Feathers and Art

'Apapane (Himatione sanguinea), a species of Hawaiian honeycreeper. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/

'Apapane (Himatione sanguinea), a species
of Hawaiian honeycreeper. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/

Although I lived in Hawai'i for nine years, I don't remember ever thinking of featherwork as artwork. I knew that Hawaiian royalty (ali'i) had worn feather cloaks and capes, but that's what they were in my mind at the time--cloaks and capes--in the way that European kings and queens wore such garments. But a recent visit to the De Young Museum in San Francisco changed how I view those 'ahuʻula ("red shoulder coverings")I admire the collected pieces for their artistic mastery, especially the simple but bold contemporary-looking abstract designs and colors. I could easily see them rendered with textiles or paints. Since bundles of feathers were tied together and attached to netting made of olona (in the nettle family), one of the strongest natural fibers in the world, can we call the 'ahuʻula fiber art?

Amazingly preserved, the items are from the 18th and 19th centuries. For the San Francisco exhibit, they were gathered from Honolulu's Museum of Art and Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution, London's British Museum, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and Vienna's Museum of Ethnology, Weltmuseum.

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'I'iwi (Vestiaria coccinea), scarlet Hawaiian honeycreeper.  Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

'I'iwi (Vestiaria coccinea), scarlet Hawaiian honeycreeper. 
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

When I first heard of featherwork in Hawai'i, I was taken aback by what I thought must have been wholesale slaughter of endemic birds. I've since learned--only to my partial relief--that birds were captured and their feathers plucked. The Hawaiians knew that, alive rather than dead, the avian wonders could regenerate more feathers. Regardless, I doubt the birds thought it a pleasant experience. Eventually, disease, habitat destruction, and introduced predators took their toll, leading to extinction in some cases. But, for a long period, the birds provided the wherewithal for royal men and women to drape themselves in garments that were believed to afford spiritual protection as well as proclaim their noble status. Now we can view these beautiful pieces in museums.

[Please excuse the lack of quality in the photos of the featherwork. I had to take them through glass.]

Hawaiʻi ʻōʻō (Moho nobilis), a honeyeater. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/

Hawaiʻi ʻōʻō (Moho nobilis), a honeyeater. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/

ʻŌʻū (Psittirostra psittacea), a species of Hawaiian honeycreeper. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org

ʻŌʻū (Psittirostra psittacea), a species of Hawaiian honeycreeper. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org

ʻŌʻū (Psittirostra psittacea), a species of Hawaiian honeycreeper. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org

ʻŌʻū (Psittirostra psittacea), a species of Hawaiian honeycreeper. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org

In addition to the short capes and long cloaks, there were also feather garlands (lei hulu), handheld feather standards (kāhili) that signified divine power, and feather helmets (mahiole). The latter remind me of a partial wheel with hub and spokes. They were created by fastening feathered netting onto a twined rigid form of 'ie'ie (Freycinetia arborea), densely branched, woody aerial roots of the plant family Pandanaceae that attach themselves to host trees. These roots allow the feathers to maintain a particular shape, orientation, and arrangement.

Freycinetia arborea--aerials roots attaching to tree. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/

Freycinetia arborea--aerials roots attaching
to tree. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/

'Ie'ie (Freycinetia arborea). Photo by Forest & Kim Starr (USGS), Plants of Hawaii. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/

'Ie'ie (Freycinetia arborea). Photo by Forest & Kim Starr (USGS), Plants of Hawaii.
Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/

I can't help but think of a slice of watermelon when I look at this last one. But it could represent something I'm just not aware of or it could simply be the feather artist's unique design.

If you're at all drawn to these feather creations, may they lend inspiration for your own artwork.

Questions and Comments:
How do these designs strike you? Do you see cultural or environmental symbols in the abstract patterns?
If you didn't know that they're made of feathers, what would you think they are?
Have you incorporated feathers in your artwork--how?

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