Earlier this spring, Christopher K. Morgan and Patrick Mukuakane were talking on the phone about their upcoming engagement at ODC’s Walking Distance Dance Festival. Both artists knew of each other but had never met. Morgan, a modern dancer for the past 20 years, is based in Washington, DC., while Mukuakane, who founded Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu in 1985, lives and works in the Bay Area. The conversation between both artists focused on the Hawaiian roots that they share, as well as the work that they will present at the festival.
Morgan’s Pōhaku is the culmination of a 10-year long process that included numerous trips and residencies in Hawaii. The piece stemmed from Morgan’s desire to explore how the Polynesian dances that he learned as a child influenced his work and is also partly inspired by Morgan’s late cousin, hula master John Kaimikaua. Makuakane’s Hula Show combines hula kahiko -which involves traditional movement vocabulary accompanied by chanting and percussive instruments- with hula a’uana, or contemporary hula danced to the accompaniment of popular music.
At the end of the conversation, Makuakane offered to make the Lei poʻo (head lei) and Kūpeʻe lima (wristlet) that Morgan will wear during his show. Made up of ti-leaves and ferns, they are a traditional part of the hula dancers’ costume. This act of spontaneous generosity reminded me of the customs of hospitality and generosity palpable throughout the Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Ali‘i exhibition at the de Young Museum.
Developed in partnership with the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Honolulu, it was the first exhibition of Hawaiian featherwork on the U.S. mainland, and was on view until last month. The show featured approximately 75 rare 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. Most of these works had been donated as gifts to foreign royalties, as a way to promote or reinforce alliances.
Learning about Morgan and Makuakane’s work as well as visiting the exhibition highlighted similarities about larger issues present both in the visual and performing arts, including questions of costume as identity and the underrepresentation of non-Western art on the contemporary scene. Christina Hellmich, curator in charge of the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas and curator of the Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art at the de Young Museum, graciously offered to answer my questions.
Marie Tollon: Where does your interest in the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas (AOA) stem from?
Christina Hellmich: My grandparents loved to travel and I was fortunate to travel with them to Europe, Asia and the Pacific. My Master’s degree advisor was Allen Wardwell, former curator of primitive art at the Art Institute of Chicago and director of the Asia Society and the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum. He encouraged me to pursue museum work in this area. I was lucky to be hired by the Peabody Essex Museum right after graduate school to work with their important AOA collections.
MT: What was the impetus of this exhibition?
CH: A colleague at the Bishop Museum, Betty Kam, and I began talking about the possibility of an exhibition over a decade ago. We were interested to develop a show that would celebrate the outstanding collections of the Bishop Museum and highlight this extraordinary Hawaiian art form. It was the first exhibition of Hawaiian art at the de Young and the first exhibition of Hawaiian featherwork in the continental United States.
MT: This exhibition was very much about relationships – between Hawaiian royalty and visitors, between the objects featured in the exhibition and viewers. What was your relationship to these objects?
CH: I have the utmost respect for these sacred cultural works and I greatly admire the artistry and technical skill of their creators. It was an honor to have them on view at the de Young and to share them with the public.
MT: Was there one specific piece you were drawn to personally?
CH: I was particularly drawn to the late 18th century capes. Few remain in Hawaii. They show the diversity of styles and the use of domestic fowl (chicken) feathers in combination with red and yellow honeycreeper feathers. One of these large capes in the collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa is stunning with its thick layering of iridescent black feathers and striking border of red and yellow triangles.
MT: Do you share Hawaiian visual artist Maile Andrade’s observation that Hawaii is largely absent from the representations of world cultural heritage in museums? If so, what do you attribute that absence to and is this situation changing?
CH: Yes. Oceanic art is not widely displayed in museums globally. At this moment, there are a limited number of curatorial advocates for Hawaiian art working outside of the Hawaiian Islands, especially in art museums.
MT: I was struck by the similarities underlined within this exhibition and the Oscar de la Renta show which had just opened when I visited the museum. Each spoke to a sense of artistry and craftsmanship -The hundreds of thousands of feathers that went into making a cape echoed the copious amount of fine material that went into the making of luxury fashion item. I am wondering what you thought of both exhibitions living in the museum together.
CH: I love that visitors came to see a fashion exhibition and then made their way up to Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Na Hulu Ali‘i where they experienced fashions from another part of the world that they had never seen. Both exhibitions highlighted the desire to wear stunning and powerful garments. While money can buy garments infused with power and status in our time, only Hawaiians of chiefly class had the sacred power and political status to wear featherwork.