“My first memory of the museum is the smell of the basement,” says Aaron Padilla, the museum’s Director of Learning and Engagement. “I also remember the tiny pile of Bouganvillea leaves that would blow around in the portrait gallery—the museum wasn’t air-conditioned back then and the courtyard doors were always open.”

Aaron has been involved in the museum’s education initiatives for most of his life, spending summers in the basement classrooms as a child, becoming an instructor at the Art School in 2003, and rising through the ranks to his current position—head of our recently restructured and renamed Education Department.

When asked to share his favorite piece in the museum, he stops in front of a case holding Kneeling Figure and Head—two hand-built and carved terra cotta pieces made by the Nok people in what is now Nigeria between the 5th and 4th centuries BC.

“Before I was working at the museum, when I was teaching at the University of Hawai‘i, I would bring my class to the Academy to look at ceramics and this is one of the pieces I would stop at to teach the students about clay as a material,” says Aaron. “You can actually see the grain and particle in the surface and it would start a conversation about ‘what is clay’ and ‘what is it made out of—what makes something clay or ceramic?’”

In addition to his work as an educator, Aaron is also an accomplished painter, ceramist, and sculptor. His work can be found in the Halekulani Hotel, the Fendi Foundation for Design, and the Hawai‘i State Capitol, as well as many other private collections.

Aaron says he still visits the Nok pieces regularly because they give him perspective about his place in the universe, and the value of making art. “These works were discovered in 1928, so you have this civilization that was completely unknown for thousands of years and all that exists of it now are these objects. These pieces were made with such reverence and care,” he says. “Art lasts longer than all of us.”

Nok culture, Nigeria
Kneeling Figure (left) and Head (right), c. 5th century BC-4th century
hand-built and carved terra cotta
Gifts of Frances Damon Holt in memory of John Dominis Holt, 1996 (8348.1, 8349.1)