The Aesthetics of Annexation

Images courtesy of Hawaiian Historical Society and Bishop Museum

Unearthing the Kilohana Art League, the most influential art society in Hawai‘i’s history that you have never heard of.

More than 100 years before the 2018 Kīlauea eruption in lower Puna began drawing spectators with high-definition cameras, the same volcano attracted a second-generation missionary descendant from Hilo named David Howard Hitchcock to record its flows in sketches and watercolors. In 1885, the traveling French painter Jules Tavernier saw Hitchcock’s work and encouraged him to go abroad to master his skills. Hitchcock left for three years to study in New York and then Paris, where he managed to get an impressionistic painting of a French country road into the famed Académie des Beaux-Arts’ annual salon exhibition.

His European training complete, Hitchcock sailed triumphantly into Honolulu Harbor in November 1893—less than one year after the Hawaiian monarchy was toppled.

Within a month, the haole-owned Hawaiian Gazette reported, “Our artist, D. Howard Hitchcock, has just returned from a two week’s sketching tour at the volcano and through the Puna district.”

These sketches served as Hitchcock’s first studies for a Modernist line of works that culminated with a piece depicting a rare daylight view of the volcano. This painting, as described by art historian David Forbes, “showed the usual fiery lava lake but also had effects of strong, raking sunlight and clouds of blue vapor and gas rising from the pit.”

When they do show something like a hale, a Hawaiian home, it’s usually dilapidated. It’s very much about, ‘This is passing, this is gone. It’s going away, and we’re replacing it with all of our prosperity.’

Today, Hitchcock and Tavernier are remembered as pillars of the Volcano School, the islands’ first major group of internationally recognized artists. For many years, the group’s molten landscapes set aglow a dedicated room at the Honolulu Museum of Art. But in 2017, the museum’s new Arts of Hawaiʻi curator Healoha Johnston broke up the paintings in her effort “to introduce new narratives about Hawai‘i’s social history through the lens of art,” as she wrote in her curator’s notes. Johnston’s intervention upended the idea that white Euro-American artists aptly represented the “Arts of Hawaiʻi,” a deep-rooted notion first propounded by Hitchcock’s lesser-known artistic association, the Kilohana Art League.

Hitchcock launched this art society in May 1894 with a small exhibition on Hotel Street, with the purported aim of establishing a modern art culture in the islands. The group’s four founders—Hitchcock, woodcarver Augusta Graham, English sculptor Allen Hutchinson, and painter Annie H. Parke—chose the name “Kilohana,” meaning the topmost layer of a Hawaiian quilt or a high vantage point, to denote their excellence. By 1896, its membership had reached at least 125 members.

The league participated in American expos, held literary contests, and hosted international artists, logging many of these achievements in a scrapbook now shelved at the Hawaiian Historical Society, where Kauaʻi-born art historian Stacy Kamehiro found it.

“There are all these clippings of the exhibitions and what they were doing, and it sounded like more of a social club,” Kamehiro says. “Then when you looked and saw who was involved, it became clear that this social club was very much linked to the political clubs of the time.”

According to her, if you look at the affiliations of those who joined the League, they were all linked to the cause of the annexing of Hawai‘i to the United States.

Kamehiro, who teaches at University of California, Santa Cruz, is currently exploring what she calls the “aesthetics of annexation.”

Through what was essentially propaganda, Kamehiro argues, the league was “able to create a cluster of images of belonging to a place, of thinking they belong to a place, and claiming it.”

She cites portraits of haole elites, paintings of their homesteads and lush plantations, and images of a decaying traditional life—all of which were geared toward proving the viability of American culture in the islands.

“When they do show something like a hale, a Hawaiian home, it’s usually dilapidated,” Kamehiro explains. “It’s very much about, ‘This is passing, this is gone. It’s going away, and we’re replacing it with all of our prosperity.’”

Hitchcock also leaves Kamehiro suspicious.

“Hitchcock does 20 to 30 paintings of empty canoes—canoes on beaches with no people, no Hawaiians attached to them,” she says. “There is a literal and also sort of symbolic removal of kānaka maoli from the landscape, whereas Robert Barnfield and Joseph Strong, who were friends of [King] Kalākaua, were showing brown bodies, kānaka maoli bodies, who were engaged with canoeing, fishing, doing stuff. Strong also showed pictures of the Japanese immigrants, which were completely absent from the Kilohana Art League. They didn’t want to show the Asians at all.”

This art of removal extended to the league’s 1899 literary collection, Six Prize Stories, which featured five stories by named white authors and a sixth assigned only to “A Native.”

The Outdoor Circle

By the early 1900s, the vast league was subdivided into circles, including painting, music, drama, reading, and later, the outdoors—the last of which is now known as The Outdoor Circle, an environmental nonprofit. The circles held gatherings around the city until the wealthy businessman and politician Charles Montague Cooke granted them the use of a large building on Beretania Street.

When the sprawling league fractured apart in 1913, many of its pieces ended up in Cooke’s collection. In 1927, his wife, Anna Rice Cooke, transformed her Beretania home into the Honolulu Academy of Arts, which became the Honolulu Museum of Art in 2012.

In May, as Kīlauea continued to erupt through fissures in lower Puna, making national headlines, Kamehiro, who has family on Kaua‘i and O‘ahu, was among the many people to receive messages from distant friends asking if they remained safe from the flow of the eruption. Somehow, in 2018, the media failed the islands’ geography and led mainlanders to believe lava may be inching toward any and every home in the state. This is nothing new.

Through 240 years of alleged representation in ink, paint, film, and pixels, Westerners have allowed Hawai‘i Island’s smoking peaks to blind them from the whole picture.

It is the same cultural smokescreen that first billowed in with the Volcano School and floated up to new, commanding vantages, the supposed “kilohana,” in the hands of artists whose early visions of fire and brimstone became the forge and cornerstone of an ingenious, igneous ignorance.

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