Hawaiian Capitol Art: Honoring the Environment and Native Leaders

We continue with our art tour of other state capitols to see what lessons Minnesota might learn as we reassess some of our controversial capitol art. (Information on capitol art in Minnesota and other states is collected on 0ur Capitol Art page.)

Continuing in alphabetical order, today we visit the Hawaii State Capitol. It is a relatively new structure as capitols go, opened in 1969. The art and architecture honor the Hawaiian environment and Native leaders.

Let’s start with the Hawaii State Seal. We have mentioned before the controversial images that can appear in state seals, such as the Minnesota State Seal showing a Dakota rider heading west into the sunset (and out of the state). The Hawaiian State Seal is unique in having its motto written in the Hawaiian language: “Ua mau ke ea o ka ‘a ina i ka pono” (The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness).

Hawaiian State Seal
Hawaiian State Seal

The seal “features the heraldic shield with the sun rising at the top symbolizing the dawning of a new era in Hawai‘i. The two figures represented on the seal are King Kamehameha the Great and the Goddess of Liberty, a symbol of the United States, holding the Hawaiian flag. Pictured below the shield is the phoenix, symbolizing the rebirth of Hawai‘i from a Kingdom, to a Republic, to a Territory of the United States, and then the 50th state of the Union. The eight kalo, or taro, leaves represent the eight major islands of the Hawaiian chain. The banana leaves represent fruitfulness, and the maidenhair fern represent the lush greenness found in Hawai‘i.”

Now let’s take a look at the building itself. According the capitol brochure:

The building and the surrounding grounds were designed to be unique from the other 49 state Capitol buildings, which traditionally are Federalist, Georgian, or Classical Revival in design.

The distinct openness of the central court area incorporates the elements of nature and reflects the open character of the Hawaiian society.

As you stroll through the grounds you will notice the structure’s volcanic shape, a symbol of the islands’ birth. Forty columns rising 60 feet high surround the building like the royal palm trees, which are in abundance on every island. If you look to the upper balcony, you will notice a repeating pattern of eight columns throughout the Capitol, representing the eight major islands in the Hawaiian chain.

Surrounding the building are reflecting pools that symbolize the Pacific Ocean from which the islands emerged.

You can see the building’s conical shape in both legislative chambers. The Hawaiian House Chamber is decorated with warmer brown, red, and orange colors representing the earth. The round, gold-plated chandelier represents the sun. The Senate Chamber’s blue color scheme represents the ocean.  The round chandelier is made of 620 nautilus shells and represents the moon.

The center of the capitol is open to the sky and features a 36-foot round mosaic on the floor called “Aquarius,” representing the Pacific Ocean. “This piece contains 600,000 Italian tiles, all in various shades of blue, except one red tile which is representative of the artist’s signature.”

Outside, statues include a tribute to Saint Damien, Father Joseph Damien de Veuster, also known as the “Martyr of Moloka‘i.” He worked on the island of Moloka‘i, tending to people with leprosy. “He assisted in bandaging wounds, digging graves and the construction of coffins, in addition to hearing confessions and saying Mass every morning.” He died of the disease in 1889.

A large statue of King Kamehameha I, the monarch who united the Hawaiian islands under one rule, stands in front of the Hawaii Supreme Court Building. The statue “The Spirit of Lili‘uokalani” faces the capitol, remembering the Honorable Lydia Kamaka‘eha Paki, who later became Queen Lili‘uokalani. Lydia was a gifted composer, noted for writing “Aloha ‘Oe.” The brochure notes:

In 1877, Lydia was proclaimed heir to the throne by her brother King Kalakaua with the new name of Lili‘uokalani. She became Queen in 1891 only to be overthrown by non-native businessmen in 1893, arrested at Washington Place and imprisoned in ‘Iolani Palace. Upon her release, she devoted the remainder of her life to furthering the cause of Hawaiian rights in both Hawai‘i and Washington D.C.

Hawaii has created an annual event, called Art in the Capitol, to celebrate its public art. The Hawaii Foundation on Culture and the Arts runs it. This year, legislators and state executives opened their offices for visitors to come and see the more than 500 art works by local artists. State leaders created short promotional videos for the event, including Gov. David Ige and Rep. Gregg Takayama. The one-night event featured chamber music by Youth Symphony Quartets.

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