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Shoppers at this year’s Merrie Monarch Invitational Hawaiian Arts Fair, coordinated by Nelson Makua.

As coordinator for the Merrie Monarch Invitational Hawaiian Arts Fair, Nelson Makua invites all to head down to Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium April 24-27 and peruse the creations of dozens of vendors.

For 16 years, Big Island artist and designer Nelson Makua has taken on the herculean task of coordinating and co-directing the annual four-day Merrie Monarch Invitational Hawaiian Arts Fair at the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium during Merrie Monarch Festival week in Hilo.

This year, the fair runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, April 24, through Friday, April 26, and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, April 27. Admission is free.

Shoppers can expect various local vendors selling their wares. PHOTOS COURTESY NELSON MAKUA

The arts fair is the official fair of the festival, and has grown from fewer than 40 vendors who set up shop at Aunty Sally Kaleohoano’s Lū‘au Hale (then called Seven Seas Lū‘au House) to nearly 200 artisans filling the auditorium and overflowing into the adjacent Butler Building. Thousands of festival-goers weave in and out of carefully choreographed rows that display everything from bone carvings to feather lei, lauhala pāpale to shell and Tahitian pearl jewelry, aloha wear, island snacks and paintings.

This treasured group of artisans has been carefully compiled over the years by Makua himself, with the intent of perpetuating both contemporary and traditional Hawaiian art.


“We strive to create an event that is more than just a craft fair,” Makua says. “We want it to be as culturally enriching as the hula festival itself. Most important is the quality of the crafts, so we screen all applicants, and over the years, we have found the best of the best. Everything sold at the fair has to be made in Hawai‘i, have some cultural significance, and the artisan has to be on-site.”

More than half of the 200 vendors and demonstrators come from Hawai‘i Island; the remainder hails from across the state, and a few travel from the mainland.

Makua says he wants customers to form a relationship with the artists and producers, get to know what they’re about and learn about why they do what they do.


“Personalizing the fair like that has helped us create something of a party atmosphere,” he adds. “There isn’t another fair where people come all four days and spend the whole eight hours there. It’s like a family reunion.

If you come all four days, you will see the same people. There’s a lot of reconnecting with old friends and ‘ohana, which is at the heart of the event.”

Over the years, Makua feels he and co-organizers Paula De Morales and his son, Kainoa, have raised the bar for what a craft fair can be. For fashion designers especially, he says the venue can be a place to kick-start careers.

Expect handmade jewelry, vintage pieces and more at the Merrie Monarch Invitational Hawaiian Arts Fair April 24-27.PHOTOS COURTESY NELSON MAKUA

“Wahine Toa, Simply Sisters, Hina, Kealopiko and many other new designers owe their success to the fair,” he says.

This year, while attendees browse vendor booths, they can also stop by ongoing demonstrations and workshops, including lauhala weaving, kapa, pahu drum carving, Ni‘ihau shell, ‘ohe kāpala, and la‘au lapa‘au, as well as sit and enjoy hālau performances and musical acts. This year, the program includes award-winning artists such as Kuana Torres Kahele, Darlene Ahuna, Natalie Ai Kamauu, Lehua Kalima and Shawn Pimental.

Makua and fair co-director Paula De Morales have also spent the past couple of years working to make Hawaiian language a part of the interaction between artists and event-goers through two language learning apps: Duolingo and ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i ‘Oe (Do you speak Hawaiian?). This year, they hope to bring more visibility to this opportunity.


“Participating vendors will communicate to their customers in Hawaiian using an app for translation,” Makua explains. “Customers who download the apps will be able to reply in Hawaiian as well. This is important to encourage the perpetuation of ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i and also to get people interested in learning the Hawaiian language.”

DeMorales noted more than 200 common words or phrases applicable to the on-site artists, and participating patrons can earn some swag by speaking to artists using this Hawaiian phrasing, too.

Download Duolingo before the fair at home to practice common phrases, she says. Use ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i ‘Oe at the fair to help you communicate with vendors.


“Since Merrie Monarch is the biggest Hawaiian cultural event in the state, what better place to do something like this?” DeMorales says. “I taught Hawaiian language at Waiākea and Hilo High for 30 years, and I’m really passionate about Hawaiian language. I am just so happy that it will be a part of our Merrie Monarch Arts Fair. If people go to the Duolingo app first to see some of the common

phrases, it will be easier. But even if they don’t, there are phrases on the ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i ‘Oe app that they can use. It’s thrilling to think we can inspire more people to use our Hawaiian language every day.”

Makua, who has been instrumental in bringing the Hawaiian arts fair to where it is, has been an artist and designer on Hawai‘i Island for more than 40 years. Though he was born and raised on O‘ahu, his family moved to the Big Island in 1975, returning to the original Makua home in Puna.


“My ancestors were part of the migration from Tahiti to Hawai‘i, and they settled in Kalapana in the district of Puna,” he says. “Living here gave me the opportunity to connect with ‘ohana I never knew. It was like coming home.”

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Nelson Makua and his son, Kainoa, are the design duo who runs Nelson Makua Design. Though he was classically trained in drawing, painting and photography, Nelson has been a digital artist for more than 25 years. He is the only artist to have created eight years of Merrie Monarch Festival posters, and in 2008, one of his festival posters received a Pele Award for best illustration by Hawai‘i Advertising Federation.

“The digital age has opened up a whole new world of creating for the artist with countless possibilities,” Makua says. “I am not a ‘techie’ by any means. Instead, I use a more intuitive approach to creating art in digital form. I push pixels instead of paint, just as if I was working in paint on canvas.

“Guided by my kūpuna before me, I consider myself a Hawaiian living in my own time, creating images that reflect my time and place.”

As Makua continues to push his own art in modern form, finding venues to showcase the work of this collective of artists he has come to know over the years is also of utmost importance.

An aptly timed opening in the Wailoa Art Center schedule provided an opportunity this year for Makua to also produce his first invitational art show. The Mana 2019 Invitational Art Show will be held at the Wailoa Art Center in Hilo through April 26.

“Those who know us are familiar with our high standards and dedication to our events,” says Makua. “Knowing so many creative artists, we decided we wanted to personally invite them to participate in this unique exhibit.”

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