When Hans Ladislaus completed his mural for the Hawai’i Convention Center 16 years ago, he received a commendation from the governor for artistic excellence and enhancing “appreciation of the rich cultural heritage of the islands.”

The 10-by-25-foot mural presents a panorama of the island chain fashioned from concrete, plaster and bronze, and was designed to reflect the artist’s concern that Hawaii’s people are losing touch with important traditions of their past. The sculptor dubbed it “Forgotten Inheritance.”

Today a heavy black cloth obscures the artwork from public view. The curtain came down on the night of Sept. 4, at the direction of Hawaii Tourism Authority President Mike McCartney after Paulette Kaanohiokalani Kaleikini and other Hawaiians said they were offended by the depiction of bones in the sand at the edge of the mural.

Kaleikini has led efforts to protect Hawaiian remains from disturbance by construction work, as a plaintiff in lawsuits filed by the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. She did not respond to requests for an interview, but Moses Haia, executive director of the law firm, said even symbolic images of bones can upset Hawaiians.

“You look at the mural and see that bones were exposed to the elements,” Haia said. “Based on my understanding of Hawaiian culture, that is a significant harm to the iwi (bones) and the mana (spiritual power) that’s contained in that iwi.

“Whether the artist’s statement is that this is what’s happened in Hawaii or not, for Hawaiians who have a deep affinity and obligation to malama (care for) iwi — and I know that Kaanohi Kaleikini does — that’s very offensive. … For Hawaiians, iwi of our ancestors provide us with our foundation. It’s what makes us who we are.”

The dispute highlights the passion that iwi evoke among Hawaiians today, and raises questions about artists’ rights to their work, the role of public art, the rights of indigenous people and the responsibilities of government agencies handling tourism and art.

“Having strong feelings about works of art is not unusual,” said Peter Rosegg, an Oahu commissioner of the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, which is responsible for the public artwork at the center.

“Art is decorative, of course, but it’s designed to inspire emotion, inspire thought, inspire discussion,” he said. “There are instances in which we’ve had similar concerns raised, but this to my memory is the first time that somebody’s gone quite this far.”

Ladislaus was one of 14 artists of Hawaii commissioned to create artwork for the convention center. The art was selected in a public process by a committee of art experts that included Native Hawaiians, Rosegg said.

The mural was completed in 1997, the year before the center opened, and was blessed by the late John Keola Lake, a respected Hawaiian scholar and chanter.

Ladislaus, reached at his gallery in Palm Desert, Calif., said he was shocked to learn that his artwork had been covered up. He has been consulting with attorneys to determine what recourse he might have.

The federal Visual Artists’ Rights Act prevents alteration, modification or mutilation of a work of visual art under certain circumstances.

“No one asked me for permission to cover the mural,” he said. “That’s the first thing that needs to be addressed. It’s very important, I think, for all artists and all people concerned to resolve it.”

He added, “It comes as a real surprise to me that something that goes through the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts can get distorted like this by some people.”

A Los Angeles native, Ladislaus moved to Hawaii in 1986 and was one of the first people chosen for an Individual Artist Fellowship award from the state foundation in 1995. He opened a gallery in California in 2001 and now divides his time between Palm Desert and his studio in Volcano on Hawaii island.

The sculptor and painter said he prefers to let his artwork speak for itself, but made an exception in this case.

“Some viewers may like it and some may not,” he wrote in a statement posted on his website after the mural was covered. “That is what is called subjective. But it was never my intent to disrespect anyone, especially the Hawaiian community. I have always demonstrated through my art my love of the land and of its people. …

“‘Forgotten Inheritance’ is simply a reminder to all inhabitants of the Islands to respect and care for the fragile ecosystem and traditions, which have been placed in our hands,” he wrote. “The ‘bones’ were made by hand in clay and then cast in hard plaster. They are purposefully NOT anatomically correct. They are meant to represent the occasional and unfortunate disturbances caused by land development, the ‘tossing aside of heritage.’

“Why in sand, as though washed up on a beach? That symbolizes the natural, unintentional way in which culture is changed by the element of Time.”

The draping of the mural took place at night, midway through the annual Native Hawaiian Conference at the center. The head of the Hawaii Tourism Authority said it was his decision.

“Members of the Hawaiian community have expressed their concerns to me regarding one of the pieces of art at the Hawai’i Convention Center,” McCartney said in a written statement after several requests for an interview last week. “Sensitivity regarding the depiction of iwi kupuna (bones of ancestors) requires more information and better understanding, which led to my decision to temporarily cover the artwork in question.”

He added, “The HTA is working with the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts and members of the community to identify a solution that will maintain the convention center’s Hawaiian sense of place. Until a decision is made, the artwork will remain covered.”

The piece was commissioned for $56,000, money that came from the 1 percent for art set aside in state public works projects. It is incorporated into the wall on a main concourse of the center, and Rosegg said installation experts believe that removing the mural without structural work on the convention center would destroy it.

Danielle Conway, a professor at the University of Hawaii law school who specializes in intellectual property, said the tussle is an intriguing case involving the rights of the artist as spelled out in law and the rights of Native Hawaiians to maintain control of their identity.

“The work has been altered or modified because it’s been covered up, and that’s what the Visual Artists Rights Act protects against,” she said. “It protects against the alteration, modification or mutilation of a work of visual art. It is a very narrow right but an important one that Congress has decided to protect.”

“There are equally important rights that Native Hawaiians have to control the display of cultural and intangible objects, assets and resources,” she added, although they might not be codified in law.

“The facts of this case are actually quite unique in that there was at least apparently consultation at the time the sketches of the mural were done and approved,” she said. “But without some kind of written document, it’s difficult to assess what was agreed upon, what level of informed consent the stakeholders had before approving it.”

The state foundation is trying to arrange a meeting among those involved in the dispute, in hopes that “the situation could be resolved by hooponopono in a spirit of understanding and cooperation,” Rosegg said.

Conway believes compromise may be possible.

“There are thorny, murky issues that are begging for solutions in both indigenous law and in federal copyright law,” she said. “This is a classic case where the two can work together to arrive at a solution.”

“What I’ve seen other indigenous communities do is use these disputes as learning opportunities,” Conway added. “I’ve seen instances where aboriginal artists allow the work to remain, but they do a display that explains the dispute and why this should not have been done.” ___