Ipu – Gourds

ipu-koko    Gourds in ancient days served as water containers, bowls, boxes, ladles, bailers, and many other household necessities.

      In ancient times, gourds generally  were left undecorated, although the koko (carrrying nets) were often highly ornamental. Certain of the more decorative knots, in fact, were kapu (reserved for the use of) to royalty and any commoner caught using them would be executed. When they were decorated, a variety of methods were used depending on the resources and customs of the district.  There are three traditional ways to decorate gourds: Laha – painting,  Wela Pa`a – wood burning, and Pāwehe – “tattooing.”

In the Kona district of Hawai’i Island, wood burning techniques apparently were used to decorate gourds. James King wrote of the gourds he saw, “They have. . . a method of scoring them with a heated instrument, so as to give them the appearance of being painted, in a variety of neat and elegant designs. . .” 

Hue Wai, a water gourd
Pāwehe by Leilehua Yuen

On O`ahu, gourds were stained in patterns, possibly in a method similar to that used on Kaua`i. The skin was scraped from the shell in the areas which were to be colored. The gourd was then soaked in dye of the desired color. After the color had soaked into the shell, the gourd was removed from the solution and dried. Then the skin was scraped off, leaving a pattern of dyed and natural colors. The gourd then was wrapped in ti leaves and steamed in an imu to set the color.

The gourd utensils Capt. James Cook saw at Waimea, Kaua’i were, he said, stained “prettily with undulated lines, triangles, and other figures of a black color; instances of which we saw practiced at New Zealand.” Cook also noted that the Hawaiians had apparently developed technology for creating varnishes, “for some of these stained gourd shells are covered with a kind of lacker [sic]. . .”

Ipu Pāwehe
An ipu pāwehe sitting amongst ipu vines. Decorated by Leilehua Yuen.

On Ni’ihau, after the designs were carved into the skin, the gourds were said to have been buried in black mud. The native iron compounds in the earth possibly reacted with tannins in the gourd, creating black and dark reddish-brown patterns. The people of Ni’ihau called their geometric designs “pāwehe”, using the term for both the gourd patterns and the designs woven into their exquisite mats.

Traditional Toolbox
Leilehua Yuen, about 1997, demonstrating the use of traditional tools.

Leilehua enjoys crafting her works using the ancient style tool. “I feel it puts me in closer contact with the people who created these art forms,” she says.

Among the tools she uses are stone saws, coral rasps, and bone and bamboo knives. Fish hide and leaves make various types of sand papers.