Making it Maoli

What defines art as Hawaiian? The answer may lie as deep as one’s DNA.

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Pulama Collier

“Every culture has its own ways of knowing and being,” says Pulama Collier. “To produce Hawaiian art in its traditional context, you have to be rooted in it, be of it.”

Collier should know. A resource teacher with the DOE’s Hawaiian Language Immersion Program, she has worked with students and teachers who have been educated in Hawaiian language and traditions. She has also worked with organizations and colleges that are perpetuating the Hawaiian culture and language. Though she protests that she isn’t an artist—“I can draw stick people,” she laughs—Pulama also has a graphic-design company, ‘Uhane Designs. I look it up: ‘uhane means spirit or soul.

When I ask what form her art takes, Pulama doesn’t state a medium, but a message.
“I create forms that tell stories,” she says, pointing to her ankle.
“Tattoos?”
“No, imagery in the form of design. When I hear a story, it manifests in shapes. Every design has a specific meaning that you understand if you are in the culture.”

I tell Pulama I’ve heard there was no word for “art” in pre-Contact Hawai‘i.

“Not in the sense of a picture on the wall,” she says. “We’ve created a word, paheone, to accommodate Western art forms and concepts: paintings, sculpture, fine art. We have a word, no‘eau, which means ‘wise, skilled, dexterous, an expert.’ To produce anything of worth, you have to have profound knowledge, be born and raised in it, almost like the DNA passed on through the kupuna.”

Collier shows me another design, one she’s applied to note cards, t-shirts, even surfboards. It’s an abstracted fishhook and wave inspired by her family, who are fishermen.

“An image evokes something in me because of my culture. It’s not just a way of viewing. It’s deeper than that. It goes back to the concept of our genealogy, our spiritual connectivity. Even if you were born in Boston, and have never seen Hawai‘i, if you are Hawaiian, you have the right and the kuleana—the responsibility—running in your veins. You’ve been displaced from your culture, but you are not disconnected from it.

“Any graphic designer could use the same shapes and forms I do,” she says, “but my inspiration, expression and explanation would be different. My designs are generated through inspiration, intuition and knowledge of my culture; they come not just from me, but through me from all that came before. The source is indigenous; my piko [core, center] is Hawaiian. I exist because Hawai‘i exists.”

As Collier shows me her designs, I notice that some look very Hawaiian; others don’t.

“What do we perceive as Hawaiian?” she asks. “Is it only the traditional? How do we evolve, then, as Hawaiians? We cannot get stuck in the past, or we will lose the present. We need to be able to take the knowledge and wisdom of the past and forge it for the future. I appreciate the evolution of all of our art forms. However, one thing remains constant—our belief of no‘eau. If we stand in no‘eau, whatever we produce is and will always be Hawaiian.”

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