11 Interesting Facts About Traditional Hawaiian Art

11 Interesting Facts About Traditional Hawaiian Art

Anyone traveling to Hawaii should also learn a bit about Hawaii’s art and culture. Hawaiian art has a fascinating history.

Hawaiian art is divided into three main periods of art: pre-European art, Nonnative Hawaiian Art, and Hawaiian Art With Western Influences. After Captain Cook arrived in Hawaii in 1773, traditional Hawaiian art changed as the western culture started to influence Hawaiian art. The Volcano School of Art developed in Hawaii in the late 1800s when the artist’s work became impacted by the live volcanic eruptions in Hawaii.

Diamond Head from Waikiki', oil on canvas painting by Enoch Wood Perry, Jr., c. 1865
Diamond Head from Waikiki’, oil on canvas painting by Enoch Wood Perry, Jr., c. 1865

Below Are 11 Interesting Facts About Traditional Hawaiian Art:

1 – There are 3 Main Periods of Hawaiian Art

Hawaiian Art is usually divided up into three main groups of art. Each of these groups are defined as:

  • Pre-European Art – Pre-European art is the art produced before any westerners came to Hawaii. This Hawaiian art era was about the indigenous art forms before 1773 when Captian James Cook arrived in the Hawaii islands. Before Capitan Cook arrived in Hawaii, the islands’ art was very similar to a lot of the art in other parts of Polynesia.
  • Non-Native Hawaiian Art – Non-native Hawaiian art began when the first Westerners arrival in the Hawaii islands. Some of the first westerners to arrive in Hawaii were artists.
  • Hawaiian Art With Western Influences – Once westerners came to the islands, Hawaiian art started to incorporate western materials for Hawaiian and non- Hawaiian Artists.
Kii pohaku Hawaiian stone image from Necker Island Bishop Museum
Kii pohaku Hawaiian stone image from Necker Island Bishop Museum

2 – Hawaiian’s Art And Traditional Polynesian Ar

Before Captain Cook arrived at the Hawaiian islands, most of the art produced in Hawaii was wood carvings, tattoos, feather work, stone carvings, petroglyph, and barkcloth known as Kapa cloth; the petroglyph’s art is stone carvings carved into some of the Hawaiian rocks. During this period of time, the Hawaiian islands had no metal or woven cloth.

Kapa (bark cloth from Hawaii,Honolulu Museum of Art accession 1084.1
Kapa (bark cloth from Hawaii,Honolulu Museum of Art accession 1084.1

3 – Traditional Hawaiian Kapa Fabric

One of the traditional Hawaiian art forms is the Kapa fabric. Kapa fabric is produced by native Hawaiian artisans from the fibers of certain trees and shrubs. Kapa fabric is very similar to the tapa cloth found elsewhere in Polynesia.

Kapa cloth is based primarily on the creative combination of basic bold yet linear elements and forms.The Kapa fabric was used primarily for traditional Hawaiian clothing. Most of the work of the Kapa cloth was done by women; the mothers would pass down this art form to their daughters.

Besides the museum, you can see some Kapa or Tapa cloth at the Polynesia Cultural Center in Laie, Hawaii. In some of their cultural villages, you can see how this kind of cloth was worn or used in Polynesia. To find out more about how you can visit the Polynesian Cultural Center, you can click here.

4 – Kakau – Traditional Hawaiian Tattoo Art

Another interesting traditional Hawaiian art form was Kakau, or the Hawaiian art of tattooing. Hawaii was governed by a strict Kapu or a taboo cultural system; the tattoos became part of this system.

The tattoos also served as part of the recognition for the class or caste system. The tattoos were for ornamentation, class distinction, and to help the health and spiritual well-being of those who had worn the body art.

The images used with Kakau or Hawaii tattoo art varied from lizards that were greatly respected and feared and symbols like the Hawaiian crescent fan. Intricate patterns tattooed on Hawaiian men’s arms, legs, torso, and face would mimic woven reeds or other natural forms. Women were generally tattooed on the hand, fingers, wrist, and sometimes the tongue.

Not just anyone could apply these tattoos; highly-skilled Kakuna art experts applied the tattoos. The design also varied as much as the Kakau tattoo artist’s ability and experience. The entire process of the Kakau tattoo art was also a highly guarded secret.

Eventually, the Kakau Hawaiian system of tattoo art began to collapse. The ancient ways of this traditional tattoo art began to vanish from the islands. As more European settlers and missionaries came to the islands, the Kakau tattoo art was discouraged and even suppressed until, eventually, many of this traditional art form’s designs and techniques faded away.

Death of Captain James Cook oil on canvas by George Carter 1783.

5 – Western Influences Changed Hawaiian Art

The arrival of westerners to Hawaii and then the subsequent formation of Hawaii into a state of the United States has greatly influenced the art of native Hawaiians. A great deal of the art produced by the native Hawaiians and long-term Hawaii residents now incorporates western materials and ideas.

Even today, most Hawaiian artists will keep their subject matter distinctively Hawaiian while incorporating the art with materials from the west. That is why most of the art produced in Hawaii integrates an artistic melting of traditional Hawaiian art and western art.

Hawaiian quilt, Lei Mamo', late 19th century
Hawaiian quilt, Lei Mamo’, late 19th century

6 – Hawaiian Quilting Taught By Christian Missionaries

The Hawaiian quilt is an example of an art form that came to Hawaii after the westerners first came to Hawaii. The missionaries who came to Hawai in the early 1800s taught the Hawaiian women the art of quilting. Many of the earliest Hawaiian quilts go back as early as the 1820s; the artisans pieced together these early Hawaiian quilts with old scraps of fabric.

It was not until the 1870s that the Hawaiian quilt story really begins to unfold. The Hawaiian quilts are usually two colors, one color for the background and one color for the appliqué.

Jules Tavernier 1844-1889 The Crater of Kilauea Island of Hawaii -BORGM 02088 - Russell Cotes Art Gallery Museum
Jules Tavernier 1844-1889 The Crater of Kilauea Island of Hawaii -BORGM 02088 – Russell Cotes Art Gallery Museum

7 – The Volcano School of Hawaiian Art

The Volcano School of Hawaiian art was formed by a group of non-native Hawaiian artists who started to paint dramatic scenes from Hawaii’s two active volcanos. These western artists were fascinated with Hawaii’s intermittently active volcanos in the 1860s and 1890s in Kilauea and Mauna Loa.

To even get to the volcano to paint the volcanic eruptions was a huge feat. The volcano in Kilauea was a two or three-day round-trip journey on horseback. One of the most important artists of this Volcano School was Jules Tavernier (1844 – 1889).

The King Kamehameha Statue outside the Hawaii Supreme Court in Honolulu.
The King Kamehameha Statue outside the Hawaii Supreme Court in Honolulu.

8 – Hawaii Has Two King Kamehameha Statues

In 1878, Walter M. Gibson, a member of the Hawaiian government, wanted to commemorate the hundred-year arrival of Captain Cook to the Hawaiian islands. The legislature approved a statue to be made of King Kamehameha for $10,000. They hired Thomas R. Gould, a Boston sculptor living in Florence, Italy, to create King Kamehameha’s statue.

The King Kamehameha statue was too late for the hundred-year-old anniversary celebrations. In 1883, the King Kamehameha statue was placed onboard a sailing ship to Hawaii. Near the Falkland Islands, the shipwrecked and the King Kamehameha statue was thought to be lost at sea. As the King Kamehameha statue was insured, the Hawaii government received $12,000 in the insurance payout, and immediately, a second casting of the statue was commissioned.

Before the second statue arrived in Hawaii, the original King Kamehameha statue was recovered from the sea by some Falkland Islanders. These Falkland Islanders sold the statue to the Captain of the shipwreck for $500, and the Captain then sold it onto Walter M Gibsons for $875.

Hawaii now has two King Kamehameha statues. The original statue stands near Kings Kamehameha’i place in Kapa’au on the Big Island of Hawaii. The 2nd statue stands in front of the Ali’iolani Hale, which is now home to Hawaii’s Supreme Court.

Ooro One of the Principal Officers of Kamehameha II pen and ink wash over graphite by Jacques Arago 1819 Honolulu Academy of Arts

9 – The Hawaiian “Percent For Art” Law

In 1967 Hawaii became the first state in the United States to implement a “Percent For Art” law. This law states that 1% of the construction cost of any new public school or state buildings would be designated to acquire artwork. These works of art could be purchased by commission or by an outright purchase.

10 – View Hawaiian Art Collections in Hawaii and Germany

There are 4 major locations n that world that you can view collections of Hawaiian art. Three of those locations are in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Oahu’s island, and the last location is in Germany.

The mahiole (feathered helmet) that chief Kalaniopuu gave to captain James Cook
The mahiole (feathered helmet) that chief Kalaniopuu gave to captain James Cook

11 – Word For Art in the Hawaiian Language

The word for art in the Hawaiian language is Hana noʻeau. Here are some other words in the Hawaiian language:

English WordHawaiian Word
ArtHana noʻeau
Artist Kaha kiʻi.
Artistic Noʻeau, ʻike hana noʻeau.
Decorate (to make)Hoʻoheona
English to Hawaiian Words for Art

Hawaiian art is such an interesting kind of art. Not only is it rich in the history of Polynesia, but it is also an art that has changed and evolved as the Hawaiian islands have also changed and evolved.

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