Beautiful kāhili, or feather standards, flank an image of 'Iolani Palace, in a section on Pacific nobles and monarchs.Photo: Odell Hussey Photography.
A visitor views the completed kāhili in Pacific Worlds. Photo by Odell Hussey Photography.
A Hawaiian-Oakland Collaboration
Thursday, August 20, 2015


Creating Kāhili with Community

At OMCA, we collaborate with the community to make exhibits that tell the many stories of California. What does that mean exactly? It means that what you see in our galleries includes not only the input of curators and historians, but of people that are featured speaking for themselves.

For the Pacific Worlds exhibition, we worked with the Pacific Worlds Community Taskforce, a group of individuals from Pacific communities in California. These community members helped us understand the contemporary context for the historical objects included in the exhibition—many of which had been in storage for a hundred years.  They also connected us to a large group of other community members who had ideas, stories, and knowledge to contribute to the show.

When developing the exhibition, we had planned to include a section about the Hawaiian monarchy, discussing the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai’i in 1893—a key event in the history of American colonialism in the Pacific. The section focused on King Kalākaua and Queen Lili’uokalani.  When reviewing this plan with the Pacific Worlds Community Taskforce, one member, Carolyn Kuali’i suggested that commissioning a pair of kāhili, Native Hawaiian feather standards, would be a meaningful way to commemorate the lives of these ali’i or monarchs. To pursue this, OMCA contacted Modesto artist Rick Makanaaloha Kia'imeaokekanaka San Nicolas, a well-known Ke Kumu Hulu Nui or master of ancient Hawaiian featherwork, and he agreed to work with us.

Rick San Nicolas demonstrates kāhili technique to two Academy of Hawaiian Arts students.
Rick San Nicolas demonstrates kāhili technique to two Academy of Hawaiian Arts students.

“It’s important to teach the methods and [that] there are certain times when kāhili should be represented and it’s appropriate,” Rick said. “It should be put up when you are trying to tie something in with the ali’i, the kings or the queens, or the princes, and princesses which are the ones the kāhili are intended for… If you are going to make them, make them with the right intention in mind.” Kumu Rick showed us his portfolio of stunningly beautiful kāhili, capes, and other feather pieces made with traditional Hawaiian materials.

Rick San Nicolas and Mark Ho'omalu assemble the kāhili.

In order to facilitate the creation of new kāhili for the exhibition, we turned again to the members of the Pacific Worlds Community Taskforce. Mark Ho’omalu, a Taskforce member and Kumu Hula of the hālau Academy of Hawaiian Arts (AHA) in East Oakland, had a recommendation: hire Kumu Rick to teach students from AHA how to make kāhili, using materials you can find here in California such as chicken feathers, floral wire, and PVC pipe. This way, students were able to learn a traditional Native Hawaiian practice, and the Museum was able to display community-made kāhili that honor Hawaiian ali’i ancestors.

One student felt honored to be part of the project, saying, “we are talking about a culture that didn’t have metal and could create these things that were so substantial and beautiful with native materials. It’s just awesome…. Working with a master is always an honor.” After the exhibition Pacific Worlds closes, the kāhili will return to the Academy of Hawaiian Arts.

Visit Pacific Worlds now through January 3, 2016, to see these uniquely Oakland kāhili.  The exhibition, which coincides with the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) in San Francisco, examines the vibrancy and rich cultural practices of the Pacific that continue to thrive in California today.

— Suzanne Fischer, associate curator of contemporary history and trends