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Assorted ‘umeke

With more than a hundred rare vessels in his keeping, Michael Horikawa’s collection of calabashes are treasures to behold.

The Hawaiian Language is known for it’s subtle nuances that express the unique wisdom and temporal wit of the island people who speak it. As two examples, a full container—whether a calabash or a gourd—is likened to one’s abundance of knowledge about a given subject. Michael Horikawa fits this description. Specializing in 19th and 20th century Hawai‘i-based fine art and traditional ancient Hawaiian artisanship, Horikawa possesses an expertise that is unparalleled and a private collection that is worthy of a museum.

Perhaps one of the most striking paintings that graces the walls of Horikawa’s home is Gene Pressler’s Surfer Girl (1928), a piece he says he had been tracking for more than 20 years before she finally joined his other masterpieces. In addition, prints of Where Progress and Romance Meet (1939), originally calendar art by Ruehl Frederick Heckman meant to entice with the imagined allure of the islands, have been seen all over the world. Horikawa has the original.

However, Horikawa’s collecting of such treasures began in the early 1970s with one simple yet significant object—a calabash. He recalls that a fellow collector who knew of the young Horikawa’s interest in the craftsmanship and cultural importance of ancient Hawaiian artifacts asked him to visit him at his small Kailua antique shop. He showed him the bowl, which had been painted chocolate brown, and pointed out that the wood beneath it was still rich, strong, and beautiful. Horikawa purchased it for $300, had it refinished, and today it is situated in the middle of a glorious Victorian-era cabinet.

Hawaiians, throughout all of Polynesia, are renowned for creating the most elegant bowls and other wooden containers. Inspired by the rounded shape of coconuts and gourds, they evolved from their consideration as simply utilitarian objects to true works of art crafted by master artisans. Although the Hawaiian word for these bowls is ‘umeke, with the word ipu related to gourds, collectively, they came to be known as “calabashes” in Hawai‘i.

Traditions throughout Polynesia held that certain foods and woods were reserved for the ali‘i or chiefly class. So only ali‘i could have their calabashes made out of kou, especially favored for the hues and dramatically contrasting patterns within the grain. This standard remained in practice until 1819 when the kapu system, maintaining a sense of law and hierarchy, was abolished by King Kamehameha II by the symbolic act of sharing a meal with the women of his court.

The kou tree, with its thick foliage and bright orange flowers, was once found on all Hawaiian Islands except Moloka‘i and Kaho‘olawe, and, for centuries, it could be seen growing in low, dry coastal areas. Within a straight light-gray trunk lies the dark reddish-brown heartwood with the surrounding sapwood—a straw like color. Kou was preferred for items that would hold food because it lacked a bitter taste that could affect the contents.

However, in approximately 1860, a tiny insect called the “red spider” was introduced to the islands. Within only the decade, the kou population all but disappeared. The following statement is from the Hawaiian Annual of 1875. “The kou, one of the handsomest of woods for cabinet work, has been almost eradicated from the Islands . . . Indeed [it] is hardly to be seen at all.”

Thus, Horikawa’s calabash collection stands not only as a testament to the artistry and mastery of early Hawaiian carvers but also as a historical tracing of a wood once prized for its functionality and beauty now close to extinction. “I can count on two hands the number that still exist on this island.” And one of them happens to be in his own backyard. “Niu Valley had a nursery at one time, and I heard they were the source. They had one left.” Horikawa’s tree has been growing for almost 50 years.

All 120 or so of Horikawa’s calabashes, which he comfortably refers to as ‘umeke, range in size, shape, and elements of skill, and all hold a special place in his collection and in his fondness for each piece’s respective uniqueness.

One of his most charming is a fingerbowl with a little handle and an interior phalange used to wipe poi, perhaps, from a finger. Such fingerbowls are thought to have found their way to the Hawaiian Islands after western contact and would have denoted a high chiefly rank because, in earlier times, community bowls versus those for an individual were used.

Another impressive vessel is a small worn-looking bowl complete with woven sennit almost perfectly in tact—a container to hold fishhooks. As Horikawa explains, though, “It’s almost impossible to specifically date some of these pieces because little recorded information exists.”

Oblong platters were used for serving meat—fish, dog, or pig. Horikawa has an example of such a community food-sharing piece. It has a hole for cordage allowing the piece to have hung on a post within a hale.

He also possesses a series of Lahaina-style calabashes defined by their exterior faceted design. Such faceting is wholly associated with the island of Maui, specifically Lahaina, which would stand as the capital of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i from 1820 to 1845. By the 1830s, trade between Hawaiians and westerners was growing, and by the 1860s, carved Hawaiian pieces were moving away from being utilitarian items to those more decorative and prized by foreigners. In addition, the customary rounded bottoms of calabashes took on a new look—a flatter base since western missionaries had brought with them the built concepts of tables and shelves.

The 1830s also saw the beginning of lathing—the process of using a machine to create carved pieces. And for the next few decades, westerners such as John Daniel Wicke from Germany; Chinese carvers, such as Chen Mu; and Japanese artisans such as Tadaichi Shintaku would influence Hawaiian calabash design. Horikawa explains, “It’s like with furniture. Every race that came in imprinted their customs . . . their styles . . . into Hawaiian culture and society.”

Two of Horikawa’s pieces clearly depict the Chinese influence. One is a rice bowl with a lid that acts as a plate, sometimes referred to as a “poi supper bowl,” and a brush pot for holding items used in calligraphy.

He also has a glorious calabash complete with a hand-turned pedestal and lid, both stamped with the King Kalakaua’s “KIK” insignia. The piece was created by Wicke who had been commissioned to turn calabashes for the king’s golden jubilee. The October 15th issue of the Bulletin reported, “Mr. Wicke is making about 200 calabashes of fine woods . . . to be presented to His Majesty on his birthday.” Horikawa’s piece can be seen as one of those in the famous photograph of all the celebratory gifts the king received.

The first significant craftsman to carve island scenes into coconut shells is thought to be Frederick Otremba of Germany. Horikawa’s collection includes one of the rare Otremba goblets, sold within curio stores in the 1880s. In addition to an image of the quintessential Diamond Head, it also features Kalakaua’s royal coat of arms.

A particularly intriguing calabash is one with added Portuguese inlays. It features rough-hewn geometric shapes consistent with Portuguese carving traditions and even a cross signifying the Catholicism that came with these particular voyagers, the first ship arriving in 1878.

Throughout Hawaiian traditions, the most common calabash exists as a large bowl from which all could share. Th e use of the calabash in Hawai‘i has led to terms like “calabash family” or “calabash cousins,” indicating extended family, perhaps without any filial relationship, having grown up together around meals and celebrations. Such is the case with the calabashes in Horikawa’s collection. Not one of them is from the same location or was crafted by the same hands, but they are all nestled together with their subtle nuances within his valley home.