November 03, 1980 12:00 PM


Hawaii: the Royal Isles, a brilliantly polychromatic exhibit now on a two-year tour of mainland museums, is an attempt to explain and update paradise. Certainly it will help to close the gap between the stereotypes and the realities of a misunderstood culture that is visualized by many as exotic hula girls and little grass shacks in Kealakekua or Steve McGarrett battling crime on Waikiki. For those interested in the true Hawaiian heritage, this show, on loan from the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu, will prove absorbing for considerably less than an hour. The artifacts, ranging from stone implements to feather apparel, constitute a history of how Hawaii’s customs evolved through ancient chiefdoms and dynastic monarchies to statehood in 1959. Its more striking exhibits verge on the surreal—for example, an intimidating 19th-century head woven of vine roots, with shells for eyes and a scalp matted with human hair.

The 300 antiquities include basins and wooden figures, some carved from the Hawaiian koa tree, as well as a few anthropological eye-openers. Among them are exquisitely crafted bowls. Two massive ones are inlaid with human teeth; one of these, from the reign of the first Kamehameha (at the turn of the 18th century) contains 289 molars. The teeth served the double purpose of providing decoration and preserving the memory of the enemies who contributed them. This heavy irony contrasts with the esthetic achievement of the Hawaiian featherwork. Bold yellow and red caps and cloaks, from the plumage of rare birds, signify high rank and dazzle the eye with hues that could never come from dyes. Drawings and paintings also help chronicle the islands’ evolution from tribal life.

Senior curator Roger Rose spent two years organizing and coordinating the show and has produced an exhibit, more instructive than entertaining, that does manage to dispel Hawaii’s schlocky tourist image. It is no coincidence that United Airlines subsidized it.

Having recently closed in Chicago, the show goes to the Denver Art Museum Dec. 3 through Jan. 18. Next it visits the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (Feb. 20-April 26); the Seattle Art Museum (June 3-July 26); the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco (Sept. 26-Dec. 6); the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, Manhattan (March 9-May 9, 1982); the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (June 3-Aug. 8); and the National Museum of Natural History, Washington D.C (Sept. 15-Nov. 1).

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