Nowhere else will you see so many of the state’s treasured Hawaiian artisans gathered in one place at one time than at the Merrie Monarch Invitational Hawaiian Arts Fair.
Fair director Nelson Makua has spent a decade compiling this elite group of artists from the various islands to celebrate and perpetuate contemporary and traditional Hawaiian art at its finest.
The vendors themselves spend all year preparing their inventory to support the thousands of people who will come through the auditorium during the four-day event.
Putting them together at an event like the Merrie Monarch Festival means islanders and visitors from all over the world have a unique opportunity to share in the mana‘o (knowledge) of these artisans as well as purchase authentic pieces directly from those who create them.
“We’re not the biggest, but we’re the best,” explains Makua. “There’s nothing like us when it comes to authenticity, quality and uniqueness.”
Every year, says Makua, he and co-directors Paula De Morales and Kainoa Makua work diligently to make the fair even better.
“We have strived to create an event that is more than just a craft fair,” says Makua, now in his 11th year as director. “This being the official Merrie Monarch fair, we want it to be as culturally enriching as the hula festival itself.”
Makua spends the entire year scouting for potential artists to add to the fair. In addition, he receives 200 to 300 vendor applications for the 140 booths available.
The criteria for acceptance is strict. First, says Makua, all of the items must be made in Hawaii by the artists submitting the application. There is also special consideration given to the item(s)’ cultural significance. The artist must be in attendance at the fair in their booth so they can share their knowledge about their craft. This year, many old favorites will return, and four new vendors will be welcomed into the fold.
Just as Makua spends his year scouting for interesting new products, returning vendors start working early to build their stock.
Waimea master carver Dean Ka‘ahanui of Ka‘ahanui Creations, creates 20 to 40 pieces a day in preparation. He brings hundreds of different bone and wood carvings ranging from $20 to $3,000. Some will be jewelry, others will be pieces of art to display — all made with a special mo‘olelo (story or history) in mind.
“Everything I make has a mo‘olelo,” explains Ka‘ahanui. “Either they deal with myth or mythology or they are an experience I went through on my travels. I start my year as director.
“This being the official Merrie Monarch fair, we want it researching and drawing my designs. If I do migration one year, I won’t do it again the next year. Every Merrie Monarch Festival I carve something different. That’s why people come back to see my work every year.”
It was the kupuna at this fair who first encouraged Ka‘ahanui to pursue carving as a way of life.
“(This fair) is the one time we can come together as artists, as a people,” says Ka‘ahanui. “Sometimes I don’t see people for years until the Merrie Monarch. It’s my favorite thing to see the old people who once did this before I did this.”
Ka‘ahanui, who left his career as a Polynesian entertainer to become a carver more than 20 years ago, says carving is a part of him and it’s a tradition he will pass down through the generations of his own family. He will be at the fair, either in his booth or in the bleachers, willing to share his stories and his knowledge with everyone. He will also be doing demonstrations of coconut fiber braiding and detailed carving.
Paulette Kahalepuna, Honolulu-based feather lei making instructor and owner of Aunty Mary Lou’s Na Lima Mili Hulu Noeau, collects lei made by her students to sell at the Merrie Monarch fair year-round. It can take between 20 and 80 hours to hand-wrap a feather lei utilizing 2,000 or 3,000 feathers (the average amount in a 24-inch lei).
She brings more than 50 handmade leis ranging from $150 to $1,000 made mostly in traditional color format (gold, green, red or black). They are truly one-of-a-kind pieces, made with pride by students of Kahalepuna or students of her mother, Mary Lou, who was one of the first off-island vendors to be invited to the fair decades ago.
“I tell people, ‘If you’re going to shop, come to the Merrie Monarch Invitational Hawaiian Arts Fair,’” explains Kahalepuna. “You are going to get a better selection. You are going to meet the people who do the work. There is no other hula gathering where so much is embraced in the arts. If you don’t come for hula, come for that because the best of the best is here.”
Since most of the clothing vendors don’t have storefront operations, their booths are often inundated with eager female shoppers. The Kona-based company Wahine Toa Designs, for example, has such a large following that last year they had to re-direct their customer line out the back door of the Butler Building, letting just a few shoppers in at a time.
More than just a place to shop and buy, artists also demonstrate and share their mana‘o about their Hawaiian crafts by holding demonstrations throughout the day. This year, the students of Nawahiokalaniopu‘u will showcase various Hawaiian arts such as kapa making, ohe kapala (bamboo stamping on kapa), hula implement making, and hula.
Other demonstrators are pahu drum carver Keoni Turalde, coconut weaver Glenn Okuma, and Ipu Farms, who will demonstrate the cultivation of the gourds and allow you to make your own ipu. There will also be poi pounding demonstrations and kapa making by Dalani Tanahy.
Makua and his team are always looking for ways patrons can learn about the Hawaiian culture, so as a special new addition this year, two hands-on workshops will be held. The first teaches participants the art of Niihau shell lei making by Niihau’s eldest living resident, Mama Ane Kanahele.
Mama Ane will bring with her seven delegates from the Kanahele ‘ohana to teach participants how to make a set of Pikake-style Ni‘ihau Momi earrings or a Niihau shell choker.
The second workshop is a Hawaiian bamboo stamp workshop, ‘ohe kapala, taught by the high school students of Mahu‘ilani, the Performing and Fine Arts Program of Ke Kula ‘O Nawahiokalani‘opu‘u. The workshop will show participants how to prepare an ‘ohe kapala from raw material and begin to carve one with a design. They will also get to stamp with actual bamboo stamps that have already been carved. (See sidebar for registration information.)
There is also daily entertainment from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. by some of Hawaii’s greatest entertainers. This year’s entertainers include Na Palapalai, Kuana Torres-Kahele, Cyril Pahinui, Weldon Kekauoha, Kainani Kahaunaele and Lei ‘Ula, several halau hula and many impromptu performances.
With so much to experience and see, Makua, who has been an artist and designer in Hilo for more than 35 years, says most people will visit the fair all four days. “I see the same faces every day,” he says. “People reconnect with old friends and talk story, and for the next four days it is a celebration of all things Hawaiian.”
This year’s fair will take place Wednesday through Friday from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and Saturday from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. at the Afook-Chinen Civic auditorium and the Butler Building. As it is every year, admission is free.