Masterpiece Stories: Kūka’ilimoku
min Read9 December 2021
Kūka’ilimoku is a masterpiece of Hawaiian art. It is an artistic icon of Hawai’i, Polynesia, and Oceania. With so little Oceanic art displayed in the majority of art museums, it is important to highlight the masterpieces of Oceania through articles and publications. Oceania is a complex geographic region filled with a wide diversity of people, cultures, and artistic legacies. Kūka’ilimoku highlights just one moment on one island from the centuries and lands comprising Oceania. It tells an interesting story full of Hawaiian wars and warriors.
The Hawaiian Islands have a complex history as colorful as their landscapes. Hawai’i was first populated by humans around 1000 CE when Polynesians migrated from other islands. Hawai’i was a collection of chiefdoms until 1795 when the Kingdom of Hawai’i was founded. King Kamehameha I founded the kingdom and reigned from 1795 to 1819. During his reign, some of the most expressive Hawaiian arts were created which included the masterpiece of Kūka’ilimoku. This spectacular statue once dominated the heiau (open-air temple) near the modern community of Kawaihae, Hawaiʻi.
Kūka’ilimoku is a carved wooden statue standing 4 feet 3 inches (130 cm) and weighing 297 pounds (135 kg). It is a monumental statue of large size and mass. It represents the Hawaiian god of war, Kūka’ilimoku, as the “Snatcher of Land.” Kūka’ilimoku was one of the most prominent gods in the Hawaiian pantheon. He was highly revered in the late 18th and early 19th centuries due to frequent conflicts between chiefs and kings. He was therefore formally adopted by King Kamehameha I as his patron god. Chiefs and kings preparing for war would regularly invoke Kūka’ilimoku for their rights to rule, fight, and conquer. Offerings of human sacrifice would even be presented to bolster their most urgent prayers.
Kūka’ilimoku has a ferocious expression dominating his face. He has large, angled eyes with pinched corners and flared edges. His nostrils prominently flare. His mouth snarls into a figure-eight growl as he bares his sharp rows of teeth. Is the statue screaming a war chant or a battle cry? If not, his face is still certainly aggressive and defiant. The determination to overcome enemies marks the sculpture with sharp confident lines.
The statue’s head is almost one-third of its entire height. It dominates the statue’s composition as the primary focus. However, the body has equally admirable carvings too. The body is athletically built. It is warrior-like with thick stocky muscles. Both the arms and legs flex in a readiness to fight. Tension pulsates throughout the body. The hostility is palatable.
Oceania is sadly underrepresented in the majority of art museums. While non-Western departments of major museums may regularly cover Asian and African arts, the arts of Oceania seem to be sparsely displayed. Kūka’ilimoku is currently within the British Museum’s collection, but like many of its artistic contemporaries, it is not on display. Therefore, this grand statue representing the Hawaiian artistic legacy is unseen and unappreciated by the general public. When will the British Museum and other major museums expand their Oceanic displays? When will they display their hidden masterpieces of Australasia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia? One day Kūka’ilimoku will become a public Hawaiian cultural ambassador.
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