When I step foot in the “Nā Akua Ākea, the Vast and Numerous Deities” exhibit at Hale Hōʻikeʻike, a powerful rush of mana both ancient and modern envelops me. The 11 kiʻi look back at me while I stare in awe of these beautiful pieces of craftsmanship. This is the climactic point of a year’s work with a cohort of Maui haumana (students) that took an immersive study into the Hawaiian art of ʻie ʻie weaving with kumus Lloyd Harold Kumulāʻau Sing Jr. and May Haunani Balino-Sing. I have seen pictures of kiʻi before, but getting up close and personal with them at Hale Hōʻikeʻike is a whole new experience. It whispers of old Hawaiʻi, but its energy is contemporary too. It reveals the Hawaiian culture is a strong, proud, growing, living thing.
I first met the Sings at the Kauluhiwaolele Weaving Conference held at Ka‘anapali Beach Hotel. I embedded into their group of about 20 haumana and wove basketry with them for four days. The act of weaving is meditative, and the Sing’s approach is refined, making it a joy to learn from them. Everyday we would start with an oli of E Hō Mai followed by E Ulu. Kumu Lloyd Harold Kumulāʻau Sing Jr. explains the process.
“One of the questions I have been asked is, ‘How do we integrate language into the discipline and the work that we do?’” says Kumulāʻau. “Not everyone is Hawaiian language speaker, including Hawaiians. Some people do know, some people know bits and pieces, some people can speak fluently. But doing this oli, learning this oli – this chant is something all of you can do. This kind of work is all part of our people. Everyone who is Indigenous or comes from Indigenous people all have that shared belief that we are just passing through time; we are just stewards of the land. We are here to malama, perpetuate, take care, and share with the next generation.”
They take students from all walks of life, nationalities, and backgrounds.
“This practice, this art is not for Hawaiians only,” says Kumulāʻau. “This is for all of us. I just want to share that every person that learns this art, whether you are Kanaka Hawai‘i or you are Kanaka-wherever you are from, our kupuna are smiling. Our ancestors are smiling and very proud and happy. That all of you guys have taken on the kuleana the responsibility the willingness to do this kind of work that we do. Whether it’s hala, or ‘ie ‘ie, or any type of work of our kupuna. They are very happy because what they did, that we practice and perpetuate today, is not going to die. It’s going to holomua (progress) because of all of you.”
While my experience was only four days, their cohort was a yearlong teaching commitment funded by a grant.
“We went into different kinds of baskets, then fish traps, and then into other techniques,” explains Haunani. “Our students had homework and challenges throughout the year to utilize what they learned and create their own pieces too. You will see the fans on the wall at the exhibition, and the other baskets. Then for the last challenge, we decided to have them make kiʻi because after the year of work and all the techniques that they have learned, they should be able to have the ‘ike (knowledge) to make the kiʻi. On top of that, they had to learn how to do the work with shell, wood and teeth, and the sewing. Some had hair. So each person had different things they learned through the process of making their own kiʻi.”
The Sings also teach a few tricks that they learned on their own weaving journey to enhance their students’ success.
“We came up with this idea for a different grant but that didn’t work out,” says Kumulāʻau. “So we decided to use the support of a Hawai‘i State Foundation on Cultural and the Arts grant to do what we could and compact a two-year experience into one year. We are so fortunate that we have haumana like our cohort. Our Maui students did pretty much everything that we would have taught over the course of two years in one year. We made it very intensive, challenging, and at the same time we wanted to circumvent their learning curve by using and applying our own methods that we use. Our approaches help expedite the processes.”
What they found was that each student’s labor and experience with the kiʻi transformed them. The kiʻi became more than just an object to look at in the museum.
“Even using our techniques it still required a lot of hours of weaving to complete it,” says Kumulāʻau. “From the time we started the kiʻi we told our students that when they are done, finished dying it, the eyes and the teeth are all lashed in – it’s going to be one beautiful piece. They are going to have a personal relationship with that image because they have spent so much time with that image, so much energy, so much mana. You can’t help but have an attachment to it. Even when the kiʻi came to exhibit, the haumana was having separation anxiety sharing that kind of feeling. They just became so pili (connected) to having that kiʻi around. It looks very human like, it has human characteristics.”
There were the ki‘i akua, the deities, images of Hawaiian gods of old. Then there were also kiʻi kupuna, ancestral images. Traditionally with kiʻi kupuna, human hair from ‘ohana would be used. For the kiʻi in Nā Akua Ākea the same is true.
“The ones that have hair, the lauoho (hair) kiʻi, there is actual hair, and from their ‘ohana too,” says Haunani. “It is a personal thing for all of them. Even for our haumana that are not Hawaiian. We have some haumana who are not Hawaiian. They have an aloha for our culture. They have a connection to our culture. And they made a kiʻi and they have expressed what it means to make something that traditionally was a Hawaiian religious and spiritual object. Everyone has their own story and it is up to them whether they want to share it or not.”
According to Kumu Sing, there is a genealogical connection to weaving that we all have, and we can tap into that.
“We are not the kind of teachers that try to micromanage a lot,” says Haunani. “First of all we try to create a safe space. Because when the space is safe and everybody feels comfortable then creation can start. Then imagination can start. It is a better vibe. There is better energy and then everybody is open to learning. So when that happens, it becomes easy for everybody to create and get into their weaving. We try to teach just the basics and kind of let you guys figure things out along the way. The figuring out is what we call our kupuna, our DNA kicking in. Basketry is worldwide, so all of us have that kind of DNA in us. Having that come out while you are weaving is what we like to see as we do these classes.”
Making plenty kiʻi at once was a powerful thing for the lahui (people/nation/race) and community. The Sings had made their own kiʻi before but this was the first time for a group.
“These are pieces that haven’t been created in centuries. There is not much known of them. We thought a lot about it too. If we were to create this group and not just two, it’s not just he and I… To have a whole bunch created at one time would really make a statement. It would really bring awareness to our people and our community. This did exist at one time, and this is how it was used before, and this is how we are using it today. Everybody has their own understanding. It’s bringing this awareness to the community that these things do exist. Doing this project we had a lot of these first-time aha moments. It’s been a growing year for us, the kumu, and the haumana.”
The kiʻi literally have life of their own. What they found was that the impact of the kiʻi in the community was huge. They worked out a special deal with museum director Sissy Lake-Farm, so that they could check the kiʻi out of the exhibition. The kiʻi must travel.
“In the Hawaiian community, when you think of the lahui as a whole, in many disciplines in our culture things are becoming activated,” says Kumulāʻau. “There is a resurgence of interest in wanting to find the place in our culture that you fit, that you resonate, and that you contribute. We have navigation, we have hula, we have music, we have kapa makers, we have hala weavers, and then of course now we have this art. The ‘ie ‘ie weavers. So everybody is doing what they can because at this time there are so many things that are going on in the world and so much is affecting here in Hawaiʻi. We can get into the politics of it, but it is kind of ironic and yet serendipitous that these kiʻi were complete and came into exhibition in August and the mauna movement took place. For the kiʻi to be out there for people to celebrate that, it affected a lot of people that were there at the exhibition. It was moving for people there. Then we were asked if we would be willing to share the exhibition beyond the Bailey House. To have it go to other places. So we went to the mauna and we took them to the Unity March in Lahaina.”
In this way the kiʻi are finding their own crucial role in the Hawaiʻi of today.
“We are in a different time now. What we use those images for in old ancient Hawaiʻi we don’t use in that way now,” says Haunani. “Every individual that created their piece is to find within themselves why they are creating this and for what reason. We leave it at that. That is how our kupuna created their kiʻi back then, they had an intention of what they were creating and they knew how they wanted it to look like and what kind of materials they wanted to see. In this time, today, we are using the same concept but in modern time. It is pretty interesting.”
For the Sings, the long term goal of their Maui cohort is to create a body of practitioners that can help teach in the community. One of their haumana in this cohort, Edward Lum, is already jumping in and helping the beginners.
“Ed is one of our students that was able to come teach at Kauluhiwaolele,” says Haunani. “Last year at this weaving conference, he came, it was his first time weaving. We were talking about the cohort. After the conference was over you get added to our Facebook group for our students. Ed started making baskets and posting, he was doing everything our students were doing in the cohort. So we brought him in. He is actually so fast that he finished his kiʻi before everyone else did. Then he wanted to help teach.”
At the exhibition, there is a $3 booklet on Nā Akua Ākea that you can pick up at the Hale Hōʻikeʻike gift shop. It is a wonderful addition to the scope of the work, and the backstory to the cohort and artists involved.
“What we are really teaching is that now that the kiʻi are in existence, they have a kuleana,” says Kumulāʻau. “They have a responsibility to be used. It’s not something to just keep in the house and nobody gets to see it. It is something to be celebrated and shared with our lahui, and to inspire and promote Maui arts. We are trying to bring our Native cultural arts to a level that is worth keeping and passing on.”
The Sings have obtained another grant and will continue the work with this cohort, and they will make an appearance at the Hui No’eau in December for students interested in diving into this art.
“We are just contributing in our own small way it’s just this art,” says Kumulāʻau. “There are many movers and shakers making things happen on many different fronts in our Hawaiian culture now. People are doing mauna rituals every day. Learning mele lahui, hula lahui, these dances and songs that we can all do together. It is interesting that at this point in history that is where we are at with the arts. We want to contribute by setting a good example for the next generation. Our own learning curve was different than what we are trying to show to our students because we want this art to continue and thrive. Why now? Because we want to share with our people that we are proud by sharing this art. Not everyone can do what we do, and we can’t do what others do.”
The “Nā Akua Ākea, the Vast and Numerous Deities” exhibit will be at Hale Hōʻikeʻike Monday-Sunday through Dec. 2019, from 10am-4pm. “Talk Story and Demonstration” with Kumula’au and Haunani Sing will take place Dec. 18 at 4pm at the Hui No’eau. “’Ulana ‘Ie: Beginning Hawaiian Basketry” will be from 9am-4pm on Dec. 21 and 22 at Hui No’eau. The artists of the exhibit include: Kyle Keoki Elama Farm, Kamlan Kapukalani’okala Fowler-Kapua’ala, Kennard Stanley Kaipo Kekona, Edward Lum, Gayle Miyaguchi, Keali’i Reichel, Bradley Rogers, Justin Wood, and Leina Wender.