I remember the first time I saw a kahu kiwi (a Maori feather cloak made from the feathers of the kiwi bird). I don’t know that I’d ever seen or felt anything quite so exquisite, before or since. The feathers are incredibly soft, and the cloak was much heavier than I thought it was going to be.

The weaving is detailed and complex. These cloaks speak volumes to place and people. One can easily imagine how these cloaks warmed the aboriginal people against the harsh cold of New Zealand.

Like Hawaiians and other Pacific peoples, the Maori of New Zealand have long lived in synchronicity with their island home, using resources like the kiwi to create practical resources that aided traditional living.

Today, we would refer to kahu kiwi as art, for it certainly reflects exceptional human talent and imagination. Yet, some have questioned whether or not traditional Pacific Islanders created art the way the West understands the concept.

Honolulu Biennial 2019 exhibits include ritual garments such as skirts, knotted shoulder regalia, and sashes.

Honolulu Biennial 2019

For as the West often created art as an expression of emotion or reflection of beauty, many indigenous peoples created material culture out of utility and necessity. The former being often ornamental, the latter typically functional. These expressions of art can truly tell us so much about their creators and the worlds in which these pieces were conceived.

As the Merrie Monarch Festival takes place again this week on Hawaii Island, I am also reminded of master weaver Elizabeth Lee. I had the tremendous fortune of visiting with her at Merrie Monarch, watching her happily weave the lauhala (leaf) hats for which she was famed. I remember her hands, moving with both speed and precision from a combination of muscle memory and ancestral knowledge. My hats from her are among my most beloved possessions.

The Honolulu Biennial 2019 offers all residents and visitors a unique opportunity to enjoy similar mastery here on Oahu. Running through May 5 at over a dozen locations around the island, this second edition of the exhibition series, “To Make Wrong / Right / Now,” brings together artists to contribute to local and global dialogs by connecting indigenous perspectives and knowledges.

The exhibition is itself a weaving of cultures and times. The curators tethered their approach to the metaphor of ‘aha, Hawaiian cordage, as a method of recording our diverse paths. Particularly notable are the contributions from Taupōuri Tangarō and Florence Jaukea Kamel. Both artists have pieces at the Biennial location at Ward Warehouse.

Tangarō, the director of Hawaiian culture and protocols engagement at the University of Hawaii Hilo and Hawaii Community College, crafted exquisite pieces of ‘a‘ahu kaula, corded regalia. Tangarō is a master of the cordage medium, and he integrates his talent into his academic work, illustrating the importance of indigenous perspective in successful leadership and academic success.

In his work, he combines traditional knowledge with innovation, resulting in paths that not only honor our ancestral roots but highlight the relevancy of ancestral knowing in a modern world. Contained within the works are knowledge and history. These pieces, like the many ancestral pieces passed down through generations, are gourds of memories and pedagory.

Examples of the wearable art of bilum on display at Honolulu Biennial 2019.

Honolulu Biennial 2019

Equally impressive is the wearable art of bilum artist Florence Jaukae Kamel. Kamel’s work is in stride with numerous female community leaders around the globe who use craftwork as a means of empowering women.

All across the world, we see women galvanizing at local levels to develop culturally authentic crafts as a means of proving themselves with livable wages, education and other opportunities.

In this regard, the messages conveyed through these cultural expressions are not only memories of our past but hope for our collective future.

Just this week, the chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues noted that traditional knowledge is at the core of indigenous identity, culture and heritage and that “it must be protected.”

Despite their recognized knowledges and capacities, indigenous people remain disproportionately impoverished globally. In a world that is beginning to recognize that a sustainable future is inseparably linked to better understanding our indigenous pasts, a key element in achieving our environmental goals lies in better appreciating a native worldview.

In a place as rich in heritage as Hawaii, there are countless opportunities to seek out alternative worldviews, to appreciate the world through another cultural lens.

For it is truly this collective diversity, and the wholly unique way in which Hawaii brings cultures of so many origins together, that makes these islands their own exceptional masterpiece.

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About the Author

  • Trisha Kehaulani Watson
    Trisha Kehaulani Watson is a Kaimuki resident, small business owner, and bibliophile. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawaii and J.D. from the William S. Richardson School of Law. She writes about environmental issues, cultural resource management, and the intersection between culture and politics. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can follow or contact her on Twitter at @hehawaiiau.