Dr. Kelema Lee Moses brings Hawaiian architecture and culture to Occidental College

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Author: Taylor-Anne Esparza

Do you think President Barack Obama ever took the time to admire the architecture of his hometown of Honolulu, Hawaii? Oxy students were able to do so when Dr. Kelema Lee Moses, lecturer at the University of Santa Cruz, spoke at Occidental this past Thursday and broadened student and staff members’ perspective of Hawaiian architecture. Moses spoke about the transformation of Hawaii into statehood and how Hawaii’s architecture reflects their culture and the political stages the land has endured.

Professor of Art History and Visual Arts Amy Lyford is currently teaching an art history course entitled “Nineteenth Century Art: Culture, Politics, and National Identity” which contributes to the connection with Moses’ lecture at Occidental College at this point in time.

“I wanted to expand students’ understanding of North American art and 19th century art is [Moses’s] specialty,” Lyford said. “Not many scholars look at modern and native indigenous art anymore and she does.”

Hawaii went through a period of time in which its status evolved from territory to republic and eventually to statehood. “It was hegemony at its finest during this two year gap,” Moses said.

Many Hawaiians claimed to represent their majority and stated their desire to gain statehood. One way they attempted to prove their adaptability to statehood was through architecture. They began to design buildings, such as the Iolani Palace, to represent Americanized architecture. During this time of transformation, a variation in architectural styles was introduced into Hawaiian buildings, including influences as broad as Spanish missionary structure, modernized business design and New England colonial style.

Moses explained that the architecture not only tells Hawaii’s political history, but also displays Hawaiian culture.

Hawaiian buildings, such as the State Capitol, have columns that represent palm trees or sugar cane, while particular square-like tiles are meant to resemble sugar cubes. This not only exemplifies the Hawaiian culture in the structure of the buildings, but also the aspects of Hawaiian economy, as sugar is a major export. Moses continued to develop this concept through the description and images shown of the State Capitol in which aspects of the building’s architecture symbolically represent a cultural Hawaiian entity. The legislative structures outside the building are cone-shaped to represent the volcanic geography of Hawaii and the pools of water surrounding the building are to represent the islands of Hawaii.

However, with the political transformation of the land, the cultural meanings behind particular architectural designs were lost. 

“Whiteness erased indigenity and dissociated indigenous people from their land,” Moses said. “The peaked roof is a particular Hawaiian invention and while this aspect was retained, the meaning behind it was abstracted.”

Moses presented her audience with not only great knowledge of Hawaiian history and culture, in relation to architecture, but also led students to be more observant of their surroundings and the possible underlying artistic and political influences.

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