Crafted from thousands of bird feathers from perching songbirds, the Ahu’ula in Auckland Museum’s collection is a garment that only Hawaiian chiefs or ali’i wore.
Like purple Elizabethan dye - which was created from the mucous of Mediterranean mollusks - the vast swathes of yellow on this cloak are a clear indication of power, as they show that this chief or ali’I had the mana to mobilise hundreds of bird-catchers.
Yellow feathers were incredibly scarce, so to create such a cloak, professional bird-catchers (po’e hahai manu) would have to snare hundreds of o’o (Moho nobilis) and mamo (Depranis pacifica) birds using their wit and ingenuity.
These bird catchers, whose sole occupation was to capture birds, would head into the woods and trap these birds using nets, snares and even bird lime – a sticky plant based concoction that was smeared onto branches.
After capture, the bird catchers would then carefully pluck these treasured yellow feathers from their rear and undersides, and then release them back into the bush.
Once enough bird feathers were amassed, weavers would bundle the feathers together and attach these to a fibre foundation, with each row of feathers overlapping the row below.
The cloak’s is powerfully symbolic as the colours and patterns clearly articulate the chief’s geneology, status and also temperament.
The yellow and black plumed o’o bird is known for its boisterous, territorial and aggressive spirit, so when ali’i strode onto the battlefield in this brilliant plumage they no doubt were channelling this bird’s pluck.
Last year, the team at Auckland Museum was given the chance to see this exquisite piece up-close after it was removed from the Pacific Masterpieces gallery, and to ensure its safe passage and the safety of staff handling it, they held a blessing for this stunning garment.
In this video, our Senior Collection Technician, Sarah Bishop, tells us about the blessing and explains why this piece is her favourite taonga.