The Painted King: Art, Activism, and Authenticity in Hawai‘i
216pp. November 2011
The Painted King: Art, Activism, and Authenticity in Hawaii
Author: Wharton, Glenn;
The famous statue of Kamehameha I in downtown Honolulu is one of the state’s most popular landmarks. Many tourists—and residents—however, are unaware that the statue is a replica; the original, cast in Paris in the 1880s and the first statue in the Islands, stands before the old courthouse in rural Kapa‘au, North Kohala, the legendary birthplace of Kamehameha I. In 1996 conservator Glenn Wharton was sent by public arts administrators to assess the statue’s condition, and what he found startled him: A larger-than-life brass figure painted over in brown, black, and yellow with “white toenails and fingernails and penetrating black eyes with small white brush strokes for highlights. . . . It looked more like a piece of folk art than a nineteenth-century heroic monument.”

The Painted King is Wharton’s account of his efforts to conserve the Kohala Kamehameha statue, but it is also the story of his journey to understand the statue’s meaning for the residents of Kapa‘au. He learns that the townspeople prefer the “more human” (painted) Kamehameha, regaling him with a parade, chants, and leis every Kamehameha Day (June 11). He meets a North Kohala volunteer who decides to paint the statue’s sash after respectfully consulting with kahuna (Hawaiian spiritual leaders) and the statue itself. A veteran of public art conservation, Wharton had never before encountered a community that had developed such a lengthy, personal relationship with a civic monument. Going against the advice of some of his peers and ignoring warnings about “going native,” Wharton decides to involve the people of Kapa‘au in the conservation of their statue and soon finds himself immersed in complex political, social, and cultural considerations, including questions about representations of the Native Hawaiian past: Who should decide what is represented and how? And once a painting or sculpture exists, how should it be conserved?

The Painted King examines professional authority and community involvement while providing a highly engaging and accessible look at “activist conservation” at work, wherever it may be found.

77 color illus.
“Wharton’s entertaining personal narrative easily draws the reader into what he had to face as he tried to balance his professional standards, a community’s feelings, and the best interests of a beloved work of art. . . . Highly recommended for anyone interested in the nature of art and the history of Hawaii.” —Library Journal Xpress Reviews: Nonfiction (2 December 2011, read the entire review at

The Painted King will be essential reading for creators, curators, and devotees of public art.” —David Lowenthal, University College London; author of The Past Is a Foreign Country

“A path-breaking volume in conservation studies, The Painted King is certain to prompt readers to think further about the relationship between community and conservation in Hawaiian art, identity, and history.” —Stacy L. Kamehiro, author of The Arts of Kingship: Hawaiian Art and National Culture of the Kalākaua Era

“This remarkable book reads more like a mystery novel than an account of the cultural politics of art conservation in a rural Hawai‘i community. It is highly original—a personal reflection that is both accessible and deeply thoughtful about the ethics of research, public art, and cultural intervention.” —Geoffrey White, Department of Anthropology, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa

“This gracefully written work addresses issues that transcend the world of art conservation. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in discovering a model of successful collaboration between the academy and the community.” —Kalena Silva, professor of Hawaiian studies and director, Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language, University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo

“Glenn Wharton combines a deep knowledge of art conservation and its professional problems, an intensive study of a statue, and a profound sociological understanding of community structure to tell a compelling story of the conflicts that lie behind the practice of conserving works of art.” —Howard S. Becker, author of Art Worlds

“America’s public sculptures offer on-site education opportunities for history, language arts, art, and service learning. Wharton's deliciously readable book illustrates these diverse access points.” —Susan Nichols, Lunder Education Chair, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and former founding director of Save Outdoor Sculpture!

“Who or what should decide the fate of a public sculpture? The ideas of the artist who created it, the conservator, or the community that interacts with it daily? In this page-turner, Wharton confronts this and other important questions.” —Adrienne Kaeppler, curator, oceanic ethnology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution
Author: Wharton, Glenn;
A conservator at the Museum of Modern Art, Glenn Wharton cares for video, performance, and electronic collections. He is also research scholar in New York University’s Museum Studies Program, teaching graduate courses on the conservation of cultural heritage.
Read Chapter 1 (PDF).

1 A Painted King  
2 Creating a “Pacific Hero” 
3 Shipwreck 
4 Return to Kohala 
5 Local Style 
6 How People Think about Their Sculpture 
7 The Communty Takes Sides 
8 Decision 
9 On the Scaffolding 
10 Looking to the Future