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New Honolulu exhibit shares critically endangered practice of hula kiʻi, Hawaiian puppetry

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Jayna Omaye
/
HPR
Kumu hula Auliʻi Mitchell has curated an exhibit at the Downtown Art Center featuring hula kiʻi, or Hawaiian puppetry.

Kumu hula Auliʻi Mitchell has worked for more than 30 years to bring back the critically endangered practice of hula kiʻi. The tradition, which was almost lost when the missionaries banned hula, involves using puppets and imagery to tell a story.

Mitchell was a young kumu in the 1980s when his mother, kumu Harriet Aana Cash, challenged him to research hula kiʻi for a performance. That led him to the Bishop Museum, where revered hula master, the late Patience Namaka Bacon showed him three puppets on display.

As the years passed, he did more research and started to meet more hula kiʻi practitioners, including kumu hula Mauli Ola Cook, Kaponoʻai Molitau and Maile Loo-Ching. There were only a few, but they decided to combine their efforts to bring the dance of their ancestors back.

“That's what moved me even more to know that I wasn't the only one ... but I had to honor those who came before me,” he said. “It was that force of them who kept me in their world. And we just started moving forward and bringing an awareness as a collective.”

auliimitchell2.JPG
Jayna Omaye
/
HPR
Kumu hula Auliʻi Mitchell

Mitchell, kumu hula of Hālau ʻo Kahiwahiwa and Hālau O Moana-nui-a-Kiwa, has curated an exhibit at the Downtown Art Center featuring nearly 30 puppets of all sizes.

To educate the community about hula kiʻi, Mitchell said he's chosen a few hālau to pass his traditions on to. He said the nine-month process starts with composing a mele.

There’s also an eight-step method to carving the puppets from wood. He said he typically uses balsa wood.

The puppets, which represent characters, are adorned with costumes and clothing made from hand-dyed kapa. Mitchell said he’s used all kinds of natural dyes, including crushed coral, ʻukiʻuki berry and turmeric. They also make their own ʻohe kāpala, or bamboo stamps, to print patterns on the material.

He said he is also working on a book about hula kiʻi. And he was named as a fellow by the First Nations Development Institute and The Henry Luce Foundation last year to continue preserving and perpetuating hula kiʻi.

Mitchell said he hopes their collective efforts help more people learn about hula kiʻi and appreciate the beloved practice.

“In the hālau hula, it just transforms the students when they learn of hula ki’i, because it's a special way of storytelling,” he said. “Its essence is to create that space for your Indigenous communities to come together and to share story.”

The free exhibit at the Downtown Art Center, located on the second floor of Chinatown Gateway Plaza, is on display through July 30. On Friday, July 29, Mitchell and others will hold a closing reception from 5 to 7 p.m. featuring hula performances.

For more information, click here.

Jayna Omaye is the culture and arts reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Contact her at jomaye@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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