On Aug. 29, the de Young Museum in San Francisco held a community day celebration for the opening of its exhibition Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Ali‘i, developed in collaboration with Bishop Museum, which will present the show in March. In attendance were Healoha Johnston, our assistant curator of the arts of Hawai‘i, and trustees Allison Holt Gendreau and Watters O. Martin—who are also on the board of trustees of Bishop Museum (Gendreau is their board chair).
In the show are five works from the Honolulu Museum of Art—three feather capes and the iconic Robert Dampier portraits of Kamehameha III and Nahienaena. (Read about the preparation of the works in our previous post.)
The day included a welcome by leaders of the Ohlone, the indigenous people of the Bay Area; performances by the hālau of Patrick Makuakane and Mark Keali‘i Ho‘omalu, and musician Owana Salazar; and a closing chant by Naomi Leina‘ala Kalama.
“There were at least 400 people on the lawn,” says Johnston. “It was so packed I couldnʻt get into the gallery.” Luckily she had attended the members-only preview the night before. “Itʻs a really well done, clean installation. Because the feathers are so fragile, they have to be displayed in dim light, so the de Young used bright, white walls to help illuminate the space, and you can clearly see the details of the feathers.”
Johnston calls the show “a stellar presentation of Hawaiian featherwork. Itʻs comprehensive and features an impressive selection of pieces from the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum collection, along with loaned works from around the world—including our three capes and two paintings.”
The paintings help to put the featherwork in context. “We are so pleased to include the Dampier portraits in the exhibition because we located works in our own collection during our research for the show that are wonderful compliments and visualize other individuals associated with the featherwork on view,” said Christine Hellmich, the de Young’s curator in charge, by email. “We have included two lithographs by John Hayter representing Liholiho, Kamehameha II and Queen Kamāmalu during their visit to England in 1824. Also on view are mounted photographs of King Kalākaua, Queen Kapi‘olani and other members of the royal family that were given to acquaintances in San Francisco.”
While the Honolulu Museum of Art’s collection of feather capes is dwarfed by the Bishop Museum’s holdings, it includes singular examples of the art of featherwork. “The unique capes belonging to Mrs. Elizabeth Coney Renje, one with two red heart shapes displayed on the bottom of the cape and the other with a field of yellow feathers, are important inclusions for their association with High Chiefess Keahikuni Kekau‘ōnohi and Chief Levi Ha‘alelea and, of course, their distinctive designs,” explained Hellmich.
The third cape is an example of how featherwork evolved over time. “The cape made for the politician and opponent of Hawai‘i’s statehood Alice Kamokila Campbell in the early 20th century is significant for its association with her and for its extraordinary form and masterful use of pheasant feathers—distinguishing it from the cloaks and capes made in the 18th and early 19th century that constitute the exhibition,” said Hellmich.
“It was spectacular,” said Martin. “You saw the progression of designs, from the earliest existing capes to examples made in Kalākaua’s time. What was most exciting for me was seeing objects that came from other museums—it is a great collection they have assembled. And it is clear the de Young is very respectful, they care about our things and treat them accordingly.”
Gendreau can hardly contain her pride and excitement about Bishop Museum and Honolulu Museum of Art’s part in the exhibition. “On behalf of Bishop Museum I am proud to say out of the 75 pieces on display, 54 are from our collection!” she said via email. “And the Honolulu Museum of Art’s pieces stand out in a big way. As you can tell I am so thankful for this showing of our cultural treasures in San Francisco, home to so many Hawaiians.”
If you are in San Francisco over the next six months, be sure to visit the de Young to see Nā Hulu Ali‘i—it is always an interesting experience to see “your” artwork in a new environment and context. Then see it again at Bishop Museum next year!
See images of the installation of the exhibition on the de Young’s facebook page.
Photographs courtesy of de Young | Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.