Conservator Glenn Wharton and John Kuo Wei Tchen, founding director of the Asian Pacific American Institute, at the March 8th lecture. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Renowned conservator Glenn Wharton recently released a new book, The Painted King: Art, Activism and Authenticity in Hawai’i, which he spoke about last week at New York University. Wharton’s book provides a captivating account of his years spent with the well-known statue of the 19th C. Hawai’ian King Kamehameha I and the surrounding community that became involved with its conservation. Although art conservation has historically focused its attention on the chemistry and original artistic intent of artworks, Wharton works to bring a social aspect into the practice.

The statue is in Kapa‘au, a small town on the big island of Hawai‘i, and it has a rich and problematic history behind it which Wharton’s book fully details. King Kamehameha I is credited for the uniting of the Hawai’ian islands together, and remains a legend in Hawai’i. The statue was originally gold leafed, and was heading for Honolulu, but while in transit to the islands from France, the statue sunk and was badly damaged. Upon a somewhat miraculous recovery, the statue was instead installed in Kapa’au, the kings birthplace, with a newer cast of the statue installed in Honolulu. The statue was painted brown over the remaining gold leaf to protect it from the salty air and bright sun.

The statue was designed in a style foreign to Hawai’i and many features of its design were problematic at best. Wharton quickly learned that it is against Hawai’i custom to make statues of people and that the sandals were roman not Hawai’ian, not to mention the pose was not customary for a king or that the model was from non-native Hawai’ians in an effort to look more “appealing” and so forth. The statue embodies an imperialistic past, a past which remains a sore topic for local Hawai’ians.

Wharton was hired to travel to Hawai’i and assess the condition of the statue and to add gold leaf to return it to the original look. Wharton’s plan involved research to learn everything about the statue, making sure it was originally gold leafed, and then return it to its intended state. However, unlike many public artworks, the Kapa‘au locals had strong emotional ties to the statue. The statue was central to community celebrations and many locals held a spiritual connection to the brass casting. After talking to more and more local residents, the idea of stripping the paint without consulting the entire community first seemed unfair to Wharton. This began over three years of conversations with the community, art projects, debates and ultimately a democratic vote to decide the fate of the statue’s exterior.

Wharton was not working with a sterile object like he normally does, a practice that was reinforced with his training, but instead a living community. Ida Otake, who is the mother of a high school student that became active with the project, said:

“The statue isn’t just a statue. When you talk about mana, [spiritual power] it has different meaning for different people. It’s a very personal thing and therefore it’s very hard to decide how it should look.” (pg. 115)

Everyone had differing opinions, but anyone could see that the statue needed restoration. This technical need allowed Wharton a starting place to engage in dialogue. The original paint had to be stripped, so a conversation had to start. Acting somewhere between an ethnographer, a conservator and an artist engaged in social practice, Wharton opened up the field of conservation to become both preservation of the old but also an engagement with those who care. By placing more value on the living community, Wharton was creating a more educated and engaged audience for the statue.

A view of the audience at the lecture.

Resisting an imperialistic project, Wharton walks the delicate line of having scientific knowledge with no cultural awareness gracefully and dealing with the statue’s spiritual, communal economic and chemical components carefully. For instance, when talking with the community,

“it did not take long for many to move beyond the sculpture’s materiality to these subsurface meanings and to the concept of mana.” (pg 77)

By the end of the project, the statue’s conservation became a rallying point for the entire community to talk about heritage and art, leaving the community with wider and deeper connection with the statue than when he arrived.

Traditional Hawai’ian food provided by Wharton. (click to enlarge)

Wharton spoke only briefly at NYU, instead turning the talk over for invited experts and the audience to discuss. The panel consisted of Mitchel Duneier, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, John Haworth, the director of the George Gustave Heye Center at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, Harriet Senie, a professor of art history at CUNY Graduate Center, and John Kuo Wei Tchen, the founding director of the Asian/Pacific/American Institute. The panel, although coming from all different backgrounds, all emphatically spoke about their appreciation of Wharton’s work on the big island. The speakers mirrored my own appreciation for Wharton’s seeming knack to many fields of study into one project, and to do so in such a inspiring and ultimately productive manner.

One speaker I especially enjoyed was Harriet Senie. Senie reminding the audience that the Lincoln Memorial was made to celebrate Lincoln uniting the union, but now has become a memorial for the end of slavery. A work’s meaning changes with context, and she celebrated Wharton for recognizing this in his conservation of the statue.

In the end Wharton writes that the entire experience:

“offered an opportunity for people who had never participated in public dialogue to express their opinions. Some suggested that this gave them experience and confidence to take civic action on issues such as unplanned development.” (pg 166)

I think this gets at the core of what much of public art aims to do — to remind us of history, to become a place for community to gather remember the past and inspire the onlookers of today.

The Painted King: Art, Activism, and Authenticity in Hawai’i is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.

Ben Valentine

Ben Valentine is an independent writer living in Cambodia. Ben has written and spoken on art and culture for SXSW, Salon, SFAQ, the Los Angeles Review of Books, YBCA, ACLU, de Young Museum, and the Museum...