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BENTO, Gussie R

To think of Hawai’i is to imagine vistas of white beaches and blue skies; an island style that suggests a slowing of time. The verdant islands that form Hawai’i are however, home to large populations of people with their own experience of island life much beyond the resort image. For senior quilter Gussie Bento, the continuance of her culture, and connection to ideas of sovereignty, has equipped her for the painstaking task of appliquéing thousands of stitches into a magnificent contemporary cloth: the sky blue Na Kalaunu Me Na Káhili (The crown with the káhili).

Decades of practice and lessons from her kumu (teachers) have enabled Bento to draw historical threads to a legacy of kapa (bark cloth) designs. The patterned printing and drawing on kapa had already been an important form of female expression in Hawai’i for over 1000 years. When American missionaries introduced appliqué and needlework techniques in the nineteenth century, Hawai’ian women adapted customary textile designs to create Kapa kuiki, a quilt artistry using calico. Kapa kuiki replaced bark cloth for bedding, garments, beautifying the home and in customary exchanges such as gifts of honour.(1)

In his explorations of the responses that the introduction of new techniques, patterns and materials evoked in Pacific Islanders, author and academic Graeme Were argues that ‘local people cast into tangible form emerging ideas about the changing world they live in’.(2) The spectacular quilting traditions and interpretations of new and customary patterns, that emerged in Hawai’i during the nineteenth century form part of the local women’s response to the monumental changes that took place throughout the region with industrialisation and the introduction of European values, religion and political systems.

Bento’s quilt Na Kalaunu Me Na Káhili (The crown with the káhili) references a popular nineteenth century design originally stitched in red and white, and represents a merging of European and Hawai’ian symbols of power and leadership. Four káhili (feather standards) radiate from the centre of the quilt, a unique symbol of Hawai’ian authority used to denote the presence of ali (chiefs). European crown motifs are also used to represent the memory of King Kamehameha IV who reigned from 1855 to 1863 and Queen Lili’uokalani who reigned until the monarchy was overthrown in 1893. Bento has a personal connection to this history, having attended and taught at the Kamehameha School for Girls, established by Queen Lili’uokalani. Like many other contemporary Hawai’ian quilters Bento asserts a continuing connection to these figures. ‘When you borrow a pattern you can make changes’, she says, ‘You put your heart in and the quilt becomes yours’.(3)

Na Kalaunu Me Na Káhili joins the Gallery’s expanding collection of ceremonial quilts from eastern Polynesia, which includes tivaeve from the Cook Islands, tifaifai from Tahiti and and kapa kuiki from Hawai’i. These textiles are testament to the way in which women continue to stitch stories into tangible forms. Gussie Bento has created an enduringly beautiful work while subtly conserving history and quietly expressing a connection between culture and sovereignty.

Jessica Stalenberg, Artlines 2-2011, p.40.

Endnotes

1 Joyce D Hammond, ‘Links to Tradition’ in Tifaifai and the Quilts of Polynesia, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, 1986, p.53–74.

2 Graeme Were, ‘Pattern as Thought’, in Lines that Connect: Rethinking Pattern and Mind in the Pacific, University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, 2010, p.105.

3 Reiko Mochinaga Brandon and GH Loretta Woodard, Hawaiian Quilts: Tradition and Transition, Honolulu Academy of Arts, Hawai’i, 2004, p.7.