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The Art of Hawaiian Featherwork

If it weren’t for her unyielding love for Hawaiian featherwork, Aunty Mary Louise Kaleonahenahe Kekuewa would’ve retired years ago. Her deep passion for the art, combined with her driven and altruistic spirit, kept her going until her passing in November of 2008. Her portrait hangs in the charming, family-owned retail store located on Kapahulu Avenue, Na Lima Mili Hulu No‘eau (Skilled Hands Touch the Feathers), and with all certainty, you feel her spirit in all the magnificent artistry encompassing the space. Her daughter, Paulette Kekuewa Kahalepuna, and granddaughter, Mele Kahalepuna Wong, run the family business now, carrying their mother’s dreams further into the future.

Aunty Mary Lou learned the art of featherwork in the 1950s from Leilani Fernandez during Aloha Week. “My tutu [grandmother] actually ran for Aloha Week Queen but didn’t qualify, so she became a part of the court and volunteered to work with wardrobe,” Mele recalls.

Repairing the feather lei for Aloha Week, Aunty Mary Lou learned the intricate craft. Over time it became her passion. “When my mom was in high school at Kamehameha Schools, she needed extra credit for a Hawaiian studies class, so she asked tutu Mary Lou to help her make a feather lei,” says Mele. “That is how my mom learned. My tutu gave me my first lesson when I was 5 years old, and my daughter, Leleae, was also lucky enough to get one from her as well.”

Four generations later, the Kekuewa family’s mission remains to teach as many people as possible and to continue to perpetuate the Hawaiian culture. Inherited from Polynesian ancestors, Hawaiian featherwork was considered one of the highest developments of art achieved in ancient Hawai‘i due to the sophisticated degree of patience and skill required to make an elegant ‘ahu‘ula (cloak), kahili (royal standard) or mahiole (helmet.) “Feathers in general were not easy to obtain, especially yellow ones, so they were generally reserved for the ali‘i, the upper class,” says Mele. “Today, as far as color significance goes, it is to each person’s interpretation.” With each feather valued at 20 cents apiece, a cloak for a king, like the famous yellow one made for King Kamehameha, could easily be valued at $100,000 with over 400,000 feathers used in the process.

The shop is symbolic of traditional Hawaiian artistry. Two gorgeous feather capes, one crafted by Aunty Mary Lou herself, rest framed on a table, exuding history, heart and mana (power). Mana, in Hawaiian, is the source of one’s brilliance and stature, the source of all spiritual essence. Ancient Hawaiians believed in the power of featherwork as a vehicle of mana, transporting all an artist’s vivacity and emotion into their art. The pieces are nothing short of awe-inspiring. The devotion and meticulousness put into them (13 years to be exact) is almost invisible to those unaware of the traditional hand-stitched, bundled feather technique, which requires five to seven feathers to make one bundle – the modern day equivalent to one feather. The capes are identical to those traditionally worn by Hawaiian ali‘i and are priceless artifacts to the Kekuewa legacy.

By sticking true to quality, handmade works of art and not succumbing to trends or cheap gimmicks, they can be sure their mother’s reputation isn’t tainted. “Glue is a bad four letter word,” says Paulette. “The process takes a lot of patience, and a lot of time, but the end result is priceless. What you walk away with is a little bit of history.”

To learn more about the art of featherworking, visit Aunty Mary Lou’s Na Lima Mili Hulu No‘eau, located at 762 Kapahulu Avenue, or call 808-732-0865.

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for directions from Waikiki Shore to Aunty Mary Lou's Na Lima Mili Hulu No'eau.
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