Kaua‘i Museum unveils complete kapa collection
LIHU‘E — The Kaua‘i Museum is opening its floodgates.
That’s according to Executive Director Chucky Boy Chock, who’s excited to unveil today a new space and the museum’s first new exhibit since the coronavirus pandemic began.
“The Art of Kapa: A Tradition Almost Lost” opens at 9 a.m. in the second-story Waimakua Gallery, an addition built behind the Kaua‘i Museum’s Rice Building on Rice Street in Lihu‘e.
Kapa is cloth made from beaten wauke, or paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera), a shrub brought to the Hawaiian Islands by Polynesian voyagers.
“Kapa is the beginning and the end,” Chock told The Garden Island. “When you’re born, you wear kapa. When you pass, your bones are buried in kapa … it’s the tapestry of who we are. It’s the fabric of the Hawaiian people.”
The Kaua‘i Museum’s complete kapa collection totals between 15 and 20 pieces. Some are small fragments, but others share the dimensions of a contemporary queen-size bedsheet.
The full collection has never been displayed until now, according to Island School kumu Sabra Kauka.
Kauka made local headlines last month when Po‘ipu restaurant Keoki’s Paradise, Kaua‘i County government and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources honored her work in environmental and cultural education.
Now, the celebrated kumu will lead kapa-making demonstrations sometime during the exhibit’s three-month duration, according to Chock. The exhibit runs through June 29.
“I am thrilled that Chucky Boy has made it an objective to show these beautiful works of art,” Kauka said in a recent interview.
When Kauka attempted to view the Kaua‘i Museum kapa collection in the mid-1990s, her request was denied.
At that time, Kauka was learning the art of kapa, to wrap ancestral remains returned to Kaua‘i under the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
“I have seen Kaua‘i kapa in Bishop Museum and I have seen some beautiful Kaua‘i kapa at Grove Farm Homestead Museum,” she said. “But I am just so willing to bet that the collection at Kaua‘i Museum is excellent.”
Kauka won’t be disappointed when she visits Waimakua Gallery. The museum’s kapa doesn’t just range in size; a variety of patterns and dyes are on display as well.
But the fabrics’ most remarkable features aren’t necessarily apparent to casual observers.
Chock claims the kapa, made in the 1800s and given to missionaries by Hawaiian royalty, is as soft as silk. And those who look closely may see distinct patterns stamped across each piece.
Those textures are watermarks, and they’re unique to Hawaiian kapa, according to Kauka.
The kumu held up a wooden kapa beater covered in the grooves needed to create watermarks. It could be compared, in size and shape, to a large rolling pin.
“Once you put this in, that’s it,” she explained.
Like Chock, Kauka speaks of kapa in profound tones: “Broussonetia papyrifera, it’s a canoe plant … Wherever my ancestors stopped, there’s some of that plant growing,” she said.
More exhibits, festivals return
Kapa fell to the wayside after Western missionaries brought muslin and other ready-made textiles to the Hawaiian Islands, according to Chock.
“They loved using the muslin only because they didn’t have to prepare the kapa,” he explained. “You can get it on a roll rather than make it from the bark.”
These new materials sparked the tradition of Hawaiian quiltmaking, the subject of an upcoming Kaua‘i Museum exhibit.
“From Kapa to Quilt” will run in the Waimakua Gallery from July 5 through Sept. 28. It will be followed by “Pupu O Ni‘ihau: Jewels of the Pacific,” a showcase of Ni‘ihau shell leis, from Oct. 4 through Dec. 28.
The Kaua‘i Museum’s Living Treasure event and multiple cultural festivals, put on hiatus by the coronavirus pandemic, will also return sometime this summer or the next.
“The blueprint is there,” Chock said. “We just have to determine what dates we want to bring this all back.”
Scott Yunker, reporter, can be reached at 245-0437 or email@example.com.
Building is named “Waimakua, Maryanne Kusaka Exhibit Center” mahalo
Let’s keep our Lei Day alive this year with multiple lei workshops, competition and displays to show that we are proud to have a heritage and traditions that blend cultures with respect for the indigenous flora and fauna used by the aboriginal society that began in Hawai’i.