Newly installed in the Art of the Pacific gallery, this unusually large five-layer kapa moe, or bed cover, belonged to Princess Ka’iulani Cleghorn (1875–1899), heir apparent to the Hawaiian throne at the time of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893. Princess Ka’iulani was the daughter of Princess Miriam Likelike and Archibald Cleghorn, a prominent Honolulu businessman born in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Princess Ka’iulani became known throughout the world for her intelligence, beauty, and resolve when, following the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, the eighteen-year-old princess spearheaded a campaign to restore the Kingdom, even speaking before the United States Congress and meeting with Presidents Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland. However, her negotiations could not prevent the eventual annexation of Hawaii to the United States in 1898. Following a brief illness, Ka’iulani died on March 6, 1899 at the young age of 23.
Kapa fabric is typically made from the paper mulberry tree. The bark is stripped, soaked, and then compressed into sheets with special patterned wooden beaters and finally dyed and decorated. Kapa cloth was used primarily for clothing like the malo worn by men as a loincloth, and the pā’ū, worn by women as a wraparound skirt. The layered Kapa moe were originally reserved for the ali’I, or chiefly class, and the tradition continued into the late nineteenth century with members of the Hawaiian monarchy.
Like Princess Ka’iulani, this kapa moe combines elements of Hawaiian and European traditions, as the unusual design resembles floral elements from a post-European contact Hawaiian quilt. Designs on both kapa and Hawaiian quilts hold symbolic information. Scholar Adrienne Kaeppler noted that the design of this kapa moe may metaphorically incorporate the saying, “He ali’i ke aloha, he kilohana e pa’a ai,” “Love is like a chief, the best prize to hold fast to,” in honor of Ka’iulani. One corner of an underside white layer of the kapa is signed “Kaiulani.”
Debra McManus, Manager Art Administration and Collections