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Restoring an icon to its community
You all know the statue, if nowhere else from the rapid-fire editing of the classic Hawaii Five-O opening credits: A massive bronze of powerful King Kamehameha with his arm outstretched in that familiar Emperor Augustus pose and garlanded with leis. The famous figure in downtown Honolulu is one of the state’s most popular landmarks, and it has suffered through having its picture taken with millions of overweight tourists in Hawaiian shirts.
Most are unaware that the statue is a replica. The original, cast in Paris in the 1880s, stands before the old courthouse in rural Kapa’au, North Kohala, the legendary birthplace of Kamehameha. In 1996, New York City Museum of Modern Art conservator Glenn Wharton was sent by public arts administrators in Honolulu to examine the Kapa’au sculpture and what he found startled him: A larger-than-life brass figure painted over in brown, black, and yellow with “white toenails and fingernails and penetrating black eyes with small white brush strokes for highlights . . . It looked more like a piece of folk art than a nineteenth-century heroic monument.”
The Painted King (University of Hawai’i Press, trade paper, $19) is Wharton’s story of his efforts to conserve the Kohala Kamehameha statue, but it is also the story of his journey to understand its meaning for the residents of Kapa’au. This compelling book also made me consider the more general queer attribute of being drawn to preservation and taking care of things to tend a cultural memory.
While making breakfast this morning, I realize that I--the youngest gay sibling--am essentially the conservator of my family's historical objects. Reading The Painted King, I poured juice from a Tupperware that I have used my whole life, while I sit at a table that was a present to my parents when they were married--and in which I used to hide Brussels sprouts to avoid eating them when I was five years old.
The Painted King is a highly engaging and accessible look at “activist conservation” at work, wherever it may be found. I spoke with Glenn Wharton about his book, queer conservation, and the complexities of community-based cultural engagement.
Tim Miller: What pulled you to this powerful interest in Hawai’i? There is a rich history of Euro-American gay men heading off to the distant corners of the world. This tradition of queer cultural anthropologist narratives--from Sir Richard Burton in 19th-century Africa to Tobias Schneebaum in 1970s New Guinea--with all the complex "going native" and orientalist perils has fueled gay culture enormously for centuries. What led you to Hawai’i? Does Hawai'i play a special part in American culture?
Glenn Wharton: I’ve always been attracted to Hawaiian culture--in part because of the falsetto singing, ukulele music, and storytelling through dance, but also because of the gentle nature of many Hawaiians that I’ve met over the years. As an island culture, everything moves more slowly. People in semi-rural areas like the one that surrounds the Kamehameha sculpture embrace outsiders with warm aloha, but only after the outsider has proven that they have a genuine love for the culture and the land.
It strikes me gay identity often has this desire to look after/preserve/remember and that connects strongly to that creative impulse too. This book is not about you exactly, but I felt your humanness alive on every page. As a museum conservator, and in your life as a gay man, how does that impulse to tend things move through you?
There are certainly a disproportionate number of gays in the arts and other creative professions. This includes art conservation and historic preservation. I’ve often wondered if there is something particular that attracts gay men to caring for cultural heritage.
Perhaps there are links to the role that many of us play in our families of keeping photographs, maintaining family heirlooms, and performing oral histories of our parents and grandparents. Personally, I am very interested in the stories embedded in objects from the past, and what these objects mean to people who surround them today.
Tell us a little about your work with the Kamehameha sculpture--and how is it that the community got so involved?
I was originally contracted to figure out how to return the sculpture to its 19th century gold-leafed appearance, but quickly learned that many people in the community wanted to continue their tradition of painting it in life-like colors. It was a question of authenticity--do we honor the original artist’s vision or that of the people who surround it today, who honor it with a parade and gifts on Kamehameha Day. I saw the situation as ripe for community dialogue about relationships with the Native Hawaiian past.
We performed a multi-year project in which community leaders engaged artists, children, and elders to stimulate public discussion of the choice between gold and paint. I was able to participate in local activities such as stringing leis for Kamehameha Day. That put me in direct contact with older Hawaiian women and men who were more than ready to tell me their stories. I learned that the sculpture is a spiritual, economic, and political object that means many things in today’s multicultural, post-plantation present. I also learned of its amazing history. It was commissioned to honor Captain Cook’s “discovery” of the Hawaiian Islands, then it sank in a shipwreck on its way to Hawai’i in 1880 and was later recovered by a fisherman off the coast of the Falkland Islands.
It is such a beautiful, post-modern collision of this Eurocentric statue of the Hawaiian King Kamehameha in the classic Augustus Caesar of Prima Porta stance. This contradiction would be the vehicle for the complex community discussions not just with the town of Kohala, but also with government authorities and your colleagues in museum conservation. Were you ever accused of “going native” in your decision to restore the statue in its painted form?
As I got deeper into the community and performed interviews, I learned that there were many voices and they didn’t all agree on the sculpture’s meaning or how to go about conserving it. Indeed, some of my colleagues on the mainland did accuse me of “going native” in that I was sharing professional authority with people who didn’t “understand art history” and that we should honor the original artist’s intention no matter what local residents think today. Maintaining the rather quirky tradition of painting the sculpture in life-like colors, that evolved since its 1883 installation, was going a bit too far for some of my colleagues.
The powerful community dialogue you engaged in has lots of larger social and political echoes. It reminds me of the interesting community engagement that has been going on post-Prop. 8 in California. Large numbers of gay people going in to communities to do volunteer work in the spirit of "If we don't get to know each other through working with and helping one another, how can we expect people to vote with their empathetic hearts?" This strikes me as a real human-scaled kind of politics. What did you discover as a gay man entering this other culture so intensely over many years?
This was safe ground to practice democracy. We debated whether to gild or paint a sculpture and what stories it tells about the Native Hawaiian past. Eventually the whole community voted on the issue. There are certainly more contentious social issues in the community where people are at each other’s throats, such as rampant development and protection of the coastline.
Hawai’i is very gay-accepting. People on the islands appreciate the sensitivity that often comes with being gay in our culture. They distrust outsiders, but once they learn that you have good intentions, Hawaiians open up with big hearts and warm embraces. It took time to gain this trust, but eventually I did by slowing down, getting to know people, and participating in community projects like making coconut puppets for a puppet hula about the history of the sculpture. Many of the people I worked with were gay, but we rarely spoke about it. I think this is common in rural areas where everyone knows each other and their families. Word got around through the coconut wireless that I was gay, then that was that. We had a project of local discovery to do.
Tim Miller is a solo performer and the author of the books Shirts & Skin, Body Blows and 1001 Beds. He can be reached at his website www.TimMillerPerformer.com.