LOCAL RESIDENT ALOMA WANG CONTINUES TO PERPETUATE THE TRADITIONAL ART OF LAUHALA WEAVING.
The hala tree, formally known as Pandanus, is native to Hawaiian and Pacific islands. It stands tall on an above-ground root system, looking like something from the fantasy film Avatar. The top is an explosion of green, growing like no other Hawaiian vegetation, each leaf edged with razor-sharp thorns. The tree flourished in the islands long before the arrival of the first Polynesian voyagers. Legend says, when the volcano goddess Pele landed in the islands the tree's spiny-edged leaves snagged her canoe. It angered her and she
pulled it from the ground, ripped it apart and threw the pieces across all the islands where they took root and still thrive today.
Like all tropical vegetation, generations of voyagers found many uses for the hala tree. Every part of the tree was and is used, from flower to pollen to blossom to fruit, leaf, bark, wood and root. Each generation learned the traditions of weaving the harvested and dried leaves, always expanding the skills and creativity of those who went before and passing down their skill and knowledge to young artisans.
Fast forward to today and appreciate the rich and highly valued art of lauhala weaving. Following the concept of ho‘oponopono, to make wrong right, weaving lauhala is considered by the weavers as a balance of energy. To new students it is often somewhere between a meditation and frustration, but they carry on. Once bitten by the “weaving bug” they can't put their craft down.
To harvest and prepare the lauhala for weaving is downright dangerous. Each dry leaf that falls or is picked from the tree is edged with razor-sharp thorns that must be de-thorned by scraping. Then the leaves are cut into the correct widths, rolled and stored, ready to be woven into mats, bags and the highly prized lauhala hats.
“Two down, three up,” echos in the mind of every weaver and weaving student. That is the pattern for a first challenge in weaving a simple fan or bracelet. Once a student accomplishes that challenge they are usually “hooked” on weaving. Some weavers say it is “soothing,” others say it is stressful, yet they continue to challenge themselves with more complicated patterns like hats, large mats, even sculptural pieces. The hats are featured in major museums across the
globe. From the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. to Honolulu's Bishop Museum and museums across the oceans, lauhala weaving is regarded as a fine art. To purchase a hat, buyers may have “sticker shock” when they see a tag that reads $400 to $600, maybe more.
In Hawai‘i, Aloma Wang is a weaving “rock star” according to her students. She is one of a small group of weavers who follow the old traditions and also teach.
She doesn't have a family history of weaving like the cadre of weavers who are graduates of Hawai‘i's famed weavers. Auntie Elizabeth Maluihi Lee began weaving at age six as a way to help her family make ends meet as they bartered the hats for whatever they needed. Auntie Gwen Kamasugi, Pohaku Kaho‘ohanohano, and Auntie Gladys Grace were also lifetime weavers. When she saw their work Wang says she had an immediate passion for the art “the moment I saw the first papale (hat)."
Auntie Gladys Grace was recognized as a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts. Museums have honored her with exhibits of more than 70 hats. Wang says, “these shows are unbelievable when you add up the hours and years it took to craft the hats and how many others Auntie Gladys made and sold.” Wang also is inspired by the generous quality in weavers' lives. “Aunty Gladys would weave a baseball cap, give it to a weaver and challenge that student to make another just like it,” perpetuating the art of weaving. Sadly, not all weavers passed down their knowledge and techniques.
Wang was born in Sri Lanka, moved to Europe, then Southern California and has been in Hawai‘i for 30 years. She discovered Auntie Gwen, watched her “magic fingers” weave a hat and knew there was, as she says,
“no looking back.” She made a bracelet at a class offered at Na Mea Hawai‘i, O‘ahu's only all Hawaiian-made store. Her teacher said she had good hands for weaving and so she never stopped. Today, she does teach small classes, three to six students at a time. Her work is now considered museum-quality.
Aloma Wang's home studio in Manoa houses her vast collection of finished pieces, and of course, those in the midst of completion.
Aside from hats, Wang also weaves other accessories such as the bags and clutches.
Wang keeps her lauhala weaving legacy alive through the classes she teaches.