Hawaiian Art

Hawaiian Art – Diverse and Complex

The beauty of the Hawaiian Islands has inspired countless artists in the creation of some of the world’s most treasured collectables. Art lovers visiting the islands may find the art scene here to be nothing short of heaven and like nowhere else in the world. As a Pacific melting pot, a broad range of cultural artisans work with many media to create unique works of art.

The art of Hawaii is diverse and complex, with a broad range of styles sure to please connoisseurs of all ages. From beautiful and intricate koa wood carvings to surf photography, fine art, coconut weaving, lei making, printmaking, heirloom jewelry and painting, Hawaiian art will delight the eyes and inspire the minds and hearts of viewers.

Na Hana Noeau – Functional Beauty

Much of the artwork created in the islands today has roots in the ancient cultural practices of Hawaii. The ancient Hawaiian artisans were skillful craftsmen with extremely high standards of work and a unique perspective on artistic nature. They believed that each undertaking was a test of self and dedication to Hawaiian culture and religion. Through careful study and focused attention, a craftsman could harness the mana (power or spirit) of the gods and in turn, thereby appeasing the entities and creating pono (righteousness).

Na hana noeau refers to “wise and skillful works” and represents works of ancient Hawaiian art that were functional as well as beautiful. The Hawaiians applied aesthetic principles in their creation of useful crafts, for every creation was to be originated with a reflection of the mana they might possess. Na hana noeau of ancient Hawaii includes kapa, a versatile material pounded and stamped, lauhala, the weaving of hala leaves for functional purposes, koa wood, carved to suit a variety of purposes, and hulu manu, or intricate featherwork, used for adornment and distinguishment.

Kapa is a fine material created by beating the wood of the wauke (paper mulberry) plant. The trunk of a carefully chosen wauke was stripped to remove bark by the layer. The inner bark layers were soaked in seawater, fermented and then beaten with rocks and dried in the sun. When enough of the bark was collected, the pieces were again soaked and pounded. The bark was then left alone to ferment and soften under banana leaves. The softened bark was then kneaded, beaten with a mallet, soaked yet again and taken through the process once or twice more. The unmistakable “tap, tap, tap” of the kapa pounder could be heard from miles away.

The strips of cloth were then sewn together to create the area needed. If the material was to become a blanket, lava lava or muumuu cloth, bamboo or ohia wood stamps dipped in natural dye were then used to create intricate geometric patterns repeated over the material. Or, the material might have been twisted into cordage to use as fishing nets or carrying nets. Blankets, lava lavas, canoe sails and muumuus were just some of the uses for kapa. Although the practice of kapa making has virtually vanished, a few dedicated artists carry on the tradition today. Renowned kapa artist Puanani Van Dorpe continues to practice this amazing craft day in and day out, dutifully beating kapa to replicate designs of old for eight or more hours a day.

Lauhala (hala leaves) are still used today for creation of many products from bowls to hats to floor mats. The leaves of the hala (pandanus) tree are dried, stripped of their sharp thorns and soaked to create a texture that is intricately woven into a variety of functional shapes. Lauhala could be tightly woven to create a stiff surface, or loosely woven for a more flexible shape.

Hulu manu, or featherwork, was used to create beautiful and colorful adornments designed specifically for high-ranking Hawaiian chiefs (alii). Professional bird catchers, called kia manu, carefully studied the habits of the native winged species, including the iiwi, oo, mamo, apapane, nae and ahuula and tracked down the birds with the colored feathers necessary to complete a certain project. Feather capes called ahuula, feather standards called kahili, gourd rattles called uli uli and anklets and bracelets called kupee were a few of the featherwork products. Longer capes requiring more artistry were reserved for the highest ranking chiefs, as were the most brightly colored and rarer bird feathers.

Koa, the King of the Hawaiian forest trees, was used in ancient times to create a wide variety of products from giant seafaring canoes, the oo (digging stick), tikis and other godlike images and calabashes. Carvings were made using a koi or adze, and the koa craftsmen studied for years to learn the intricate and focused practice. Koa is still used today, although the wood is in shorter supply.

Hawaiian Quilts

Hawaiian QuiltsHawaiian quilting, although not practiced in ancient Hawaii, has its roots in the early art of kapa making. Influenced by the sewing practices of Hawaii’s missionaries, native quilting took on a life of its own, incorporating patterns and designs inspired by the beauty of the land and the mana of ancestors. Kapa apana refers to the Hawaiian method of quilting in which three layers are stitched together, consisting of a decorated top layer, a middle layer of fibers and an undecorated back layer. You can find a wide variety of natural designs incorporated into Hawaiian quilts, from leaf patterns to flowers and other symbolic representations.

Images may also represent special locations, royal lineage, historical events, abstract thoughts and familial ties. Each stitch held much meaning and intention. A quilt crafted with the ulu, or breadfruit design, symbolizes nourishment and is said to bless the quilt maker with prosperity. Hawaiian quilts are believed by many to pass on the spirit of the quilt maker along with blessings and aloha. In earlier tradition, a Hawaiian quilt might be buried with the original artist to symbolize the wholeness of the spirit. Although many of the earliest Hawaiian quilt patterns have been lost, the quilt makers of today are infusing traditional patterns with modern designs to keep this cultural practice alive.

Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and Art (HSFCA)

Instituted by the Hawaii State Legislature in 1965, the HSFCA is dedicated to preserving, promoting and perpetuating cultural arts in the Hawaiian Islands. Federal grants from the National Endowment for the Arts help the HSFCA work towards their mission of increasing art awareness. Educational milestones have been reached, including the Art in State Buildings Law that established the Art in Public Places Program, the adoption of the first percent-for-art law. Another one was the 1970 Artists in the Schools Program, the first direct instructional statewide program between students and professional artists in schools.

One need not visit a museum or art gallery to find priceless native Hawaiian art. When exploring the Hawaiian Islands, it is nearly impossible to miss the ubiquitous artistic expressions that adorn historical landmarks, state buildings, libraries, shopping centers, airports, parks and beachfronts. From giant bronze statues to shell or feather lei, artwork of Hawaii is deeply spiritual and infused with symbolism.

Art Museums in Hawaii


Bishop Museum
(808) 947-2458 2005 Kalia Rd
Honolulu, HI

Bishop Museum-Main Campus
(808) 848-4158 1525 Bernice St
Honolulu, HI

Hawaii Army Museum
(808) 955-9552 Saratoga Rd & Kalia Rd
Honolulu, HI

Lassen Museum
(808) 923-3435 2250 Kalakaua Ave
Honolulu, HI

Military Aviation Museum
(808) 836-7747 95 Nakolo Pl # 25
Honolulu, HI

Mission Houses Museum
(808) 531-0481 553 S King St
Honolulu, HI

USS Bowfin Submarine Museum
(808) 423-1341 11 Arizona Memorial Dr
Honolulu, HI


Grove Farm Homestead Museum
(808) 245-3202 4050 Nawiliwili Rd
Lihue, HI

Kauai Museum
(808) 245-6931 4428 Rice St
Lihue, HI

Waioli Mission House Museum
(808) 245-3202 4050 Nawiliwili Rd
Lihue, HI


Bailey House Museum
(808) 244-3326 2375 Main St # A
Wailuku, HI

Lahaina Museum Shop
(808) 661-1959 648 Wharf St # 202
Lahaina, HI

Paper Airplane Museum
(808) 877-8916 70 E Kaahumanu Ave # B7b
Kahului, HI

Whalers Village Museum
(808) 661-5992 2435 Kaanapali Pkwy # G8
Lahaina, HI

Wo Hing Temple Museum
(808) 661-5553 858 Front St
Lahaina, HI

Big Island of Hawaii

Lyman House Memorial Museum
(808) 935-5021 276 Haili St
Hilo, HI

Pacific Tsunami Museum Inc
(808) 935-0926 130 Kamehameha Ave
Hilo, HI

East Hawaii Cultural Center
(808) 961-5711 141 Kalakaua
Hilo, HI 96720

Hulihee Palace Museum
(808) 329-1877 75-5718 Alii Drive
Kailua-Kona, HI 96740