Published: March 20, 2012
Like slack-key guitar, quilting is an enduring island art that evolved from an imported tradition. Hawaiian women adapted the textile art brought to the islands by missionaries and made it their own expressive tradition.
Now the Honolulu Museum of Art puts on view a dozen of its prized Hawaiian quilts in “Regal and Royal Hawaiian Quilts,” revealing a response to a century and a half of adaptation and change, sewn by skilled hands. The exhibition is on view through June 17.
Six of the quilts feature the distinctive floral design most familiar in contemporary quilts, and in dramatic color combinations not often seen today.
But the highlight of the exhibition is a rare quilt that depicts a Nineteenth Century romance story alongside a scene of Adam and Eve in Eden. The compelling “Na Kihapai Nani Lua ‘Ole O Edena A Me Elenale (The Beautiful Unequaled Gardens of Eden and of Elenale)” features large-scale human images in a context that is unusual for Hawaiian quilts.
Also on view are what are known as Annexation quilts, featuring bold designs integrating flag motifs. These designs reflect ways in which quilters came to grips with the political upheavals of the late Nineteenth Century. Pairs of crossed Hawaiian flags became the symbol of patriotic loyalty and support for the deposed Queen Liliu’okalani.
The quilt titles are integral parts of the works. “The naming of Hawaiian quilt designs is the originator’s privilege,” said Sara Oka, manager of the textile collection and curator of the exhibition. “Some are straightforward while others have poetic names that echo Hawaiian legends, as in ‘Ka Ua Kani Lehua (The Rain That Rustles Lehua Blossoms),’ in reference to the delicate flower sacred to Pele, goddess of fire and the volcano.”
A recent “discovery” is on view for the first time in the exhibition. While sorting through the educational lending collection, museum staff discovered an Annexation quilt that was made around 1900 and had been stored in a closet since the 1980s. “The extremely worn, yet tenderly preserved work dispels the myth that flag quilts were never used,” said Oka.
The Honolulu Museum of Art is at 900 South Beretania Street. For information, www.honolulumuseum.org or 808-532-8700.
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