Artist Aaron Kawaiaea honors his Native Hawaiian heritage through his paintings

artist aaron kawaiaea

Aaron Kawaiaea always knew he wanted to be an artist. Art was the only subject in school to which he paid attention; he would draw whenever possible. “I was kind of kolohe (a troublemaker),” he says. Kawaiaea admits he was better at creating than studying; in fact, he dropped out of high school and starting working instead. He made ukulele for eight years and then got into home remodeling (he still works occasionally as an independent contractor). But he could never give up drawing and painting.

Success came early. When he was a teen, Kawaiaea was commissioned by the Hawaiian Hall of Music to draw a portrait of Keaulumoku, one of Hawaii’s most renowned chanters and a kaula (prophet). But few physical descriptions of him existed. “I sat with kupuna (elders) and they told me stories of him, I heard chants of him, I went to the Bishop Museum archives,” says Kawaiaea of his yearlong process to complete the project.

Kawaiaea’s portrait of Edith Kanakaole.

Much of Kawaiaea’s work continues to be galvanized by his ancestry and his culturally rooted family. Today, the 38-year-old’s work has been showcased in two well-received art exhibitions. He also illustrated Kohala Kuamoo: Naeole’s Race to Save a King, a children’s book about how the infant Kamehameha I was saved, written by his teenage son, Kekauleleanaeole, when he was 10.

His portrait of Keaulumoku was the brainchild for Kawaiaea’s first series, “Po,” meaning “night,” or “darkness,” in Hawaiian. The exhibit showcases influential Native Hawaiians whose impacts in the Islands are lasting. To determine who to recognize, Kawaiaea again sought input from kūpuna, then he settled on seven respected individuals.

This time he decided to paint, rather than draw, each portrait. Kawaiaea taught himself to mix the oils and build the canvases. “Po” honors Hawaiians such as Hawaiian-language scholar Mary Kawena Pukui; kumu hula (hula teacher) Iolani Luahine; ukulele virtuoso Kahauanu Lake; Native Hawaiian artist, author and historian Herb Kawainui Kane; and Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, whose estate founded the Kamehameha Schools in 1887. The results are photo-realistic. Each portrait is a close crop of its somber subject; Kawaiaea worked in shades of black and gray—on black canvas—to accentuate each face.

The portraits took two years to complete and were exhibited in 2012. Instead of selling them, Kawaiaea decided to donate the portraits to institutions important to each subject; so far he’s gifted three of the seven pieces. “It was my dad’s idea to donate them,” he says. “If I’m going to honor them in the most honest sense, I have to go all the way.”

This past October, he donated the portrait of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop to the Kamehameha Schools Hawaii campus, located in Keaau on Hawaii Island. “We were all amazed at the beauty and grace of Pauahi he was able to capture,” says Dr. Holoua Stender, the Kamehameha Schools executive vice president of education, who organized a visit to the campus for Kawaiaea and his family. “There were over 100 people who attended the ceremony, including 50 to 60 elementary and high school students,” Stender says. “The students sang songs and the family presented their manao (thoughts).”

For his next series, exhibited in 2013, Kawaiaea wanted to paint a more lighthearted subject, and incorporate a rainbow of color. He chose kalo for his theme. “It’s a Hawaiian symbol of the people and our culture,” he says, from his home in Aiea Heights in south central Oahu, where he now paints.

Kawaiaea’s love of “Star Wars” can be seen in his piece “Kalo D-2.”

When looking at the 12 pieces, it’s almost as if they were done by another artist; the bright series has a more urban, contemporary aesthetic to it. Each painting is an image pun incorporating kalo as its subject. Kawaiaea says he saw the series as the opportune time to interweave his pop-culture interests and social proclivities. There are movie riffs, such as “Sleepy Kalo” from novella-turned-movie and TV series, “Sleepy Hollow,” and Kawaiaea’s favorite piece, “Kalo D-2,” a pun on “Stars Wars’” lovable droid R2-D2. “I’m a ‘Star Wars’ geek,” he says with a laugh. “Kalo” also features more thoughtful pieces, such as the “Kalo Flag,” featuring the Hawaii state flag draped around the root and Kawai‘ae‘a’s family plant—a visual depiction of his family tree. “Our tree is the kalo plant,” he says. “I got photos of my ancestors as far back as I could.”

Kawaiaea doesn’t know what he’ll paint next, but it’s sure to be just as distinctive. He says he keeps an idea book of subjects, people and things to paint, and it’s filling up fast. “I’m constantly challenging myself,” he says. “I still want to master painting.” 

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