Connected \\ June 28, 2019
E Ala, Ua Ao: Welcoming Kū
With summer’s official start, we energetically enter the seasonal climax of Kū, an ancient Hawaiian god famously known in his warring form as Kūkāʻilimoku, “snatcher of islands.”
Miles away, in the Pacific, industrial and political activities traditionally pervaded this time of year and ceased during the rainy season concerned with recreation, rest and peace. Similar to this Hawaiian temporal framework, here in Salem, hundreds of people at PEM have been laboring to complete the building and installation of its new 40,000 square feet wing by late September (#newPEM).
Walking along the cobbled pedestrian walkway, you are able to observe some of the project’s development by peering through the glass corridor adjoining the historic East India Marine Hall with the museum’s new wing. While approaching this window, eyes are immediately drawn upwards to the side profile of an imposing figure gazing west towards Hawai‘i. Indeed, this compelling icon made from breadfruit tree wood is Kū manifested -- a masterful, powerful piece of ancient Hawaiian sculpture representing one of three known images of its size to exist in the world.
The interior of East India Marine Hall (built in 1825) as it appeared in the mid-19th century. In the center of the room is Kūkāʻilimoku, donated by John T. Prince in 1846.
Last week, the more than 200-year-old temple image from Hawaiʻi Island ascended from PEM’s storage depths into an elevated section of the new wing’s light-filled atrium. A delegation of Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners accompanied the crated statue and facilitated protocols to ensure the private procession was cleared of meta-physical obstacles.
Once safely moved to his overnight holding area near the installation site, the delegation instructed staff to turn the image due east to face the morning sun (a time of day traditionally dedicated to Kū). Protocols of chant continued the next day and crate panel by crate panel removed, bated breaths grew. Finally unveiled in striking strength, face to face with his brethren and caretakers, Kū seem to set ablaze the minds of all present.
L to R: Marques Hanalei Marzan, Kamalu du Preez, Mehanaokala Hind and Keahi Piioha. © 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Kathy Tarantola
Chants rang out, reciting genealogy, requesting inspiration, and recognizing Kū in his multiplicity of manifestations--Kū of the forest, mountain, rain, husbandry, fishing, and sorcery to name a few. Standing at more than six-foot-five, the naked image whose genitalia was removed centuries ago by his first acquirer was bound tenderly around his loins with white kapa (Hawaiian barkcloth). The re-dignified idol was soon carried to a six-foot platform and mounted expertly at a height similar to his original sacred post. At kau ka lā i ka lolo, a spiritually imbued time when a person’s shadow was no longer visible and believed to enter their sacred head (solar noon), the stage was set to formally honor his presence.
PEM staff reverently waited at the bottom of a marbled staircase seeking inclusion through an oli kāhea (permission chant) delivered by Mehanaokalā Hind. Marques Hanalei Marzan chanted in response an oli komo (entrance chant) allowing the gathered hosts, now made guests, to advance upward into the ceremonial space. Again, the delegation in deep, resounding voices saturated the atrium with chants of origin stories, thanksgiving, and insight entreatment. Ho‘okupu (ceremonial gifts given as a sign of respect and honor) of various types, some representing Ku’s physical embodiments, were laid at his feet: coconut coir, ‘ie‘ie branches, breadfruit leaf and flowers, fragrant maile garlands, ‘a‘ali‘i lei, and salt from across Hawai‘i.
Following speeches of gratitude and re-affirming relationships were shared, the mana (divine power) ladened event closed in congruence with an important Hawaiian custom, a feast. Leaning on a pillar and overlooking the celebratory scene, I was delighted to view the confluence of my worlds in fellowship. To witness a moment so meaningful, many miles from my home, was transportive I thought to myself. As if Kū drew the veils separating past, present and future to reveal onto each other a common thread of connectivity.
As a Native American Fellow this summer at PEM, I humbly bring my experiences to further enhance the consciousness of Hawaiian cultural heritage among my Salem hosts. I’m going back to school again in the fall, for a second master’s in anthropology, so cultural exchange and learning how to be more accountable to my relations (old, new, seen, unseen) is truly special for me. I’m honored to be part of this historic moment for the museum and its unique connection to my culture as co-stewards of a Hawaiian national treasure. Kū visually represents for me Hawaiian agency weathered by past and present revolutions—a surviving allegory grimacing with optimistic prophecy. Referencing the title of this blog, “E Ala, Ua Ao” (Arise, it is day), I intend to awaken and illuminate such visceral resonance in my homeland. Mahalo nui (Great thanks) for having me.