What is a feather? In most cases, it is a method of travel by millions of animals that are vital to our ecosystem as well as beauty. It is a symbol of the evolution of flight. What was once a dinosaur roaming the earth now soars the skies above us. It has also been associated as a symbol of freedom and hope in philosophy and theology.
When entering the dimly light space that hold the Ahu ʻula or Hawaiian feather cloaks, at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, CA, I was astounded by the sheer number of garments within the exhibit that include hats, cloaks, capes, helmets, and hair accessories. These beautiful and wearable works of art definitely resonate the epitome of luxury from another era and culture. Even though these items were created centuries ago, the color, texture, and meticulous handiwork has not lost any of its splendor or appreciation, when in fact I was in awe of the sheer size of some of the items on display.
The first pieces that caught my eye were the feather staffs that certainly commanded a presence in the room. It is important to note that feather adorned clothes were made specifically only for Hawaiian Royalty. So if you are already not a fur fan, then I presume you will immediately have an aversion to the ancient feather work tradition of Hawaii. Yes, a lot of birds perished for these works of functional art because you can still see some of the birds’ skin still attached to the netting that adheres the feathers to the cloak, cape, or staff but it is important to remember that most of these pieces were created before Hawaii’s connection with the Western world. So even if you immediately have empathy for all these lost birds, just try to focus and remember that these items were created a long time ago and the ingenuity of materials used by the original people that thrived off the land is as interesting as it is beautiful- truly an ornate works of art created from the fruit of the beautiful land that is Hawaii such as walrus ivory, green turtle shell, even possibly Galapagos peterl split feathers, hawksbill turtle, and lorikeet feathers to name a few.
A docent was giving a tour while I was there and I walked up right when she was explaining the horrendous eventual fate of these opulent birds in this day and age which I have never thought about in the respects she mentioned. I know that poaching is a problem but the docent went on to explain that when Westerners arrived in the 18th century, they brought to the islands not only cats, dogs and other animals not indigenous to the Hawaiian land and predators to the birds but new pests such as mosquitos. These pests eventually contaminated the waters of the land which before the introduction of Western culture, it was fresh enough water for certain specific breeds of these birds to drink and survive on. What was once a still, clean pool of water was now contaminated with mosquitos breeding which makes the water unfit to drink as well as carry disease but interestingly enough, in fact the most direct reason for the decline of the beautiful feathered birds to this day continues to be feral cats.
When the house cat was introduced to the island, the cats went on a rampage of hunting of these exotic birds and also contaminated resources by destroying and taking over the birds’ natural habitat as well as emitting toxic fecal waste.
More info on this can be found in the article in the Los Angeles Times here.
Overall, I really enjoyed the exhibit and I thought the way it explained the political stance of the Hawaiian Royal Family and it’s aversion to becoming a part of the United States was explained. I was also surprised and saddened at the number of Hawaiian Royalty that traveled to London and other parts of te world to fight for their land including that several of these royal family members died from the measles or other diseases on the way to these foreign destinations to simply fight for what has always been their land before western imperialism.
All in all, it’s a great exhibit and from my personal experience I have a tip: if you arrive to the museum in the morning, I would view J.M.W. Turner exhibit first because it was much more crowded that the Hawaiian Featherwork exhibit when I was there. If you have seen the exhibit, what was your favorite piece?