Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Picture the scene. One of those tidy bungalows tucked away on the lot of a major Hollywood studio. The screenwriter waits to be ushered in to the producer’s office. He is confident, anxious, but mostly confident. This story defines “cinematic,” he thinks to himself. And then, the door opens…

Imagine the pitch. On an extended journey, a strikingly beautiful, powerful woman falls in love with a man who lives many hundreds of miles away. Once she returns home, she simply cannot leave her enterprise. And she cannot get the man out of her mind. She sends her youngest sister – the most trustworthy of her siblings – to bring him to her. This young woman’s travels take her over mountains, through forests, across deserts and seas. Along the way she is confronted by every conceivable challenge and danger. Violent storms, monstrous beasts, conniving scoundrels, malefactors, ne’er-do-wells. But she has been equipped by her sister with supernatural powers that will enable her to successfully complete her mission, to outsmart and outmaneuver every evil force. The story has it all – love and lust, jealousy and justice, villains, heroes and, most prominently, heroines.

In 1994, our hālau read the Nathaniel B. Emerson (1915) version of this epic and spent a three-day retreat discussing it. I clearly remember being in the swimming pool with kumu Hōkūlani Holt and several hālau sisters talking about how easy it would be – and how obvious it seemed – to turn this story into a movie. We even did some of the casting right there in the water.
The story is the epic tale of Hi‘iakaikapoliopele, youngest sister of Pele, the goddess of fire, dweller of the caldera at Kīlauea on the Island of Hawai‘i. And until University of Hawai‘i Hawaiian language specialist Dr. Puakea Nogelmeier devoted several years of his life to a new Hawaiian version and English translation, the Emerson version – aka “the red book” – was the only one widely accessible. In 2007, Dr. Nogelmeier’s stunning 400+- page edition – with magnificent illustrations by young Hawaiian artist Solomon Enos – was released. Happily, in 2008 Hōkū generously devoted a year of HER life to a small study group intent on reading it from cover to cover, with a specific emphasis on places, place names, and traditional Hawaiian values as portrayed in the story and as they are still practiced today.

Now the story comes to life as portions are brilliantly interpreted by eleven artists in the current Schaefer Gallery exhibit at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Masterfully installed, Hi‘iakaikapoliopele: Visual Stories by Contemporary Native Hawaiian Artists will – should – blow you away.

And speaking of being blown away, Mark Chai’s “Hea aku i ka makani: Call to the winds,” is the show’s dominantly large work. Recycled white plastic attached to a plywood ring eight-feet in diameter hangs from the high gallery ceiling. Stand below it and it’s not difficult to imagine being caught in the vortex of raging gales ahead of a great storm brought by Pele to her lover’s home Island of Kaua‘i.

Maui’s Abigail Romanchak etched stylized maps to depict Hi‘iaka’s travels, the big picture, so to speak. “Wahine Po‘aimoku” (Island-Encircling Woman) is a perfect description of and appropriate alternative name for Pele’s youngest sister.

Nānā i ke kumu – look to the source. That is exactly what Pualani Lincoln Maielua did with her beautiful, and obviously heartfelt, kapa work. Using wild wauke gathered from Kalopā and traditional plant dyes, each of the brilliantly-colored panels depicts the phases of the night from sunset till dawn as portrayed in the Hi’iaka story.

Young Puni Kakahiko traveled to the summit of Maui’s Haleakalā and chanted the same words Hi‘iaka did before painting “E kau malie ’oe, o ka la.” That’s the artist in the picture feeling the place where, according to the story, Hi‘iaka’s bones now rest.

Perhaps none of these young artists is better combines a thoroughly modern sense of humor with the ancient and awesome spiritual nature of the story than Maika‘i Tubbs. Two of his three pieces are made from disposal materials. In fact, one is called “At Your Disposal.” It is an elaborate array of butterflies – made from plastic forks, spoons, and knives – projected out from the gallery wall, about to surround you…as the legion of spirits did when Hi‘iaka and her companions traveled through the forest of Mahiki.

If you are on Maui between now and October 24th, make time to see this show. Don’t wait for the movie.

(scroll down, please, for photos)

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