This Hawaiian feather cape (‘ahu‘ula) most likely dates from the early nineteenth century. It is built upon a netted backing made from the robust olonā fibre and is covered with red, yellow and black feathers from the ‘i‘iwi, ‘ō‘ō and mamo birds respectively.
Red feathers were associated with divinity and the sacred, and can be found even under the yellow feathers, which cover much of the cape’s surface. These feathers were not simply for decoration but also protected a chief with their spiritual power. When attached to the netted backing, the feathers were ‘tied’ with prayers that were considered as spiritually powerful as the olonā fibre was strong. These netted prayers were kept until they were needed by a divine being (akua).
The crescent shape (hoaka) in the cape’s central design was very important to Hawaiians. Its meaning varies, including: to cast a shadow, to drive away, to ward off or to frighten; spirit, apparition or ghost; or brightness, shining, glittering or splendid. The shape matches the meaning, giving strength and harmony to the design, particularly when worn on the shoulders and back.
Each cape was unique and made for a specific individual, a leader who, at least in pre-Christian times, was a man. Since 1820, when many Hawaiians converted to Christianity, the capes have lost much of their sacred function; however, they still command respect and inspire awe. When they are brought out and worn for important occasions, their presence elevates an event to a major cultural affair.
Michael Gunn, Senior Curator, Pacific Arts
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014