New Cultural Treasure at The Royal Hawaiian

Moving examples of art and culture on display at the classic Oahu hotel

By: By Deanna Ting

Vintage Frank McIntosh paintings can be found at The Royal Hawaiian’s Tower Wing. // © Deanna Ting

Vintage Frank McIntosh paintings — which you might recognize from Hawaii postcards — can be found on the ground level of The Royal Hawaiian’s Tower Wing. // © Deanna Ting

On a recent visit to The Royal Hawaiian, A Luxury Collection Resort, I had the chance to bear witness to a uniquely Hawaiian experience. Indeed, one of the most beautiful expressions of Hawaiian art and culture can be found through the ancient tradition of hula and at The Royal Hawaiian, that art form was celebrated fully when the hotel welcomed its newest work of art.

On March 18, the storied “Pink Palace,” a Waikiki icon since 1927, dedicated an exquisite charcoal drawing of Iolani Luahine, one of Hawaii’s most revered and respected hula masters. The drawing by Jean Charlot, a French painter and illustrator, now hangs in the hotel’s main lobby, surrounded by three significant Hawaiian pahu drums, cordoned off by velvet ropes.

I was fortunate enough to be there to witness the dedication ceremony, a moving tribute to the late hula master. Not having much expertise or knowledge of ancient hula or Hawaiian traditions, I was not immediately sure what to expect during the brief, yet emotional ceremony. By the end of it, however, I too felt overcome with a sense of awe and respect for the artwork and what it stands for — a celebration of traditional Hawaiian arts and culture.

The ceremony began with a resounding prayer chant from Danny Kiaha, a docent for the Mookini Luakini Heiau. The echoes from Kiaha’s voice and conch shell sirens filled the entire lobby with lyrical notes that were so beautiful and poignant that the hotel’s general manager, Kelly Hoen, was moved to tears.

In his oli (prayer), Kiaha called upon Luahine to protect the resort, the new home for her portrait. Later, he placed intricate shell necklaces on the wall moldings around the drawing — another symbol for protection and dedication. The drawing, which is currently on loan from Mookini, had previously hung in the living room of a house located on the site of King Kamehameha’s birth on the Big Island.

Danny Kiaha (left) and Momi Luahine (right) pay tribute to Iolani Luahine during the dedication ceremony. // © Deanna Ting

Danny Kiaha (left) and Leimomi Mo`okini Lum (right) pay tribute to Iolani Luahine during the dedication ceremony. // © Deanna Ting

Other ceremony attendees included John Charlot, the son of artist Jean Charlot, and Leimomi Mo`okini Lum of Mookini Luakini Heiau and a relative of Iolani Luahine, who is lending the drawing to The Royal Hawaiian.

“Her love for her hula was unmatched,” Kiaha said during the ceremony. “Hula was a way of life and she taught people the right way … to have her here with her drums is very important to her. All of these instruments were a part of her hula. [The Royal Hawaiian] should be honored to have her here.”

The donated pahu drums placed on the ground in front of the drawing carry special significance as well. All three were made from coconut trees that were cut down during The Royal Hawaiian’s recent closure and renovation from last year.

Throughout her lifetime, Luahine, affectionately known as Auntie Io, was considered to be one of Hawaii’s premier hula teachers. The native Hawaiian, born in 1915 on the Big Island, was trained in traditional hula as early as age four. Later, she went on to open her own hula school in Honolulu in 1946 and soon garnered praise for her almost mystical ability to perform and teach ancient and traditional forms of hula. Famously, she was credited for being able to predict when torrential rains on the Big Island would end, enabling the annual Merrie Monarch hula festival to continue without a hitch. Luahine died in 1978 at the age of 63. The annual Iolani Luahine Hula Festival, held on the Big Island, was established in 2003 in her memory.

Charlot, who was born in France in 1898, was a preeminent artist known for his work depicting life in both Mexico and the U.S. In 1949, Charlot came to Hawaii to paint a fresco at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, later accepting a position as an art professor at the university. While in Hawaii, Charlot continued to paint and draw scenes from Hawaiian culture and today, visitors can spot many of his fresco murals throughout the islands. Charlot retired from the university in 1966 but continued to retain his ties to Hawaii. In 1976, Charlot, nicknamed Palani among his Hawaiian friends, was presented with the Order of Distinction for Cultural Leadership by the Hawaii State Legislature. In June of 1976, the Living Treasure Committee, sponsored by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission named him a Living Treasure for his works depicting Hawaiian culture. Charlot died in 1979.

The charcoal portrait of Luahine is just one of many original Hawaiiana artworks to be found throughout The Royal Hawaiian — a tradition that has been instilled in the property since its beginnings. Matson Navigation Company, which built the hotel in 1927, commissioned several artists to create distinctly Hawaiian art pieces for The Royal and its steamships from the early 1930s through the 1960s. Longtime guests of the hotel may even recall how this artwork was incorporated into Matson’s menus, eventually becoming known as the Matson Menu Program.

Currently, visitors to The Royal Hawaiian can see works from such artists as Eugene Savage, John Kelly and Frank McIntosh. Standouts include Savage’s “Aloha…Universal World” mural, hanging near the Charlot drawing in the lobby, and various art deco menu covers from McIntosh, which can be found in the Tower Wing of the hotel. John Kelly’s classic Hawaiiana works can be found near the Azure Restaurant and by the pool area.

The Charlot drawing of Luahine, while not part of the Matson collection, only adds to the richness of the artwork found throughout the hotel. Today, Luahine’s portrait is open for viewing in The Royal Hawaiian lobby, ready to inspire new generations of hula dancers and observers.

The Royal Hawaiian, A Luxury Collection Resort