In late 2017 when news came out that a superbly carved Hawaiian image, or ki‘i, would soon be put up for auction at Christie’s, the sale came to the attention of Salesforce.com founder Marc Benioff and his wife, Lynne, who have a home and strong ties in the Islands. Although not ordinarily art collectors, the couple prevailed at the auction to purchase the twenty-inch-tall wooden ki‘i for more than $7 million and then donated it to Bishop Museum. Benioff has said it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to return such an important item to Hawai‘i’s people.
Not much is known for certain about the history and travels of the ki‘i before it showed up in the private collection of Paris art connoisseur Pierre Vérité, which has led some art experts to conclude that it might in fact be a reproduction, while others believe it to be genuine. It does bear close resemblance to other images known to represent the war god Kū, and it was masterfully carved in the “Kona style” associated with the reign of Kamehameha I.
Embracing the uncertainties about the ki‘i’s origin as a learning opportunity, the museum has made it the centerpiece of an exhibit focusing on the deep relationship between such images and people in Hawaiian culture. Also featuring other rarely seen historical ki‘i as well as present-day works, Kini ke Kua: Transformative Images, which is on display through September 2, offers multiple perspectives on the context and meaning of ki‘i in the realms of spirituality, cultural practice, global diffusion and contemporary inspiration.
The exhibit is intended to “potentially challenge some ideas about what these images have represented to Hawaiians in the past and what they can represent to us now,” says Kapalikū Maile, a cultural educator at the museum and a contemporary image carver himself. For many viewers, he says, “the variety of forms and functions that ki‘i have taken in Hawaiian society can be kind of surprising. What might just look like a stone or other natural object to you can mean something really important to the people caring for it.”