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Nāwahī’s Work Continues To Inspire

Melehina Groves


In 1984, when Bruce and Jackie Mahi Erickson first happened upon a lovely painting of Hilo Bay hanging inconspicuously in a Mountain View antique shop, they had no idea what they were looking at. The artist’s name was largely indiscernible, only an “ahi” was legible. Although the painting had caught their eye, they were not really collectors at all, said Jackie, and had only visited the antique shop on a whim that day to see if the owner had set aside any old photographs, because Bruce was always interested in what occasionally turned up.

They left the antique shop, continuing on to a museum in Hilo. There they recognized another piece, by the same artist, listed in a museum catalog and signed “J. Nawahi.” Needless to say, they quickly called the antique shop and ended up purchasing the painting later that day. Their discovery has been called everything from serendipitous to divinely inspired, and for $395, the Ericksons took home with them an unknown and virtually lost oil painting by Joseph Kahoʻoluhi Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu, a nineteenth century Native Hawaiian educator, lawyer, legislator, and publisher, known for his undying and fierce loyalty to Lili‘uokalani, her people, and the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. What is less known about this remarkable man is that he was also the first and only known nineteenth century Native Hawaiian to paint in this Western style.

“I wondered, ‘Why us?’” Jackie mused. “When we realized what a treasure the painting was, we knew we were simply caretakers, and one day it would go back to the Hawaiian people.” Maybe that was exactly why the painting found its way to the Ericksons -- a treasure of its worth could easily have become part of a private collection far from home, largely inaccessible to the very people to whom Nāwahī and his wife Emma had devoted their lives.  

The Ericksons were familiar with Nāwahī’s important role in nineteenth century Hawaiian history before ever learning of the value of his painting, but it was on the popular PBS television program “Antiques Roadshow” that its commercial value was publicly assessed. The appraiser estimated the painting was worth between $100,000 - $150,000, not only because it captured a unique period in Hawaiian history, but because Nāwahī had created it. Jackie was overcome with emotion at the news and knew right away that it was time for it to be returned to the people. Shortly after the program, the Ericksons decided to donate the painting to the Kamehameha Schools through Ke Aliʻi Pauahi Foundation (KAPF), a support organization for the Schools which administers post-high scholarships and funds educational programs for Hawaiian students.

In a hoʻomaikaʻi -- blessing ceremony -- held at the Kamehameha Schools Kapālama Bishop Memorial Chapel, the painting was officially gifted to the Schools, eventually finding its home in Kaʻiwakīloumoku Hawaiian Cultural Center.

Shortly before the painting was donated, KAPF requested a professional authentication and appraisal of the painting’s fair market value and contacted a local appraiser of nineteenth century Hawaiian art who determined the painting’s current value at $450,000, basing his evaluation on a number of factors, including the fact that another of Nāwahī’s paintings had recently sold for ca. $400,000. That combined with the rarity of Nāwahī’s work -- there are only four others known to exist -- gives the painting huge commercial value.

In fact, his paintings are so rare that, at one point, Bruce had tried to describe his find to another local expert, but the expert claimed it “couldn’t possibly be a Nāwahī.” It was “too large, and they’re all accounted for,” he was told.

“Then it came out that it was a lost, undiscovered, unknown Nāwahī... and it was ours!” Bruce laughed. Jackie shared that it was Bruce who first suggested the painting be donated somewhere that people could not only view it easily, but also encourage more research into the historic roles of Joseph and Emma Nāwahī in the process.

One surprising fact many will learn is that Nāwahī was a self-taught artist -- many people who are aware of his vast contributions to the lāhui Hawaiʻi seem unaware that he was also interested in painting. He simply taught himself to paint, although he may have been encouraged and influenced by Enoch Wood Perry, a well-known American painter working in Hawaiʻi at the time. Although “Antiques Roadshow” appraiser Alan Fausel stated that, in examining the painting, one could tell Nāwahī was “a good artist, but not a great artist, due to the somewhat awkward and stiff portrayal of the figures,” he added that “the painting is Hawaiian gold in the art market and a national treasure.”

In my own, lay-person’s observation of the painting, there is such warmth and serenity to the scene, I would argue he truly was a great artist. Perhaps it is his love for land and people, an overwhelming feeling for the poʻe aloha ʻāina, that is communicated through the piece and speaks to the naʻau, setting this painting apart from other, Western interpretations of our places and people.

Born on January 13, 1842, in Puna, Hawaiʻi, Joseph Kahoʻoluhi Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu was a staunch supporter of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi and her people throughout his entire life. He finished his schooling at Honolulu’s Royal School in 1861 and entered the field of education, after which he served in the legislature for 20 years. In January, 1893, when the Provisional Government announced the kingdom was overthrown and power now rested with the usurpers, Nāwahī, along with other loyalists, immediately organized in protest. They formed the Hui Hawaiʻi Aloha ʻĀina, of which Nāwahī was president, and the Hui Hawaiʻi Aloha ʻĀina o Nā Wāhine, of which his wife, Emma ʻAʻima Nāwahī, was a key member. In her book Aloha Betrayed, Noenoe K. Silva shared Nāwahī’s interpretation of aloha ʻāina to mean “more than an abstract or emotional love for the ‘one hānau’ (birth sands). For Nāwahī and other poʻe aloha ʻāina, it meant that people must strive continuously to control their own government in order to provide life to the people and to care for their land properly.”

In 1895, the Nāwahīs started a newspaper, appropriately named Ke Aloha Aina. They publicly expressed support for the Hawaiian monarchy and opposition to the annexation of Hawaiʻi by the United States, a viewpoint which landed Nāwahī in prison for a brief time, where it is believed he contracted tuberculosis. After hearing of his passing in 1896, Liliʻuokalani wrote of her most beloved and trusted advisor, “...I shared the common sorrow, for this was a great blow to the people. He had always been a man who fearlessly advocated the independence of Hawaiʻi nei.” Nāwahī was given a funeral in Honolulu befitting a head of state, and later, in Hilo, his body was taken into Hilo Harbor by a procession of traditional waʻa. Today, he is buried in Homelani Cemetary in Hilo, his grave marked by a tall monument with his ceramic portrait embedded in the side. Surrounding him are the grave markers of family members.

The discovery and sharing of this painting will now encourage an entirely new community to learn more about Nāwahī’s contributions and how greatly he was loved by his people. He was known for his patience, humility, work ethic, loyalty, and good nature -- and now also for his artistic ability. In his assessment of the painting, appraiser Don Severson of Hawaiian Antiquities alluded to Nāwahī’s loyalty to his land and people, and to the important place this landed him in Hawaiian history, as key to the painting’s worth. Although other factors may contribute more to the painting’s commercial value, perhaps it is this feeling of aloha ʻāina that truly gives value to Nāwahī’s work, especially in our eyes. As Bruce has pointed out, “the painting has become a touchstone to this amazing man, our only tangible connection to a true Hawaiian hero.”