Three Kū reunite after 150 years
By Lynn Cook
Special to The Advertiser
On June 5, the doors of Bishop Museum's Hawaiian Hall will open to a once-in-your-lifetime celebration of three extraordinary carved figures of Kū, the ancient Hawaiian god of war. They are the largest in the world, and they will stand together for the first time in more than 150 years.
The Kū are large, each nearly 6 feet tall, weighing hundreds of pounds. They are ancient, created by carvers using stone adz.
Separated at the end of the kapu period in Hawai'i, and possibly the only survivors of the destruction of icons at that time, they are now reunited. Two carvings traveled thousands of miles, across oceans and continents, for this exhibit.
Together, the three Kū speak of cultural identity and nation-building.
The title of the Kū exhibit is derived from a chant that says "the walls will stand firm." The three Kū will stand in the newly re-opened Hawaiian Hall, a place that stands firm as the bastion of cultural knowledge and Hawaiian history. It coincides with the bicentennial commemoration of the unification of the Hawaiian Islands by Kamehameha I.
"E Kū Ana Ka Paia: Unification, Responsibility and the Kū Images" will explain the significance of the Kū, in an unprecedented, historic exhibition that is generating a worldwide buzz. In terms of the light the exhibit shines on Hawaiian culture and history, comparisons are being made to Egypt's King Tut exhibit, or China's terra-cotta warrior figures.
After years of communication and multiple visits, museum officials in the Islands, England and Massachusetts agreed that Hawai'i's host museum was, indeed, a world-class facility suitable for the exhibit.
Noelle Kahanu, Bishop Museum's project manager for the exhibit, explains that one Kū has been at Bishop Museum since 1895, acquired by Charles Reed Bishop.
A second Kū, loaned by the British Museum in London, has been in the London museum's collection since 1911, when it was acquired from the London Missionary Society.
The third Kū is on loan from the Peabody Essex Museum of Salem, Mass. It was a gift to the Peabody by John T. Prince in 1846.
Desoto Brown, master of the museum's achieves, says it is likely that the Kū were collected by early voyagers and possibly changed hands more than once before they came to rest in these museums.
"The story of who took them and if they were gifted, traded or simply taken will forever remain an unsolved mystery," he says.
The 1819 dissolution of the ancient religion, the kapu, left the Kū with little or no value to most people. Removed as cornerstones of the heiau, they were cast aside. Reports describe burning of as many as one hundred in a day. A 1917 entry in the journal of historian William Ellis describes the conversion of the ancient heiau, Ahuena, to a fort, destroying all carvings, "except three — where they stand like sentinels — as if designed by their frightful appearance to terrify the enemy."
The negotiations to move and display the Kū were complicated. Brown says that the difficulty of moving such large yet delicate objects is staggering.
Hawaiian cultural practitioners were called upon to determine the appropriate protocol. They participated in the process of departure and arrival. They will participate in the public introductions of Kū to modern Hawai'i.
There has been much conversation about the power of this exhibit. A gathering of men has been suggested, maybe hundreds of men, all wearing the malo of respect, working to build a better society, in hopes of focusing the combined energy.
Kahanu notes that many see Kū only as warlike.
"This is an opportunity to know the Kū who are well regarded by the artists, carvers and canoe people," he said.
Hopes are high that Kū will again become a symbol for young men, encouraging them to meet their responsibilities in a positive way, taking a leadership role in their families and communities.
"This is an exhibition we've dreamed of for decades," Kahanu said. Simply describing it brought tears to her eyes.
"To bring them together is to bring ourselves together. They are an iconic representation of us," Kahanu said. They are the embodiment of the imagination, artistry and skill of our ancestors. Their mana, their power, has endured."