The Queer Indigenous Artists Reclaiming a Fluid Sense of Gender

by Ligaya Mishan – T: The New York Times Style Magazine – February 17, 2022:

Colonialist conceptions of gender have long sought to erase more expansive views. But a new generation is making work that honors their cultures’ beliefs on their own terms.

Excerpt on Kapaemahu:

To recover the past, then, can be an act of resistance. In the animated short film “Kapaemahu” (2020), directed by Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson, an ancient mo‘olelo (“oral story”) is given new life, recounting the voyage of four healers from Tahiti to the Hawaiian Islands many centuries ago. Like Wong-Kalu, who narrates the film, and the dancer and singer Kaumakaiwa Kanaka‘ole, who composed and performs the chant in it, the healers were māhū, “not male nor female … a mixture of both in mind, heart and spirit,” as the film puts it. They brought knowledge of how to ease pain and cure illness and were welcomed and beloved. When the time came for them to depart, the grateful community hauled four boulders to the beach at Waikiki, in what is now Honolulu; the māhū infused the stones with their spirits, then vanished.

In 1941, the stones were threatened by the construction of a bowling alley, and in the decades that followed, they were moved several times, with attendant news stories that subtly erased the gender fluidity of the māhū as told in the original mo‘olelo, which was collected by the folklorist Thomas G. Thrum from a telling by James Harbottle Aalapuna Boyd. (Boyd was a colonel of the Hawaiian Kingdom before its overthrow in 1893 and husband to Helen Mani‘iailehua Cleghorn, a half sister of Princess Ka‘iulani, the last heir to the throne.) As the Pacific Islands studies scholar Teoratuuaarii Morris has documented, where Boyd identified the māhū as explicitly “unsexed by nature,” with “feminine appearance, although manly in stature,” a journalist in 1963 described them more evasively, as “handsome, kindly and soft-spoken,” and later, in the 1990s and early 2000s, they were referred to outright as “men.” “Kapaemahu” corrects the record with its woodcut-like animation, abstract yet expressive, and in so doing affirms the stones — now protected and honored on a platform in Waikiki, albeit with no mention of the māhū — as part of an ancestral landscape.

Full article here.