Pāʻū Rider, c. 1980.
Re-Exposing Kalākaua

A groundbreaking exhibition at the Honolulu Museum of Art pushes viewers to ho‘oulu, or increase, their scopes of admiration for Hawai‘i’s most recent king.

Text By
Travis Hancock
Images courtesy of
Honolulu Museum of Art

Unthink everything you think you know about King Kalākaua. That was the advice of Native Hawaiian scholar Keanu Sai to his cousin Healoha Johnston when she told him that her master’s thesis would focus on the king. Sai feared the young scholar would be misled by the archive of colonialist propaganda that famously distorted Kalākaua’s image—framing him as a tyrant, a drunk, a spendthrift, a blemish on his kingdom. But when Johnston explained that she thought Kalākaua was brilliant, Sai exclaimed, “OK, then keep thinking!”

Ten years later, in 2015, Johnston found herself sitting at the Honolulu Museum of Art across from then-director Stephan Jost, interviewing to be the first Arts of Hawai‘i curator in the museum’s 90- year history. Jost asked her, “If you could curate any exhibition, what would it be?” She answered that it would be an exhibition of works from King Kalākaua’s reign, from 1874 to 1891. Jost was surprised but intrigued, and when he ultimately handed her the job, he asked, “So that Kalākaua show—when do you want to do it?”

Sipping an Americano in her office in 2018, Johnston looks over a paper mockup of the museum’s largest exhibition space, filled with cut-out miniatures of the eclectic works that make up the exhibition Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i: The King Kalākaua Era. “Everything I love about contemporary art was happening at that time,” she says. “It was experimental. It was fearless.”
She opens the book that tandems with the exhibition, flips past images of oil paintings and Hawaiian featherworks, and lands at a photograph from Kalākaua’s 1886 birthday jubilee. The king, styled in a cool white suit, strides down the steps of ‘Iolani Palace, Queen Kapi‘olani at his side, followed by his sister Lili‘uokalani and her husband John Dominis. The photographer, one of many working in the nation, framed the royal procession between a background of decadent Corinthian columns festooned with masterful textiles, including a monumental Hawaiian flag and coat of arms, and a foreground prominently featuring an electrified lamp post containing an Edison light bulb. “It’s all these symbols of ali‘i, nationhood, and technology,” Johnston says.

Throughout the gallery, photography refracts and magnifies the meaning of older media. On the frontmost wall of the gallery hangs a large quilt that features an image of Queen Emma. For the first time, the quilt is paired with the photograph it is based on—a tiny three-and-a-half-inch-wide lantern slide that Johnston excavated from the museum’s vaults. “It shows how these artists, these creatives, were using all these different forms of image-making and reappropriating them within their given practice,” she explains.

During his unprecedented worldwide voyage, Kalākaua consistently donned his full regalia and royal orders to sit for photographers, effectively disseminating visions of his power to international audiences. On the gallery walls, these photographs become historic windows with the shutters blown open as the eye connects his kingly accoutrements to the staggering, glimmering display of medals and royal orders nearby. As in his domestic parades, the Merrie Monarch’s culturally fortified optics in the gallery are augmented by the attendant visions of proud hula dancers and strong wāhine equestrians, known as pā‘ū riders for their bloomer-like skirts. Dropped into this dynamic milieu, visitors discover a fully formed, prismatic Kalākaua suffused with the brilliant light and color of his time. And they can leave with a piece of this light, too, by stepping into an in-gallery photobooth that mimics the textures and colors of fin-de-siècle development process.

Ho‘oulu Hawai‘i might be the first exhibition ever to put equal emphasis on Hawaiian-language text. In putting together this exhibition, Johnston espoused the distinctly Hawaiian ethos of community reliance, gathering a large number of works from ‘Iolani Palace, Hawai‘i State Archives, and Bishop Museum. This unprecedented collaboration mirrors the spirit of experimentation of Kalākaua’s era. “It represents a shared vision across these museums to interrogate the way Hawaiian history has been interpreted,” Johnston says.

Collaboration with the Hawai‘i State Archives led to the inclusion of two long-cloistered panoramic oil paintings of Honolulu Harbor by Joseph Strong, also produced for the king’s 1886 jubilee. A kind of before- and-after diptych, the set first depicts the harbor in 1836, imagined as a calm, placid space. “Then in the 1886 [painting] it’s this hustle-bustle port city,” Johnston says. “The sky is very busy, and it’s the artist’s way of portraying Hawai‘i as an epicenter of commerce within the Pacific. Kalākaua’s narrative of growth over his lifetime is depicted in a way that empires would understand.”

Passing these two paintings and exiting the gallery, the visitor inevitably steps into the complex tableau of concrete, steel, and palm trees that is modern Honolulu, a crown jewel in America’s empire. And perhaps it is only at this point that one feels the oppressive weight of the elephant in the room— the forceful shuttering of the House of Kalākaua in 1893. In Johnston’s grand, restorative vision, this rupture was intentionally cropped out. “To understand how bad the overthrow was, you have to know how great it was before,” she says. “This is really looking at Kalākaua with an incredible amount of pride and honor.”

Late 19th century telephone

Kingdom telephones circa the late 19th century.
Photo by Jesse W. Stephen, Bishop Museum; Bishop Museum Archives.

Kalākaua's Around the World medal

Kalākaua’s Around the World medal.
Photo by Jesse W. Stephen, Bishop Museum; Bishop Museum Archives.

Lantern slide of King Kalākaua of Hawaiʻi, c. 1880.

Lantern slide of King Kalākaua of Hawaiʻi, c. 1880.
Photo by Shuzo Uemoto, Honolulu Museum of Art.

Pāʻū Rider, c. 1980.

Pāʻū Rider, c. 1980.
Photo by J.A. Gonsalves and Maria Ramos, Bishop Museum Archive.

Two female hula dancers; Hawaiʻi, c. 1858.

Two female hula dancers; Hawaiʻi, c. 1858.
Bishop Museum Archives.

Honolulu Harbor, 1886 by Joseph Strong.

Honolulu Harbor, 1886 by Joseph Strong.
Photo by Shuzu Uemoto, Hawaiʻi State Archives.

The Royal Feather Cordon of King Liloa of Hawaii, 1890 by Ella Smith Corwine.

The Royal Feather Cordon of King Liloa of Hawaii, 1890 by Ella Smith Corwine, Bishop Museum Archives.

You May Also Like