- Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Ali‘ied. by Leah Caldeira et al.
Like the Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Ali‘iexhibition, which debuted at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, de Young Museum, in 2015, its accompanying catalog echoes the museum’s gallery installation by tracing the cultural evolution of Hawaiian featherwork across centuries of social change and diplomatic engagement. This volume is illustrated with spectacular images of works in the show—printed in vivid color, along with reproductions of historic photographs and voyage and expedition artworks held in collections around the world. The featherworks come to life on the page with feathers, fibers, teeth, and shells shown in impeccable detail, their surface texture, dimensionality, and rich hues rendered in unparalleled clarity.
Scholars and practictioners situate these images in a fuller framework through seven essays that provide background on general as well as particular aspects of featherwork. The contributing authors describe the practices associated with harvesting plants and birds, conduct extensive analysis on featherwork as emblematic of Hawaiian royalty, explain how feather garments and images circulated between countries, and illuminate the social circumstance for featherwork production extending into the twenty-first century.
Each essay is separated by an interlude that segues between themes and punctuates well-documented scholarship with a brief highlight. One such interlude offers an in-depth look at a single featherwork example, “Kā‘ei kapu o ka lani Līloa: The Sacred Sash of Chief Liloa”, written by Christina Hellmich, the curator in charge of the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas and the Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art at the de Young. Another interlude offers a reflective piece titled “Nā Akua Hulu: Mau nō ko kākou kuleana—Feathered Gods: Our Continued Responsibility” written by M. Kamalu Du Preez, Interim Collections Manager at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum.
The images and text make up an unprecedented effort to stage feather-work in multiple media—the actual featherwork pieces contextualized by the scenes depicted in paintings, drawings, and photographs that demonstrate how feather garments were worn and displayed over time—and across disciplines, with scientists, cultural practitioners, art historians, curators, and collections managers named among the catalog writers. The result is a robust [End Page 177]volume describing featherwork from multiple perspectives, a vigorous addition to the limited existing publications devoted to Hawaiian featherwork.
Thorough in their analysis, the essayists overlap at times, with multiple authors citing the genealogy of iconic regal pieces to arrive at their interpretation. In the repetition, a reader is able to discern the significance of, for example, the transfer of power when King Kamehameha I, who was appointed guardian of the akua hulu (feather god), defeated Kīwala‘ō in battle, and took with him Kīwala‘ō’s ‘ahu ‘ula (feather cloak) as a symbol of victory and authority. This same example also enabled several authors to discuss featherwork pieces in relation to a larger narrative about Hawai‘i’s history, framed through the lens of agency and engagement.
Andrade, Kahanu, Kaeppler, and Kamehiro all reinforce each other’s position that the gifting of ‘ahu ‘ula to foreign dignitaries served a political purpose for ali‘i as a diplomatic gesture and visual mechanism through which to signify Hawai‘i’s parity among the world’s powers. As they explain, these illustrious vessels of mana were appropriate gifts precisely because they carried victorious, potentially dangerous, ancestral mana.
The catalog also considers the nuances of featherwork genres, in addition to its chronological narrative. Rose’s lucid discussion about kāhili in connection to ali‘i, ceremony, and nationhood offers insights on the deployment of featherwork domestically, a nice complement to the discussions about international encounters. The essay by...