Bishop Museum is honored to announce the recent acquisition of a carved wooden ki‘i (image) representative of the Hawaiian god Kū. The ki‘i was purchased by Salesforce Chairman and CEO Marc Benioff and his wife Lynne from the collection of Pierre and Claude Vérité through a public auction held at Christie’s Paris in November 2017.
“We felt strongly that this ki‘i belonged in Hawai‘i, for the education and benefit of its people,” said Marc Benioff. “As a part of Bishop Museum’s permanent collections, the ki‘i will be cared for in perpetuity and will be shared with future generations of the people of Hawai‘i.”
The carving was part of the collection of Claude Vérité, a Paris-based art dealer, who received it from his father, the art connoisseur and collector Pierre Vérité. According to the family’s history, Pierre obtained the image in the 1940s. There is no further historical record of the carving, or how it may have made its way to Paris and into the hands of the Vérité family.
Standing 20 inches tall, the ki‘i is a human figure in a warrior pose, knees bent and calves flexed, hands clenched at the back of the thighs. The open mouth has clearly delineated teeth while the jaw thrusts forward. A headdress, typical of Kū images, is draped over the head and hangs around the shoulders. The ki‘i exhibits all of the features of the classic “Kona style” of images, generally attributed to carvers who worked in the Kona area of Hawai‘i Island during the reign of Kamehameha I, up until the overthrow of the ‘Ai kapu, a system of religious, political, and social laws that governed Hawai‘i until 1819. The carving exhibits considerable technical finesse, such as the fine faceting of the surface made by repeated cuts with a small adz. The carving bears a close resemblance to another wooden ki‘i in the collection of the British Museum in London, obtained by British missionaries visiting Kona in 1822. There are also differences between the two images, including the presence of what appear to be bracelets around the wrists of the ki‘i. The hands of the ki‘i in the British Museum are missing.
Prior to the auction, Christie’s arranged for the wood to be identified and for a small sample taken from the base to be radiocarbon dated. The wood is of the genus Metrosideros, or ‘ōhi‘a, found throughout the islands of Hawai‘i and Oceania. Kū images were often carved of ‘ōhi‘a wood. The radiocarbon data obtained by Christie’s has four possible calendar age ranges, because radiocarbon dating in this time period is imprecise due to “wiggles” in the curve used to convert radiocarbon ages to calendar dates. The two most likely age ranges for the ki‘i are AD 1798-1891 and AD 1717-1780. The Bishop Museum plans to carry out additional tests in an effort to more precisely date the ki‘i.
“This ki‘i is a remarkable piece and a tremendous addition to the Museum’s collections,” said Melanie Ide, Bishop Museum’s president and CEO. “We’re incredibly grateful to the Benioffs for their extraordinary generosity and look forward to sharing the ki‘i and its many stories with the world.”
The image will be a centerpiece in a new exhibition at Bishop Museum opening in February 2019, following the close of the Hawaiian season of peace known as Makahiki. Museum researchers will continue to study the carving while planning for the exhibition, which will explore the multiplicity of stories surrounding the ki‘i. In addition, the Museum plans to hold a carving workshop and symposium prior to the exhibition, during which contemporary artists, scholars and the community will engage with the ki‘i and other images in the Museum’s collections to increase awareness, scholarship and understanding of Native Hawaiian history, culture and practices.
Hawaiian Cultural Practitioner and Bishop Museum Board Member Danny Akaka Jr. said, “Over the years, many of Hawai‘i’s cultural treasures have resided outside of Hawai‘i. Some have returned home, others not yet. Today we can celebrate the arrival of this ki‘i to Hawai‘i and to the Bishop Museum where it will serve as a symbol of great cultural pride as well as a reflection of Hawai‘i’s spiritual past.”
About Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum:
Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum’s mission is to inspire our community and visitors through the exploration and celebration of the extraordinary history, culture, and environment of Hawai‘i and the Pacific. The Museum was founded in 1889 by Charles Reed Bishop in memory of his wife Bernice Pauahi Bishop, a royal descendant of King Kamehameha I. Today, the Museum is widely regarded as the world’s premier institution for Hawaiian and Pacific materials and an important community educational resource. Its vast collections of more than 25 million objects represent nine disciplines and include more than 22 million biological specimens, 2 million archaeological artifacts and samples, 77,000 cultural objects, 115,000 historical publications, and one million photographs, films, works of art, audio recordings, and manuscripts. These collections tell the stories of the cultures and biodiversity of Hawai‘i and the Pacific as well as the proud legacy of scholarly research spanning more than 125 years. Bishop Museum serves more than 200,000 visitors each year, including more than 20,000 schoolchildren. To learn more about the Museum’s research, collections, exhibits, and programs, visit www.BishopMuseum.org, follow @BishopMuseum on Twitter and Instagram, become a fan of Bishop Museum on Facebook, visit Bishop Museum’s YouTube channel, or call (808) 847-3511. Bishop Museum is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.