The Painted King: Art, Activism & Authenticity in Hawai’i
By Glenn Wharton
University of Hawai’i Press. 2012
I just published a book on the community-based conservation of the Kamehameha I sculpture in Hawai’i. The sculpture has an amazing history. It depicts Hawai’i’s first king in the stance of a Roman emperor (long story about Hawaiian nationalism in the late nineteenth century). Unfortunately it sunk in a shipwreck in 1880 on the way from Germany to Honolulu. It was recovered from the sea and “restored” with a coat of brown paint over its gold leaf surface in 1883.
Today local residents paint the figure in bright, life-like colors and honor it with gifts and a parade on Kamehameha Day. The state asked me to strip the paint off and gild it, following the artist’s original intent. Instead, I worked with local residents to create a multi-year community-based project to decide whether to honor its material authenticity (gold) vs. the authenticity of more recent cultural conventions (paint). We worked with kids and elders in a community-based project to learn more about its history, and let the community decide.
After many public meetings and activities the entire community voted 71% to continue painting it after addressing corrosion and structural issues – which I did with local residents. I also performed ethnographic research to map relationships between today’s multi-cultural community, the Kamehameha figure, and the Native Hawaiian past. My position as conservator gave me a certain entrée to perform this anthropological research.