Oceanic

Bowl (‘umeke)

Artist: Unknown

Culture/People: Kanaka Maoli / Hawaii

Place: Polynesia, United States

Media: Kou wood

Dims: 4.75 x 6.25 diam. in. (12 x 15.9 diam. cm).

Date: 19th C.

Description: Round-bottomed wooden bowls like this one represent a highly perfected art form practiced for countless generations across the islands of Hawaii. These bowls or ‘umeke or ‘umeke lā‘au were often referred to as calabash bowls by non-Hawaiians because they resemble gourds and carved gourd cups and bowls. The ‘umeke are made in many different forms, from tall and slender to low and wide-mouthed. They are typified by their round bottoms, without a lip or base, and highly polished surfaces.

The ‘umeke serve many functions from storing, fermenting, or serving poi, the staple food made from pounded steamed or boiled taro root; serving or preparing meats or fish; storing fabric or feathers; sharing foods; and even containing refuse. The panoply of functions and forms does not overshadow or dimmish the inherent cultural significance of ‘umeke. These are far from simple serving dishes but rather hold in-depth knowledge, meaning, and skill connecting generations. The action of planting, harvesting, and carving trees to hone into specialized bowls connects grandparents to grandchildren and beyond.

‘Umeke are typically carved from Kou wood, an indigenous species, which is relatively soft and easy to carve while also highly resistant to boring insects—although other softwoods are sometimes used. Permission in honor of the land is received before harvesting the wood. The wood is then soaked for months in saltwater to attain the desired staining. ‘Umeke were historically hand-carved using first stone or coral tools, and later metal woodworking tools, and then smoothed with coral, pumice or lava rock or even shark or stingray skin. Part of the Kou wood appeal is its natural bitterness, which serves as a pest deterrent. In order to use ‘umeke for food, carvers must work through a long process of soaking the carved bowl in the ocean. They treat it with oils so that the bitterness does not seep into the food from the bowl’s interior, and the high polish of the surface can be attained.

The incredibly skilled and labor-intensive process of creating ‘umeke, paired with the deep cultural significance of the material, form, and function, means that these bowls are highly valued and treasured for generations. Pieces that are damaged or weakened are patched or repaired using a number of different techniques. In this particular bowl, we can see the distinctive pewa or fishtail patches, as well as a rectangular poho repair as well. The pewa patches are integral to the value and significance of ‘umeke, reflecting a broader cultural value of repairing and maintaining objects, meaning, communities, and more.

Through colonization and the oppression and disenfranchisement of the Kanaka Maoli, the Indigenous Hawaiians ‘umeke are found in collections across Europe and the United States. The bowls became popular as collector’s items in the late 19th century as Indigenous lifeways and lands were being threatened by missionaries, developers, and increasing tourism. However, new generations of carvers continue to invest in the skill and art form, creating incredible’ umeke and other carved creations.

 

RTC No: OC0069
Gift of Ralph T. Coe, 2011

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