Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Ali‘i
August 29, 2015 – February 28, 2016
SAN FRANCISCO—The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are pleased to present Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Ali‘i, an exhibition featuring more than 75 examples of featherwork 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 featherwork 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, 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 conveyed as objects of diplomacy to secure political alliances and agreements. Today, the fewer than 300 extant examples of these works shape our knowledge of nā hulu ali‘i (royal feathers).
Although featherwork 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, the prolongation of the Kamehameha dynasty through 1874, wide-scale conversion to Christianity after the arrival of missionaries in 1820, the overthrow of the Hawaiian government in 1893, annexation by the United States in 1898 and subsequent sovereignty protests by Hawaiians.
This presentation highlights the featherwork collection of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Honolulu, including many works that are rarely exhibited outside Hawai‘i. After the close of this exhibition at the de Young, many of the loans from other institutions in the United States and Europe will be displayed in Hawai‘i, returning such works of art to the islands for the first time in more than 200 years.