Hawaiian HallMuseum Entrance

The Tradition of Hawaiian Sculpture
by Serge Kahili King

Ku'ikepa, literally "pound and slash," is the Hawaiian word for the art of sculpting. Like the sculpture itself the word reflects the concrete and practical side of Hawaiian thought. But in dealing with things Hawaiian it is important to remember that nothing is only what it seems. Along with the mana'o maoli, the literal meaning, there is always one or more mana'o ho'onanenane, figurative or poetic meanings. Even the word for sculpture, so literal on the surface, contains roots with connotations of "creating a likeness of knowledge and experience." Hawaiian sculpture, then, is both general and particular. General, in that it follows certain forms which reflect shared aspects of Polynesian culture; and particular in regard to unique Hawaiian variations as well as the specific communication of an individual artist.

In the following discussion I will use two important words quite frequently: "tiki" (ki'i ), which I will not italicize because it is so commonly used, and akua, which is much less used and even less understood than that. Tiki refers to any representational image, but is most often associated with sculptured images, especially of wood. Akua is a tough word to translate. It essentially means "concept" or "archetype" and "spirit" in the sense of "living essence." Most often it is translated as "god, goddess, ghost or devil," depending on the translator and his or her intent. Since Western and Hawaiian ideas about "gods" are not identical, I will stick with "spirit" when a translation is called for.

The next thing to note is that the Hawaiians made a clear distinction between the tiki and the akua. A tiki was just a piece of wood until it was animated or activated by the presence of the akua, a process involving prayer and ritual. And once it was deactivated - by prayer and ritual, by failure to perform, or by neglect - the tiki became just a piece of wood again. The only exception were objects which absorbed the mana, spiritual power, of a special individual through long association by possession and use. Such objects might not have an akua present, but they would have great power.

There is no unanimous agreement on how to classify Hawaiian sculpture - all classification systems being arbitrary anyway - so for this article I will simply distinguish between religious, magical and secular sculpture.

Religious Sculpture
The most dominant and dramatic forms of religious sculpture are the images used in and around the heiau, commonly referred to as "temples."

The awesome and terrifying images with elaborate headresses and snarling mouths that seem so typical of pagan Hawaii are really a rather late development done in what is called the "kona style" popularized by Kamehameha the Great. One function of temple sculpture, of course, was to inspire awe and terror in order to increase the influence of the priests, but the fearsome images were also projecting a clear message. The prominent headdresses were announcing the spiritual power of thought and prayer that was being represented, the open mouth and tongue represented the power of the spoken word in chant or prayer addressed to the spiritual beings, and the bared teeth were emphasizing the dangerous nature of the power. Nevertheless, if you were to survey even what little remains of Hawaiian sculpture (only 150 authentic pre-missionary pieces exist throughout the world) you would find an amazing variety just among the temple images, ranging beyond the awesome to the benign and totally abstract. On studying both the literature and the actual pieces themselves, the inescapable consclusion one comes to is that the Hawaiian religion was not a monolithic structure. Instead, it was composed of many different sects, cults and orders, each with their own beliefs, artists and art.

In addition to the tikis used in the temples, various chiefs, families and individuals had personal religious tikis which they carried around with them and set up wherever they desired to have the protection or support of their favorite spirit. This was made easier because most, if not all, of them were attached to poles or carved as one piece with a pole of varying length (five inches to six feet). The smaller ones had a pointed end that could be stuck in the ground or in a thatch wall. These tikis have come to be called akua ka'ai, some say because they were tucked in a belt or sash and ka'ai means "belt, sash, and to bind." Obviously, however, some of these tikis were too big for carrying in that way and some probably stayed at home. More likely an alternate meaning of ka'ai was intended which refers to a protective cloth wrapped around an object (some tikis wrapped in tapa were also called akua ka'ai ). In that case the phrase probably means "protective spirit." This also accords with the Hawaiian differentiation between the tiki, the representation, and the the akua, the spirit itself.

Magical Sculpture
Magical sculpture refers to free-standing, humanoid figures (as far as is known the pre-missionary Hawaiians did not sculpt animal or plant forms except to a limited degree in stone) either with or without human hair attached. Several of the ones remaining have cavities in the back or on top of the head which were clearly meant as storage or container spaces. While most Hawaiian sculpture is either male-oriented or asexual in form, a number of definitely female tikis have been found among this group.

As sculpture, the magical tikis express beautifully the classic Polynesian "power posture" (head up, knees flexed, arms held curved at the sides) and massive musculature, as well as the almost uniquely Hawaiian three-dimensional carving of arms separate from the body, and emphasis on the body surfaces. As magical objects they were used as a focus for telepathic influence. It is quite likely that at least in some cases the cavities mentioned above were used as receptacles for bits of clothing, nail parings, hair or excreta from someone who was to be the object of influence. Chiefs of the old days usually had a special retainer whose job it was to gather and protect such leavings.

A lot of the literature on Hawaii makes abundant reference to using such images in "voodoo-like" practices of destructive telepathy (a slur on good voodoo) and the implication is both that all such practices had evil intent and that these evil practitioners were powerful and acknowledged members of society. The fact is that those who engaged in "black magic" were generally despised and not nearly as powerful as is thought, and that the same types of tikis were used by benificent practitioners for counter-sorcery and for healing. As was the case with the religious tikis, the magical tikis also had to be activated by an akua, usually conceived of as the spirit of an ancestor who had the power one wanted to project.

Secular Sculpture
The most unique aspect of Hawaiian sculpture is displayed in its secular sculpture, the non-religious carvings associated with the many and various objects of daily life. Unlike the purely decorative carving of most Polynesian sculpture, all of the Hawaiian secular carvings are not only artistic, but functional as well. There is a konane game board supported by the arms of two men joined torso to torso. There are a number of carrying poles with one or more heads at each end, and it is the chins which hold in place what is being carried. A wonderfully-executed bowl from the Princess Keelikolani Collection at the Bishop Museum is supported at each end by the buttocks of one three-dimensional figure and the knees of the other. And not only do they support the bowl, their open mouths hold additional condiments. Personally, I have a replica of another piece which looks for all the world like an acrobat standing on his hands ... and his feet are curved to hold spears or poles. The religious and magical tikis all look so serious, but in the secular sculpture the Hawaiians combined their practical bent with their abundant good humor.

May this bare taste of knowledge stimulate your appetite for more, like the salt that helps the poi go down.

© 1989 by Serge King