Friday, March 7, 2014

Kapa: Traditional Hawaiian Cloth - A Gorgeous Exhibit

Before the days of grass hula skirts, before Hawaii was “discovered” and placed on paper maps, ancient Hawaiians wore clothing made from the bark of trees. This fabric was painstakingly prepared, carefully pounded, softened, and dyed in intricate patterns.
Traditional kapa bedding fabric and pounders on display from the Bailey House Museum.

Kapa, also known as tapa, is Hawaiian bark cloth but looks a lot like large sheets of handmade paper. Essentially it is wearable paper, but it’s also a rich and innovative art form as the recent exhibit at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center proves. 

"Four Rivers...four trees Na Wai Eha" by Dalani Tanahy. These are the Four Great Waters of Maui, with a legendary history and a lot of modern controversy.
The exhibit is called “Mōhala Hou Ke Kapa: Kapa Blossoms Anew” and runs through this Sunday, March 9th, 2014, 5 pm. I left the show feeling amazed at the luminosity and innovation of the different pieces. The words going through my mind were: “I didn’t know you could do that with kapa!” Almost makes me want to take up kapa making and grow some mulberry trees. Definitely worth your time, and it's free.

Clockwise from upper left: tools and brushes of traditional kapa making, a traditional pattern, fiber cordage (aka rope or string), large Hawaiian gourds with wauke (a type of mulberry) fiber cordage from a hand carved pole with kapa cloth below by Lisa Schattenburg-Raymond; a very lacy rendition of kapa (could not find the name of the artist in my notes - sorry); kapa lehu (ceremonial kapa wrapping for the ashes of the deceased) to return to nature by Moana Eisele.

Clockwise from top: Center display of kapa pounders (to beat the wood pulp), with a tree (likely the variety of mulberry tree most preferred for kapa cloth or could be breadfruit); one of four faces of the god Lono, here depicted as an athlete (did not record name of artist); textured kapa by Marie McDonald.

Clockwise from top: NoenoeuakeaoHana (The misty rain of Hana) and Ka'uiki - a skirt and shawl made of 'ulu (breadfruit) bark [note: some Hawaiian words can be really long and intimidating!] by Wesley Sen; Kapa painting with natural plant dyes (I believe this artist is  Reni Aʻiaʻi Bello and was incorrectly credited to someone else, my mistake) ; Ka Wai a Kane by Ka'iulani de Silva honoring Kane-ka-wai-uka "Water as the Giver of Life." (Hope there are no major typos or mis-attributions here - very hard to read my notes and blurry text photos.)

This picture doesn't do justice to the actual piece. It's quite tall and even using a panoramic setting on the smart phone doesn't help with the occasional wobble. This is a dye test piece, by Marie McDonald, with each strip of color representing a different plant dye. The name of the plant used is in pencil (along with I believe, a date). These colors are also so much more vibrant and luminous in real life. Many beautiful pieces in the exhibit are by Marie, who is recognized as a national "living treasure."

Vintage photo of a pili (grass house) with two kapa beaters in front. Photo courtesy of Bishop Museum. This kapa exhibit has wonderful vintage photos and information on traditional kapa making, and hosted two family days to make your own kapa piece.

For more information, Maui Arts has an online booklet on kapa making and history. If you get the chance to go in person, it's even better. What's also intriguing about kapa as a modern, not just an ancient art form, is that for an island which now imports just about everything, kapa  and its dyes can be created with all the materials that naturally grow in Hawaii. That's food for thought.


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