai‘i as a modern member of the community of nations.

A mannequin, robed with an ornate blue and gold diplomatic uniform of the Hawaiian Kingdom, stands in one corner of the exhibit space. The dress attire of Kalākaua’s Kuhina o ko nā ‘Āina ‘E (minister of foreign affairs) takes yet another common symbol of nationhood and makes it distinctly Hawaiian—gold-threaded kalo (taro) leaves are embroidered across the uniform’s chest.

A stunning, eight-foot-by-eight-foot Hawaiian-flag quilt named Ku‘u Hae Aloha(my beloved flag), dominates one wall of the exhibition room. In this case, an introduced domestic art from New England was appropriated for nationalistic purposes. The use of the flag as a quilt became popular during and immediately after the reign of Kalākaua, particularly as challenges to the Hawaiian Kingdom’s independence and to native rule mounted. In the quilt, the Hawaiian has altered the foreign as distinctly as the foreign has altered
the Hawaiian.

The HoMA exhibit echoes a world-wide effort to include native and minority voices in museums. Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum of Aotearoa (New Zealand) is a dramatic revision of the former 1865 Colonial Museum. The new museum has been lauded for integrating native materials and knowledge, and the more than twenty-five million visitors since its opening in 1998 affirm the popularity of the move. Closer to home, the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu re-stored and reinterpreted one of its primary galleries, Hawaiian Hall, in 2009 in an effort, says museum president Melanie Ide,“to tell Native Hawaiian history, culture and cosmogony from a Hawaiian perspective.” The exhibition at HoMA, says Ide,“continues this awakening around Hawai‘i’s history and challenges our assumptions about our culture and identity.” While some might maintain that HoMA is late to the party, its moves are nevertheless significant. “Hiring Healoha and supporting her in the way they have shows that they are serious,” says Kosasa. “This current exhibition is a serious commitment.”

At right, a photograph of Kalākaua, likely taken in London in 1881. At left, one of the telephones Kalākaua had installed in ‘Iolani Palace. The exhibit occupies eight thousand square feet of gallery space and includes more than one hundred and thirty pieces.

Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i represents a shared vision among several cultural organizations to reinterpret Hawaiian history. Johnston has reached beyond the museum’s walls to bring in cultural practitioners, historians and other experts to interpret the exhibit’s objects and also to connect contemporary artists with artists from Kalākaua’s time. Throughout the exhibit’s run, hula, story-telling, spoken-word poetry and new works of art will reinterpret the pieces in the show from the perspective of 2018. Johnston, an admirer of contemporary art, thrives on such connections across time. “Everything I love about contemporary art was happening in [the Kalākaua] period,” she says. “Artists and creatives were exploring new media, taking risks, experimenting, not only with materials but with ideas. Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i really explores the vitality and creative spirit that commenced in Hawai‘i under Kalākaua’s leadership.” Kumu hula (hula teacher) Vicky Holt Takamine says, “These are not dead pieces to us. We have ancestral relationships to them. They are living legacies of our ali‘i [chiefs], and I am excited to see the contemporary interpretations that today’s artists come up with.” For Takamine, access to the museum’s Hawaiian collection is itself an inspiration. “There are treasures from our kūpuna [ancestors] that we have never seen in our lifetime,” she says. Hawaiian-language experts Naomi Losch and Puakea Nogelmeier worked with Johnston on the exhibition text and even its name. A catalog featuring the exhibit’s images and essays from scholars in the field will carry the message beyond the show’s closing.

Whether through Hawaiian-themed diplomatic uniforms, coinage inscribed with Hawaiian language or bark cloth produced from native, ancient methods and then stamped with a European symbol of state, Kalākaua crossed the putative boundary between “native” and “foreign” to bring his people a set of tools with which they could claim their place among the family of nations. The monarch was determined to expand the possibilities of this island nation and build on the work of his predecessors —to grow Hawai‘i. HH