Gods, chiefs and birds may seem to have little in common, but in ancient Hawaiian culture they were more alike than different — a connection illuminated in a book due out in mid-August and in a related exhibit coming to San Francisco’s De Young Museum on Aug. 29.
In Hawaiian culture, the feathers of birds endemic to the island were the most precious resources. As the only earthly creature, besides chiefs, to convene with the gods, honeycreepers and honeyeaters were by default spiritual beings, and their feathers were coveted finds. Sometimes collected by chiefs as taxes, the vibrantly colored plumes were crafted by hand into garments that symbolized divinity and power through an art form known as na hulu ali’i (royal feathers).
“There wasn’t gold or gemstones,” said Christina Hellmich, curator of the exhibit “Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Na Hulu Ali’i.”
“The Hawaiians took their most precious resource, which were bird feathers from these small birds in mountainous areas, and created these really stunning garments that are very culturally important with sacred power, or mana.”
The exhibit, the De Young’s first on Hawaiian culture, pulls in more than 75 works, most of which are loans from the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu. The exhibit, Hellmich said, is also the mainland debut of the feather collection. Pieces such as ‘ahu ‘ula (long cloaks and short capes), mahiole (helmets) and lei hulu (leis) are accompanied by 18th and 19th century paintings, photographs and paper works of art.
“It’s really an unprecedented opportunity for visitors to see one of the highest forms of Hawaiian art and learn more about the culture,” Hellmich said.
When it closes in San Francisco on Feb. 28, the exhibit will return home to the Bishop. The catalog ($65) is published by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and University of Hawai’i Press.