For the Europeans, gold and silver represented wealth. But for the early Hawaiians, it was feathers, woven into magnificent garments and ornaments and worn by their sacred nobility. The de Young Museum is presenting “Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Ali‘i, “ an exhibition featuring more than 75 examples of feather work including long cloaks and short capes (‘ahu ‘ula), royal staffs of feathers (kāhili), feathered lei (lei hulu manu) and helmets (mahiole), alongside related 18th- and 19th-century paintings and works on paper. Developed in partnership with the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu, this is the first major exhibition of Hawaiian feather work to be mounted in the continental United States.
“We are thrilled to present these works in San Francisco, which is often considered the gateway to the Pacific,” said Christina Hellmich, curator in charge of the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. “It is the first exhibition of Hawaiian art at the de Young and will provide an overdue opportunity for the public to see and learn about the distinctive art, culture and history of the islands through appreciation of one of their highest forms of art.”
For centuries, feathers from vibrantly colored birds were valuable cultural resources on the Hawaiian Islands. Painstakingly constructed by hand and sometimes taking years to make, these garments symbolized the divinity and power of the ali‘i—ruling men and women who wore them for spiritual protection and to proclaim their identity and social status. These valuables were also used as objects of diplomacy to secure political alliances and agreements. The artisans used honeycreeper and honeyeater feathers, reinforced with bark fibers. The feathered textiles were believed to protect warriors in battle and were also draped over coffins. Today, the fewer than 300 extant examples of these works shape our knowledge of nā hulu ali‘i (royal feathers).
Although feather work dates back many centuries, this presentation focuses on pieces made for Hawaiian royals beginning in the late 18th century and ending in the early 20th century. This period saw the arrival of European explorers, unification of the islands in 1810, and the prolongation of the Kamehameha dynasty. Since at least the 15th century, collectors have competed for feathers sewn and glued onto fabrics, jewelry, fans and statues. New books and exhibitions have reunited widely scattered feathered objects made in Latin America and the Pacific islands, and growing archival evidence shows that the birds used for raw materials were treated relatively well — that is, plucked sustainably. Starting in the 1770s, the islands’ rulers traded and gave away feathered clothing and carvings in dealings with missionaries and explorers. The material ended up in collections from Philadelphia to New Zealand to the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East. A few objects in the de Young show have been on the market in recent years. In 2005, a red-and-yellow feathered necklace that had belonged to Scottish aristocrats sold for $72,000 at Sotheby’s in New York.
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.
Opening day community ceremonies include an Ohlone welcome, hula performance by Nā Lei Hulu I Ka Wēkiu, under the direction of kumu hula Patrick Makuakāne, a guest lecture by by Marques Hanalei Marzan, workshops and musical performances. Opening day events, admission to the permanent collection galleries, and admission to “Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Na Hulu Ali‘i ” are free of charge to the public
At the de Young from August 29, 2015 – February 28, 2016.