I went to a friend's going away dinner last night, and one of the guests happened to have her latest art work on hand. It was standard Wyland-inspired stuff: dolphins and whales and turtles back-lit against the sun (or flower of life, or rainbow, or something else similarly bright and shiny).
It was so Hawai`i; every other local artists paints the same motif. And yet, so not really Hawai`i. It's all images that they carried with them when they landed, rather than inspiration they took from the land or culture. In the end, almost none of us have actually swam with a whale. We see them breach from a distance. Dolphins are awesome, but in my experience pretty much indifferent to us. They come up, see what we're doing, and swim away. Sharks do the exact same thing. I've actually been bumped by sharks, and there's plenty of other stories out there, but no one ever talks about how they communed with the shark and how it was communicating ancient healing knowledge to them.
And turtles. Google turtles and symbolism and you hear that turtles are all about vitality and fertility and good luck. But once night in Micronesia I woke up to hear the women wailing. Someone had died, but we didn't know who. One of the girls, my hanai sister, had dreamt of a turtle, and it meant death was coming. Everyone just accepted this: the dream was real, the symbolism was uniquivocable: someone was going to die.
The next day we learned on the radio that one of the boys had fallen to his death from an apartment in Guam. There are only a couple hundred people from this island, and so I really don't believe in this stuff it was also too unlikely to be a coincidence.
I was a good boy, I oohed and aahed over the paintings with everyone else, and I didn't tell anyone what else the honu meant. Still, I prefer my art darker, or at least more complex and with more shades of meaning. I'll take Kamapua`a over rainbows any day.
above, from Solomon Enos's Gallery