The National Gallery has been fortunate in securing one of the last Hawaiian feather capes (‘ahu‘ula) left in private hands. The cape most likely dates from the early nineteenth century. It is built upon a netted backing made from the extremely 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 sacredness and can be found even under the yellow feathers, which cover much of the surface of this cape. These feathers were not just for decoration but also protected a chief with their spiritual power. When they were 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 (hoaka) in the central design of this cape was a very important shape to Hawaiians. The meaning of which 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 the 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.
Senior Curator, Pacific Art
in artonview, issue 67, spring 2011