Bishop Museum’s Cultural Adviser Weaves History with Modern Flair
Fiber artist Marques Hanalei Marzan brings a contemporary eye to this ancient craft, creating works that bridge old and new while weaving a continuum of culture.
Nestled against a Mānoa hillside, the wooden bungalow where Marques Hanalei Marzan creates his fiber art bursts with the materials of his craft. Thick bundles of cordage hang above the windows while trim rolls of lau hala lie stacked on a tabletop. Marzan opens a well-worn curio cabinet, lined with silky strips of wauke (paper mulberry) and hau, to pull out a prized memento of a conch shell collected by his grandfather. When asked about a studio workspace, he gestures to the center of his living room floor and says, with a grin, “This is where I’ll often sit and work.”
Marzan’s work has seized the spotlight on the fashion runway, in art galleries and museums, and among indigenous arts communities. In 2017, he showcased his designs at the inaugural Honolulu Biennial and, last year, he was named a 2018 National Arts Fellow—one of 20 in the nation—by the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation. Right now he’s busy pulling together a collection for the MAMo Wearable Art Show, put on by PA‘I Foundation, while he adds the final touches to an exhibit for Galerie Orenda in Paris. Meanwhile, one of his most intriguing projects—a crescent-shaped Hawaiian fan, or pe‘ahi—sits half-finished on a sofa arm.
Two years ago, the British Museum commissioned Marzan, who is the cultural adviser for Bishop Museum, to create a fan to update its collection. The museum houses 12 rare fans from the late 1700s and early 1800s, comprising one of the largest collections in the world. (For early Hawaiians, pe‘ahi served as potent symbols of chiefly power.) Last year, Marzan flew to London to view the museum’s collection and recalls being ushered into a private room, where the fans lay evenly spaced around the edges of a white-sheeted table. “And I just sat down with the first fan, and started turning it over and absorbing all that I could,” he says. “I was looking at how the cord was turned at the end of a row, or how the edge of the fan was finished, or the number of rows they went over and under to make the pattern.” Because of the unique weaving and materials, he recognized immediately that each fan had been created by a different person. It was as if the pe‘ahi came to life in his hands. “The fans hold ‘ike (knowledge) just like kūpuna; they have that repository of knowledge,” he explains. “And while they don’t have a literal voice, they speak to me.”
He picks up the fan he’s working on and points to the black niu, or coconut, fiber threaded around its handle. “Traditionally, these would have been made from human hair, which brought together the mana from all these different communities and consolidated it into this one object.” While he uses black fiber instead of human hair, Marzan seeks to emulate that sensibility by imbuing each piece with his own insights. “What I like to do,” he says, “is bring things of the past that have traditional grounding and presence and give them a renewed life in today’s world.”
IT STARTED WITH A HAT
Tall and slender with close-cropped black hair and a trim goatee, Marzan, 39, carries himself with an air of elegant reserve. He speaks in thoughtful, precise phrases that unspool and wind together effortlessly, like one of his art pieces. Ask him about fiber, though, and he responds in a rush of enthusiasm, leaning forward in his chair. “Fiber spans such a large array of disciplines—cordage making, basketry, textiles, weaving on a loom, featherwork and netting,” he says. “That’s why I do all of those things because fiber touches all of them—it’s at their core and foundation.” While other fiber artists in Hawai‘i typically focus on one or two disciplines, Marzan employs the full spectrum of this ancient craft. His designs, which increasingly tap a global audience, boldly meld tradition and innovation, amplifying appreciation for the roots of Hawaiian culture while redefining its relevance for the modern world.
As a child Marzan loved working with his hands and remembers spending hours molding clay pots or plaiting leaves gathered from his backyard. Growing up in Kāne‘ohe as the second of four boys, he was fascinated by the lau hala hats stacked in his mother’s closet. He was vexed by two pāpale woven by his Native Hawaiian maternal great-grandmother from Hōnaunau: The weave had no piko, center or traditional beginning, so how had she made them? He would cut slips of paper to try to duplicate the patterns without success. Neither his father, a house painter, nor his mother, who worked in sales, could tell him much about the pāpale, beyond the fact that one had been woven for his grandfather, who wore it frequently. His grandfather died months before Marzan was born. His parents named him Hanalei, after his grandfather.
Marzan recalls wanting to be an artist early. “But as I got older, in fifth and sixth grade, people would tell me, ‘An artist doesn’t make a lot of money. You have to think of something else to make money.’” At Castle High School, he enrolled in business classes and served in student government. During junior year, a friend invited Marzan to a lau hala weaving class taught by Julia Minerva Ka‘awa at Bishop Museum. There he discovered his natural facility with the material. Two years later, at UH Mānoa, he signed up for a fiber arts class with Maile Andrade, and, “that changed everything,” he says.
Andrade introduced him to the creative possibilities of fiber and connected him with an international cohort of native artists. At a New Zealand arts conference, Marzan met indigenous practitioners from around the world and was struck by their knowledge of traditional protocol and performance. Back in Hawai‘i, he immersed himself in studying Hawaiian language and in learning oli and hula from kumu John Keola Lake.
The feel of fiber in his hands, he says, sweeps him into a creative flow where his mind stills and another layer of intelligence takes over. “When I have fiber in my hands, I don’t feel any inhibition or hesitation. I allow the material to move itself and my hands are just the vehicle for it to come into being.” Fiber carries a deeper meaning as well. In lau hala weaving, for example, the kū, or standing strand, gets wrapped with the moe, or horizontal piece, to create a work’s foundation. The individual elements of weaving, Marzan says, achieve resiliency and purpose when they come together as a whole, much like individuals in a community.
On the afternoon of the MAMo Wearable Art Show, at Hilton Hawaiian Village’s Tapa Tower, Marzan sat cross-legged on the carpet of a dressing room, weaving niu fibers into a belt. His fingers rapidly wound the braided fiber into a complex, spiraling design that would complete one of 10 outfits for the showcase. As the models arrived, Marzan hopped up, giving each a honi (kiss) and a big hug. “I have you wearing this,” he said to one, unfurling a yellow kapa panel from the piles of material stacked on tables around the room. “You’ll have kapa in the front and then this piece in the back,” he explained, demonstrating how the panel will drape along the floor. The kapa, collected from Samoa and Fiji, showcased his dye and print designs. “When did you make all this?” a model asked in amazement, surveying the mounds of material. “After work,” Marzan shrugged. “In my house.” Everyone burst into laughter. Marzan circulated calmly around the room but his long, tapered fingers moved restlessly from task to task, tugging at the cordage on a cape, rearranging the stacks of kapa or stitching up a last-minute hem.
MAMO WEARABLE ARTS SHOW, 2018
In the next dressing room, Andrade, now a senior professor at Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies, advised her students on their runway presentation. She’s not surprised to see her former student become her peer. Marzan, she recalls, was always singularly focused and disciplined. “He was quite brilliant in structure, meaning that he can see a structure and reproduce it. And that really helps when you’re looking at museum pieces,” she says.
Another professor helped Marzan land an internship at Bishop Museum, which hired him soon after he earned his BFA in fiber arts. The museum became his training ground, where he could absorb the lessons embedded in its vast collection of artifacts. Andrade underscores the connection between his job at the museum and his work as a contemporary artist. She believes his role is to recast our view of “primitive” arts and crafts by bringing forth the rich complexity of a traditional culture’s perspectives on the world. “So Marques’ work is imaging something contemporary but it’s based on a complex system of thought, and on a foundation of skill and excellence.” She then adds, “And I believe we haven’t seen the best of his work—there’s a lot more to come.”
For Marzan, the process is the most important thing. “You need to have that inspiration come to you,” he tells me. He rarely imposes a concept on his work or sketches out designs in advance, but prefers to let the ideas percolate up. When he was on the plane flying back from Hilo early this year, Marzan watched as the setting sun dipped, the sky’s brilliant yellow and red hues arrayed above the deep blue of the sea. He knew immediately that hālāwai, or horizon, would become the theme for his MAMo collection.
Marzan at work on a commissioned piece for Sovereign’s Chapel at St. Andrew’s Cathedral to frame the icon of King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma. The triptych references the carrying net, a vessel used to protect and secure its contents. It also speaks to the idea of coming together. It was unveiled on Nov. 25.
He describes the horizon as “the meeting of heaven and earth, a place of potential, where everything is possible,” a concept that shaped both process and design. One MAMo selection, featuring a bold black checkerboard pattern on yellow and orange kapa, was inspired by the game of Hawaiian checkers, or kōnane. “It’s the balance of the dark and the light, and how one creates the other,” Marzan says of this game of strategic choice. Hālāwai also guided the production of the dyes, which combined both manufactured and natural elements. The yellow mixed commercial paint and ‘ōlena, or turmeric, which Marzan collected from his yard, and the red contained dabs of ‘alaea, red earth, which he had gathered. “It’s the world we live in today, which is a blending of the mass-produced, commercial and the handmade.”
When asked about couturiers he admires, Marzan quickly points out that he doesn’t see himself as a clothing designer but as an artist who creates wearable art. His models, who included friends, colleagues and kumu hula, played a key role in his process. Marzan assembled the outfits on each individual, aware that he was “creating something specific for that time, that place, that moment, that honors the people and the relationships involved.” One outfit featured swaths of indigo-dyed shibori, a nod to Marzan’s Japanese ancestors, who were master silk weavers, while another incorporated abaca cloth from the Philippines, a tribute to his father’s heritage.
In addition to his design work, Marzan chairs both the Hawai‘i Board on Geographic Names, which designates the proper names for geographic features across the state, and Ho‘i Ke ‘Ewe, the nonprofit founded by kumu Lake that oversees Hālau Mele, where Marzan serves as kahuna kākalaleo. He also seeks out opportunities to teach and to share his knowledge with new generations. A few years ago, Marzan offered a series of weaving and fishnet-making workshops at Hawai‘i Community College, where Kawehilani Kahanaoi was a student. She recalls sitting by Marzan’s side in class, learning to weave lau hala by observing how he worked. “His ‘ike really lit our inner spark,” she says. “From Hanalei, I learned that there’s this magic when you’re in the present and focusing on what you’re doing. I thought that kind of thing was only in the museum. But to have him in the flesh showing us what I thought was an ancient art was an epiphany because I realized it’s not ancient—it’s living.” Kahanaoi asked Marzan if she could share her newfound skill with her family and her students, and he agreed enthusiastically. Today, she teaches lau hala weaving and kaula braiding in schools and to the hula, fishing and voyaging communities. “This practice transforms you spiritually and culturally,” Kahanaoi says. “You see how all the strands come together. And it’s never one strand—it’s the multitude and the multitude is strong.”
Pe‘ahi Ola made of pandanus leaves, abalone shell, and cordage, 2001.
THREADS OF TIME
Late afternoon sunlight spills across the wooden deck fronting Marzan’s home while a misty rain drifts over the hillside. A pattern of black tattoos encircles Marzan’s upper forearms. The banded lines that anchor the design, he explains, represent the ‘ūniki (graduation) classes from kumu Lake. Marzan was among the last students taught by the esteemed kumu, who passed away in 2008. In his final days, aware of his impending demise, Lake asked his successors to hold ‘ūniki rites for Marzan, which they did three years later. A pattern on both edges of the band stands for the heiau on Hawai‘i Island—Pu‘ukoholā, Mailekini and Hale o Kapuni—that the hālau continues to honor each year. Of the pattern facing him, he says, “It’s a reminder of the ‘ike that kumu Lake passed to me.” He then traces his forefinger over the opposite edge. “And this last line,” he says, “represents my responsibility to share it outward into the future.”
On the table next to us are the two hats made by his great-grandmother, which he keeps tucked away in his home. While somewhat frayed, they could still be fashionably worn today. Marzan is seated on a wooden stool, holding the pe‘ahi in his left hand while the fingers of his right nimbly wind niu thread between the coconut midribs of the handle. “I’m not making this so the British Museum can add another fan to their collection,” he tells me. “This is to create a continuum of culture because if this practice does not continue or if the mindset and intentions in creating these fans are not carried on, culture dies.” He imagines that someone will pick up his fan one day, like he picked up his great-grandmother’s hats decades ago, and launch another illuminating journey. “Seven generations from now, they’re not going to have me to tell them how to do this. But they’ll have this fan.”