As part of Otobong Nkanga’s exhibition The Encounter That Took a Part of Me at Nottingham Contemporary (Oct 15 – Jan 15) I’ll be performing a series of readings from the Kumulipo Variations, as featured in both the book and audio versions of Exotica Suite in 2015. The performances are scheduled on October 16 and October 23 at 3pm, on November 2 at 5pm, and on December 14 at 5pm. They take place in Gallery 1 at Nottingham Contemporary, where Nkanga’s Taste of a Stone is installed. (A programme of other responses to Nkanga’s work, from artists including Rebecca Lee, Panya Banjoko, Michael Pinchbeck and Nathaniel Mann, is set to thread through the full run of the exhibition).
Kumulipo Variations is grounded in the folklore of a parallel history where Hawaiians established a settlement in London during the 1780s and many Britons converted to Polynesian religious beliefs. Within this fictional context, the text suggests a hypothetical English translation of The Kumulipo made at some point during the first half of the 1800s. The Kumulipo itself is an epic Hawaiian creation myth, an oral account of the formation and history of both the natural and human worlds. The text as we know it today is usually credited to a figure named Keaulumoku, a near-contemporary of Kamehameha I. This known version is also dated to the few decades immediately preceding first European contact, when James Cook’s ships arrived in Hawaii during a festival dedicated to the god Lono in 1777, but much of the content is almost certainly older.
The Kumulipo‘s actual first full translation into English was made several decades after the entirely fictional one included in Exotica Suite. It has a very particular importance in the history of Hawaii’s colonisation, having been made by Queen Liliuokalani during the 1890s while under house arrest for her opposition to the coup that imposed a new constitution, disenfranchised native Hawaiians and annexed the islands into a territory of the United States under the control of an oligarchy of American landowners and merchants. Liliuokalani’s translation appeared in 1897, around a year before this formal annexation was finalised, and her intention was to reassert Hawaii’s political autonomy by presenting The Kumulipo, an account of her culture’s origins, to the wider world. Another, more scholarly, English edition was published by Martha Warren Beckwith in 1951.
While the 23 paragraphs of the Kumulipo Variations exist in an entirely fictional parallel history, then, and are also both partial (focusing on the earliest sections of the oral text) and at times divergent from their source, they are purposefully grounded in these earlier real translations, and hopefully draw some additional layers of potential meaning from their oblique relationship to the actual historical record. Not the least point of interest in writing these variations, for me, lay in the weaving of a potentially rich new perspective through the fabric of British folklore at a time when historically illiterate propaganda against immigration and cultural exchange was (and remains) dangerously influential.
The ecological vision found in the Hawaiian Kumulipo, with its proposal that all life begins in the sea and is interdependent, strikingly pre-dates and anticipates modern scientific and evolutionary perspectives, placing the wider issues the text hopefully raises into a useful dialogue with the botanical, geological and colonial themes explored by Otobong Nkanga‘s work. It’s also good to have this opportunity to perform the complete 20 – 30 minute cycle of Kumulipo Variations, as it is a text designed to be heard as well as read. The form adopted for this fictional translation merges Biblical cadences, the assonance and repetitions of Hawaiian chant, and perhaps the occasional hint of some particularly idiosyncratic David Attenborough nature documentary voice-over.