I just saw an exhibition of Hawaiian feather art at the De Young Museum here in San Francisco. Every civilization has a characteristic great art; this . This exhibition has both a stunning aesthetic and remarkable and painstaking craft technique. Much of the work is associated with King Kamehameha and his descendants.
The designs are simple and powerful and the feather work is complex and subtle. The combination is riveting. (Be sure to click on the images to see the detail.)
I spent a lot of time going from one magnificent piece to another. I took these photos at the end. I find that taking photographs removes the immediacy of my reaction to work, so I like to wait til I’ve seen everything as much as I want.
‘Ahu ‘ula (cloak) – 19th century associated with Kamehameha
Quotes are from the Museum exhibit labels:
Handcrafted of plant fiber and rare feathers from endemic birds of the islands, the cloaks (‘ahu‘ula) and capes provided spiritual protection to Hawaiian chiefs, proclaiming their identity and status. The abstract patterns and compositions of royal feathers (nā hulu ali‘i) are both beautiful and full of cultural meaning. While the arrangements of their forms—crescents, triangles, circles, quadrilaterals, and lines—and fields of color appear contemporary, they are ancient. Symbols of the power and status of Hawai‘i’s monarchs at home and abroad, these vibrantly colored treasures of the Hawaiian people endure today as masterpieces of unparalleled artistry, technical skill, and cultural pride.
…the exhibition will features approximately 75 rare and stunning examples of the finest featherwork capes and cloaks in existence, as well as royal staffs of feathers (kāhili), feather lei (lei hulu manu), helmets (mahiole), feathered god images (akua hulu manu), and related eighteenth- and nineteenth-century paintings and works on paper.
‘Ahu ‘ula (cloak) 18th century
The feathers in this exquisite work come from local island birds, several species of which are now either extinct or endangered because of the collection for the art. The exhibition includes some specimens of the birds from the Natural History Museum. They did not photograph well.
These photographs show some beautiful detail work from a more modern cape.
Red ‘i’iwi feathers and yellow ‘o’o feathers (should be -‘s over the o’s)
Hawaiian feather capes and cloaks were constructed by tying bundles of small feathers, usually 6-10 per bundle, to a foundation of netting. This netting was made from an endemic plant that produced one of the strongest fibers in the world, olonā (Touchardia latifolia). This olonā foundation could range from a very fine netting to a more coarsely woven foundation that would hold the feathers. Tens of thousands of feather bundles were connected, creating a visually striking garment. These capes and cloaks were important signifiers of rank, and as noble regalia, they were to be worn only by the ali‘i nui. Red, as a traditional color of royalty in Polynesia, was a dominant color. Yellow, made valuable by its scarcity, was also oft used.
The exhibition runs til February 28, 2016. If you’re in the Bay Area go – the work is rarely shown outside of Hawaii.