From lace to seal-gut parkas, Sara Oka has explored and handled just about every kind of textile ever created. And last week, the curator of textiles retired one month shy of 25 years with the Honolulu Museum of Art. In the last 15 years, Oka estimates she has shown 20 percent of the textiles collection. “I think that’s a pretty good track record. When I first came on, a lot of things hadn’t been on view in years,” says Oka. And she was determined to change that. It meant preparing more than 100 pieces a year for public display. And for every piece that went on view, she looked at five to ten works to select the one that best fit the exhibition’s narrative.
Oka joined the museum in 1994 as assistant curator to then textiles curator Reiko Brandon then became collection manager in 2004 upon Brandon’s retirement. In all that time, Oka says a seal gut parka was the most challenging garment she dealt with. “It came in a small box and I had to spritz it to open it up then stuff it so it would dry in the correct form,” says Oka.
And of the many textile exhibitions she curated, it is a toss-up between Harajuku: Tokyo Street Fashion and Board Shorts for her favorite. “They were very different. Harajuku was pretty special, and it opened up a whole world to me, going to Japan to meet with designers. It was amazing. Board Shorts gave me a new perspective on why we do these shows. I met with community players and worked with 10 different companies and gathered a whole range of shorts spanning decades. But it wasn’t until Myra Aikau walked through the gallery with me and stopped at a photograph of Makapu‘u lifeguards and told me, ‘These are really good people,’ that I realized it was more about the people than the shorts themselves.”
Oka has done a lot of sleuthlike research on the textile collection and connected dots throughout the textile community. “The hard thing with textiles is even though now there’s a lot written about it, a lot of times it’s in a different language. And because a lot of textiles aren’t signed, you don’t have that instant artist recognition like with a painting,” she says.
Visiting scholars have been a key source of information and identifying treasures in the collection. “We have amazing weavings from Pohnpei,” says Oka. Donald Rubinstein, professor of anthropology and Micronesian studies at University of Guam, pointed out to Oka the unusual structure of Pohnpeian textiles and she immediately recognized it from the museum’s collection.
In 2017, she worked on the exhibition Trade Cloth from the Coromandel. A conservator from the Metropolitan Museum of Art visited, and when “she saw our trade cloth pieces, she was blown away,” recalls Oka. “She asked for samples so she could do a dye analysis.”
“We have one of the best Bhutanese collections. When we did The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan, we found out a Bhutanese weaver was in Hawai‘i—her husband was at the East West Center. We asked her to teach us, and we did it for a couple of months and actually learned the technique. Now I have great appreciation for their weaving skill. The Bhutanese weaved the same way Guatemalans weaved, which is so interesting. I just love finding parallels like that.”
And through it all, Oka has been one of the kindest, most caring colleagues anyone could wish for. She often crafted little gifts for staff, especially those who worked on her exhibitions, acknowledging that most museum work is a team effort drawing from talents across departments. She will be greatly missed.
Sara Oka’s last exhibition as textile curator, Gather Around, opens Sept. 7.