For centuries on the Hawaiian Islands, vividly colored feathers gathered from native birds were valuable cultural resources, ornamenting spectacular garments painstakingly constructed by hand. Long cloaks and short capes (‘ahu ‘ula), helmets (mahiole), and leis (lei hulu) bore rainbows of feathers to signify the divinity and power of chiefs (ali‘i), who wore them for spiritual protection and to proclaim their identity and status. These unique valuables also found use as objects of diplomacy, helping to secure political alliances and agreements. Today, fewer than 300 examples of historic featherwork exist to shape our knowledge of the art form known as nā hulu ali‘i (royal feathers).
Organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in partnership with the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Honolulu, this presentation highlights a remarkable collection of objects rarely exhibited outside Hawai‘i. While the art form dates back many centuries, this exhibition focuses on pieces made for Hawaiian royals beginning in the late 18th century and ending just before the 20th—a period that saw the arrival of European explorers, the unification of the islands, wide-scale conversion to Christianity, the overthrow of the Hawaiian government, and annexation by the U.S.