Although Oceania covers over a third of the world's surface, its total land mass - excluding Australia - represents the equivalent of no more than an eighth of the area of Europe. Yet this string of tiny islands (some of them measuring only a few square miles, or even a few acres) lost in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean has produced an artistic tradition that is among the most imaginative, the most poetic and the most eclectic in the world. Defying all definition or classification, these works are now at last appreciated in their own right, freed from the shackles of an overtly Eurocentric approach. But the study of the art of this strange and colorful world, often dreamlike and sometimes macabre or disturbing, is nevertheless still in its infancy.


When European sailors started to ply the waters of the Pacific in the 16th century, they were astonished by the huge diversity of peoples they encountered. But at the same time, cultural similarities emerged across great distances in 1831, the French explorer Dumont d'Uville, a true man of the Enlightenment and as such obsessed with meticulous systems of classification, laid the foundations for the division of this vast area of the world into three zones: Melanesia (Black Islands), Polynesia (Many Islands), and Micronesia (Little Islands). Although this division remains in common use, largely for reasons of convenience, it is impossible now to ignore the somewhat artificial nature of the criteria upon which it rests. Naturally, the temptation to underline the characteristics specific to each region is almost irresistible. Polynesian art, for instance, is easily distinguished by its elegance and its finished quality; its Melanesian counterpart is more terrifying, playing on spectacular effects and the element of surprise, and the art of Micronesia favour surface decoration. Yet the boundaries between these apparently fixed entities remain fluid. Research over the last 20 years had redefined four great creative centers, thus laying emphasis on the circulation of motifs and objects, as well as of people, within this vast territory of islands and oceans. New guinea and Australia make up the first group, representing the only zone speaking non-=Austronesian languages and also the area of earliest habitation, by peoples of Asian origin. The populations of the second group, which comprises the islands of Melanesia, from the Admiralty Islands to New Caledonia, as well as the Tonga Islands, Fiji and Samoa, formerly known collectively as western Polynesia, is strictly Austronesian in origin. The third group brings together the markedly homogeneous populations of central and eastern Polynesia, including Easter Island, the Marquesas Islands, Hawaii and New Zealand. Micronesia, finally, forms the fourth district grouping by virtue of its Asian origins.  

Eharo mask, Papua New Guinea, gulf of Papua, Elema.
Bark cloth on cane framework, highlights in red, white and black pigments.

More interesting still are a number of lines of reflection tending to emphasize similarities of differences. One example is the fondness of these island-dwellers for transforming the human body into the support for a work of art, another is the complex organization of spathal volumes manifested in the creation of the sumptuous and deeply religious buildings known as 'big houses' or 'meeting houses,' whose immediately recognizable outlines are to be found through a region stretching from Indonesia and southern Polynesia. And finally, there remains the question to which scholars are still doggedly trying to find the answer: what is the explanation for the presence of masks in Melanesia, when they are found either in Polynesia or in most of the islands of Micronesia?

And this is only one of the many unanswered questions and mysteries that hover over these cultures, demonized by some and fantasized by others. the state of affairs is undoubtedly due to the poor conditions under which these objects have come down to us: collections amassed over a relatively short period (barely a century and a half); souvenirs brought back by sailors and missionaries, snatched from their context and thus now forever silent; curiosities that tell us more about the tastes of the travelers who collected them than about the genius of the peoples who made them. But we should be grateful, nevertheless, to the early explorers, navigators and ethnologists who first offered these singular and sophisticated works of art to Western eyes. We should also than the artists of the early 20th century who rescued from the ranks of 'crafts' works with 'convulsive beauty' they found strangely compelling.

Carving from the stem of a Maori great war canoe, New Zealand. Wood

Among the latter was Alberto Giacometti. In a radio interview on April 6, 1959, he observed to Georges Charbonnier: 'The sculpture of the New Hebrides is real, and more than real, because it seems to see. Here we are not dealing with the imitation of an eye, but with the imitation of a gaze. All other elements are there to support this gaze. ... But the strangest thing of all is that these Oceanian masks ... with two inlaid shells instead of eyes ... somehow give the impression of observing you with an extraordinarily lively, almost disturbing gaze.'

Polynesia: Realm of the Sea

As Polynesia's name suggests, many it undoubtedly is, with its string of basalt lava islands rising from the depths of the ocean. And many-faceted, too, in the arts that have flourished in the hands of its inhabitants: from the most monumental of sculpture to the lightest of bark cloth, from tattooing to basketwork, and from jewelry to dance and singing. Oriented exclusively toward the sea, which infuses their art and rituals in obsessive fashion, Polynesians are above all else seafarers haunted by a world of spirits and of ancestors who must be honored. 

Fe peoples, it seems, have so endeavoured to understand the creation of the world and the origins of time. Thus, most of their foundation myths begin in the po, or original darkness, and tell the story of how Father Sky and Mother Earth together created all the other divinities and finally all their offspring, each of these divine beings personifying a particular aspect of the natural world. Among the Maori of New Zealand, the house as a whole is conceived as a symbol of the cosmos and a   metaphor for the community and its ancestors. The darkness of the interior recalls the po, while the pillars that support the main roof beam are the embodiment of the support offered by the ancestral gods, whose carved effigies they bear. Other regions have 'portable statues of the gods, but the most impressive effigies of divine figures generally form an integral part of the ceremonial groups. We are familiar with the great tiki of the Marquesas Islands, their powerful cylindrical bodies - as though in anticipation of Cubism - so fascinated Picasso, he kept one such piece in his studio. And who could forget the monumental statues of Easter Island, as enigmatic as they are colossal, 'mediating between sky and earth, between men and chiefs, and between chiefs and gods."

Bowl in the form of a fish, Papua New Guinea, Tami Islands. Wood, lime inlay

In this profoundly hierarchical world, where power was concentrated in the hands of a hereditary oligarchy, two concepts specific to Polynesia underlay all artistic endeavor. Mana was a sort of 'grace' granted to certain individuals, rendering them not only different and superior to other people but also taboo, that is (as in its adopted sense in Western languages) 'forbidden' or even 'dangerous.' Chiefs wee able to make use of these two ideas to restrict access both to principal food sources and to the sacred objects and materials used for religious rites, while the arts served to emphasize social distinctions, and relationships between the sexes. yet any study of the languages of Polynesia reveals one notable feature the complete absence of any term or concept to designate artistic endeavor as an activity in its own right. Did the world of Oceania, like its African counterpart, repudiate the characteristically Western notion of 'art for art's sake'? it is more appropriate to consider this type of art in terms of 'an ensemble of cultural expression resulting from creative processes which manipulate or use words, sounds, movements, materials, scents and spaces in such a way as to arrive at a way of making manifest that which has no physical form.' As a result, our perception of an art reduced to its sculptures in wood or stone, museum pieces torn once again from their original context and deprived of their intrinsic function, seems distorted and inadequate. Yet, Polynesian creations were made to last. When it came to carving objects, preparing fine stands of coconut fiber, making lovely grass skirts or composing songs and dances - all forms of cultural expression that were handed down as a legacy from one generation to the next - time and energy were no object.' Contacts between islands also proved very fruitful: patterns and objects circulated freely - as did ideas, gods and wives. Critics tend to disparage Polynesian art for its relatively monotonous quality, in comparison with the prodigious inventiveness of the peoples of Melanesia, where singularity and uniqueness are the rule. but this view is to underestimat4 a body of work in which stylization and restraint have attained heights seldom equalled elsewhere.


'Polynesia': the very word triggers a string of images in Western minds, featuring a voluptuous earthly paradise peopled by velvet-skinned Tahitian maidens wearing grass skirts and serene smiles, as well as a host of other cliches poised limply between Rousseauesque visions of the 'noble savage' and Gauguin's beautiful but ultimately disappointed dream. We now know, however, that the peoples of Polynesia were anything but 'savages,' and that furthermore they were neither as noble nor as friendly was the philosophers of the Enlightenment wished their contemporaries to believe. 

Large vungvung mask. East New Britain, Bainining. Bark cloth on cane framework

When the first Europeans landed on the shores of Polynesia in the late 16th century: this multitude of islands was inhabited by some 500,000 souls, in a total area three times the size of the continent the travelers had sailed from. These peoples migrated from Southeast Asia nearly five thousand years earlier, bringing with them only the strict minimum of belongings: domestic animals and plants for cultivation. some became farmers (as in Hawaii), while oth4rs became sailors (as in Tahiti) or fishermen (as in Tuamotu). but none were able to indulge in a life of idle tranquility befitting an earthly paradise. Regimented by a draconian system of etiquette, the people were expected to offer obedience to both their chiefs and their gods. the elaborate and sophisticated qualities of the world of art they produced, meanwhile, could hardly be further from the unadorned state of nature. similarly, their supposed sexual freedom, source of many a lurid fantasy, is another generally accepted idea that requires qualification: if orgies did take place, they were always within a strictly religious context. and finally came the list of cruel practices - human sacrifices, torture and even cannibalism - found throughout Polynesia, which should have sufficed to destroy forever these complacent myths surrounding its inhabitants, who were no better or worse than their European counterparts.


Possibly because they feared to give anthropomorphic form to their divinities, the inhabitants of the islands of Tonga and Samoa have produced very little sculpture. the few effigies identified to date are restricted to small female figures carved in sperm-whale ivory, probably originally worn as pendants or hung from hooks in the house of the gods. With dangling legs, slightly bent knees and well-defined beasts, these figures are found in two-dimensional form on prestige objects such as clubs and fly whisks. But if the people of Tonga and Samoa accorded only secondary importance to carved figures, they excelled, by contrast, in the art of 'appearances.' A missionary named John Williams has left us this detailed description fo an elegant Samoan girl, whom he came across on her wedding day in 1837. 'Her dress was a beautiful grass skirt tied around her waist and reaching almost down to her ankles; a garland of leaves and flowers, woven in artistic and ingenious fashion, adorned her brow. The upper part of her body had been anointed with delicately perfumed coconut oil and partially painted with the aid of a red dye made from curcuma roots, and around her neck she wore a double row of large blue beads. Everything in her comportment was of a modesty that it was a pleasure to behold.'

In these rigidly codified societies, artistic endeavours were not left to chance, and specialized activities were divided between the men and the women. thus the manufacture of tapa (a cloth made from beaten bark) was a female responsibility, and was the making of grass skirts and baskets. Men were responsible for external tasks such as architecture, making dugout canoes and the arts of war. Every village would nominate a young woman of noble blood to carry out certain rituals, such as the preparation of kava, a holy brink for the exclusive consumption of priests. A 19th-century photograph shows one of these chiefs' daughters (taupou) wearing her finest ornaments: an extravagant headdress in bark cloth (tuiga), comprising human hair, feathers and shells, garlands of scented flowers and a sumptuous necklace carved from whale ivory. Declamation, music, dance and above all tattooing, a veritable sublimation of the human body, completed the range of arts practiced by the people of Samoa and Tonga, who also used their talents in the islands of the Fiji archipelago, some days' journey away by dugout canoe.

Great war canoe, 18th century

In the early 19th century a few rare European ships braved the reefs that lay off the Fiji Islands in order to load their holds with precious cargoes of sandalwood in return, they introduced the islanders to tools made from iron, to firearm and - most fatefully of all - to European diseases. The Fijians were grateful to European merchants, nevertheless, for the introduction of ivory, which they used unstintingly to decorate objects of status and power, such as long staffs, club-scepters and headdress. Few other peoples in Polynesia raised ornamentation and body decoration to such esoteric heights. Adept at making everything from wigs of human hair to shell armbands, and from pendants of pigs' teeth to the spectacular necklaces carved from sperm-whale teeth for the canoe-builders of Tonga and Samoa, the Fijian also decorated their bodies with elaborate tattoos and scarification on their arms and upper bodies, pierced ears, even amputating toes or fingers as a mark of mourning.

Besides devoting time to the traditional activities of weaving and basketry (making superb fans and baskets in cobweb-fine patterns), Fijian women also made a type of pottery, probably of Melanesian origin, unique in Polynesia. Sophisticated enough to support a wide range of decoration - printed incised, painted, engraved or stamped - these pots were made only by fishermen's wives, and served as a form of currency for trade with other islands. A privilege accorded at birth, making the pots was an activity sufficiently sacred to require the observance of certain prohibitions, such as sexual abstinence. women were also advised to stop work during pregnancy to avoid compromising the solidity of their pots.

The skills and artistic genius of the craftsmen of Fiji, meanwhile, may be seen in two types of object: splendid war clubs, their original purpose (smashing enemy skulls) belied by marine ivory inlays and finely carved decoration; and ceremonial bowls in designs of breathtaking directness. The collection contains an example, in the form of a stocky male figure, of a power equal to the ranks of the best sculpture.


'In Europe we do not appear to realize that among the Maori of New Zealand and the inhabitants of the Marquesas Islands the art of decoration was highly advanced. Especially in the Marquesas Islands ... give an islander an object made up of geometric shapes of whatever kind, and he will contrive - harmoniously throughout - to leave no jarring or discordant gaps. the basis is the human body or face. Especially the face. You are amazed to find a face where you thought there was only a strange geometric figure. Always the same and yet never the same.' Who could offer a better description than Paul Gauguin, in Avant et apres, of the complex and sophisticated art of the Marquesas islands, then generally considered one o the last bastions of cannibalism and anti-colonial resistance? Certainly Gauguin's interest in this other world, even wilder and more distant than Panama or Martinique, should be set in the context of his radical and indignant rejection of a Europe that was outmoded, timorous and narrow-minded - and of which the administrative officers of Tahiti were sadly soon to offer him a debased caricature. but Gauguin, who had almost certainly not had the opportunity to admire the few pieces assembled in the Musee du Trocadero, opened in 1878, nor the objects displayed at the Exposition Universelle of 1889, quite by chance one day came across a photograph of some Marquesas Islanders sporting traditional tattoos. Thenceforth the photographs went with him everywhere, and he consulted them in wonder before setting off on his great odyssey in September 1901. having reached an agreement with the dealer Ambrose Vollard, the painter embarked on the Croix du Sud for Atuona, the administrative center of the archipelago. Thee, too, he was to be profoundly disappointed. As the 20th century dawned, the traditional culture was already under threat from the pernicious combined influence of the colonial administration and the church. European ethnologists, for their part, had travelled the length and breadth of the archipelago in their quest for the finest pieces with which to enrich their collections of their museums.

Necklaces, Fiji Islands. Carved and whole sperm whale teeth 

And who exactly were these islanders whose complex and sophisticated art seduced Gauguin with its 'barbaric luxury?' One word alone might suffice to sum up the mental and artistic world of the Marquesan islanders: tiki, Found with slight variations throughout eastern Polynesia, the term is used to designate simultaneously a sort of half-god, more divine than human, and the great anthropomorphic figures used to decorate shrines or the facades of local dwelling houses, built on stone platforms. by extension, the word tiki could be applied to any motif, whether carved or not, derived from a legendary character with immediately recognizable features: dilated cheeks, large round eyes, a flat nose and a mouth reduced to two parallel bulges, its body may be seen as a powerful cylinder in which a lightly modeled torso and arms can be discerned, while the well-defined hands invariably rest on the stomach, seat of the emotions. Is this the figure of a divinity, or, as contemporary ethnologists tend to believe, the personification of an ancestor?

The tiki appears in many variations and almost obsessive fashion on virtually every object, sacred or secular, that featured in the lives of the islanders; from carvings in wood and stone to jewelry in tortoiseshell or sperm-white teeth, and from bark fabrics to tattoos. According to some accounts, it is the embodiment of the first man of the Creation, husband to Hina, the first woman. As a myth from the Austral Islands relates, he "had a body and the power to create other bodies." Weary of solitude, Tiki went to the beach, carved a child in the sand, buried it carefully and want away. On his return, he was astonished to find a beautiful woman and coupled with her. From their union were born children who were the origins of the world: Te-papa-una, or 'Higher Platform,' and Te-papa'a'o, or 'Lower Platform,' who in turn gave birth to Oatea and Oatuna. Light of Day and Space. Finally, Tiki  decided to create a land for his offspring to live in. 'Here I am, here I am, me, Tiki, let Nuku Hiva become an islands!' he cried, before going on to found other islands of the archipelago. Another, darker version relates the dual nature of Tiki. though he had given men the paper mulberry from which they made tapa, as well as the banyan tree and the bird with red feathers, he was also the god of all 'deviants' (kaikaia), meaning those who had committed incest and those who had tasted human flesh. Finally, Tiki also appears as the ultimate virility symbol, so that small portions of his body (dismembered but magically reassembled by the god himself in another myth) are found incessantly on works produced in the Marquesas, from the tiniest earring to the most daunting war club. 

With the human body (or, in its reduced version, the face) thus appears as the principal medium of religious and artistic expression, the islanders also expressed their taste for finery with considerable verve and panache. Here again, materials compete - wood, stone, human bones and hair - to express the 'Beautiful,' or even the 'Terrifying.' Cut and curled under heat, human hair coils through war horns, hangs from the tips of ritual staffs and winds round ankles, wrists, arms, waists and shoulders. Old men's beard hairs, considered the most precious, were reserved for particularly prized ornaments for the head and fingers.

If thee is one other motif inherent in the art of the Marquesas Islands, it is the eyes, dilated and hypnotic, that gaze so quizzically from fan shafts, bamboo flutes, bark cloth designs and various vessels. The word mats signifies not only the face and eye, but also a knot and the tie of a fishing net; so many faces and pairs of eyes, knots and ancestors, skulls and sacrifices.


When, in 1779, the supreme chief of Hawaii met Captain Cook, he took off his cape and wrapped it round the European's shoulders, thus offering him a gift of great value as a token of welcome and respect. The sumptuous nature of this ceremonial garment - composed of feathers in brilliantly contrasting yellow and red (the two sacred colors of Polynesia) - indicated the exalted rank of its owner. The feathered cape of the Hawaiian chiefs was generally accompanied by a helmet in basketry surmounted by an equally flamboyant crest, designed to protect the top of the skull from all attacks of a supernatural or warlike nature, while also striking terror into the enemy with its spectacular appearance. Indeed, warfare and its aesthetic founded on power, aggression and ferocity colored all the arts in Hawaii - as may convincingly seen in the carved wooden faces, the features contorted into terrifying, grimacelike grins. the god depicted most frequently moreover, is none other than Ku, god of war and a sort of malevolent Mars figure of the Polynesian world. but when the sculptors of other Polynesian islands have often created rather cool forms, impersonal and stylized, the Hawaiians have opted for realism, producing figures that stand stolid and square on their bowed legs, their heads disproportionately large, chests thrust out, arms hanging free and limbs angular. The figure of the god Kuka'ilimoku in the British Museum, for example, which stood originally within the precincts of a temple, seems alternately terrifying and sacred. the same Expressionist tendency is found in the sumptuous feather effigies that the Hawaiians would display impaled on posts during ritual processions; the barred teeth of these effigies made a fearsome impression on early European ob servers. In the eyes of their creators, however, they were neither monstrous nor malevolent, but quite simply divine; cries of birds rending the silence were taken to be messages from the gods. thus, to wear a cape of feathers was also, in a way, to assume a divine raiment. 


'In the middle of the Great ocean, in a region that is never visited, lies an island that is mysterious and isolated, there is no other land in the vicinity, and it is surrounded for more than 800 leagues in all directions by empty spaces, vast and shifting. On it stand tall and monstrous statues, the works of an unknown and now-vanished race, and its past remains an enigma.'

Headrest, Fiji Islands. Wood, ivory inlay

On January 3, 1872, the frigate La Flore dropped anchor off the coast of Easter Island with Julien Viaud, alias Pierre Loti, on board. In his little midshipman's notebook, the awe-struck young man noted his impression day by day, accompanying them with lively sketches. No detail escaped his attention on this strange island studded with reddish-colored craters and mournful-looking rock formations, in this hostile landscape, so far removed from the earthly paradises inhabited by friendly, smiling natives that had been described by 18th-century voyagers, all was apparently desolation. the few dozen famished and fearful inhabitants encountered by Loti survived on a diet of roots. When they realized that the newcomers were about to uproot one of their ancient stone statues, its gaze swinging impotently up toward the murky heights of the skies, they let out piercing cries. Crowbars and levers soon sent the great effigies toppling to the ground, where they broke as they landed on their backs with a dull thud. Saws then bit into the soft volcanic stone, rending the air with a terrible grating noise. Removed from its trunk, the great brown hollow-eyed head of one of the moai was soon afterward loaded onto a boat and shipped to France: a strange, funeral odyssey for this statue of an ancestor, which now stands as a mocking trophy in the entrance hall of the Musee de l'Homme in Paris.

The future for the inhabitants of this wretched island, 'discovered' by a Dutch ship on Easter Sunday 1722 and thus named Easter Island was more dire. When James cook's expedition dropped anchor in Hanga Roa Bay, on March 14, 1774, the people were light-fingered but friendly. yet less than a century later, a tragedy without precedent was to strike them, when more than a thousand Easter Islanders, including the king, his son and the island's chief dignitaries (priests and wise men known as maori), were carried off as slaves to the guano quarries of Peru. Most of them would perish from disease and ill-treatment, and the hundred or so who survived to return then infected the rest of the population; the entire island became a mass grave. on the arrival in 1864 of the first European missionary, Brother Eugene Eyraud, only some 600 native people remained to hear the word of God.

Crown (detail). Marquesas Islands. Ttortoiseshell and shells

And yet the first explorers to venture into the treacherous waiters of the South Pacific had been quite literally fascinated by the seafaring skills of the Polynesian peoples, whose ancestors had set off on the incredible voyage from the coasts of Indonesia to the distant shores of the Levant. Made with the aid of simple stone tools, their immense catamarans with magnificently carved prows cleaved the waves with pride, sometimes carrying up to 300 sailors on board. for the navigation of such great distances, a perfect understanding of the winds, currents and stars was required, aided by sophisticated measuring instruments. Masters of the 'Great ocean,' the Easter Islanders were nonetheless solidly attached to their land, to which they introduced Polynesias chickens and rats, and whose sparse raw materials - consisting of palm trees and fish - gave the lie to Western fantasies of islands of earthly delights.

The universally respected and all-powerful master of this island was Make Make, the supreme god and creator of humans, who himself had emerged from the original egg laid by Tangaroa. When he broke the shell, Tangaroa shed the feathers that covered her body, and where these fell to earth, vegetation sprang up. through masturbating with earth, Make make then created the host of other gods in Easter Island mythology: Te Emu (the Landslip), Mata vara vara (Heavy Rainfall) and the female demons who would teach the art of tattooing to humans, Lizard Woman and Swallow Woman. ... Strange wooden figures, displaying with a rare dramatic intensity their fleshless ribcages and jutting spines, are fascinating embodiments of these akuaku (spirits). Where they divinities of secondary rank, spirits of the dead, or the corpses of chiefs? Whatever the answer, the Easter Islanders were passionately devoted to these effigies, which they rocked like babes while chanting incantations, or hung from their bodies, where they would whirl and dance wildly during ritual celebrations. 

Club with upper part in the form of a face. Marquesas Islands. Wood.

the most important religious ceremony on the island was undoubtedly that of the Bird Man. Every year, at the beginning of spring in the southern hemisphere, the men, their faces painted red and black, wearing feather headdresses and brandishing long wooden clubs inlaid with images of eyes, would set off toward the ceremonial village of Orongo. A ritually coded competition would then take place among these candidates for the highly coveted rank of Bid Men. The prize went to the man whose servant found the first egg laid by a sooty tern on the small island of Motu Nui, which lay more than a mile off a shark-infested coastline! The winner, his head, brows and lashes shaved, would then become the embodiment for the coming year of this divine figure whose elegant, hybrid silhouette embellished the island's petroglyphs, and was later to captivate the painter Max Ernst with its haunting lyricism.


Just as the word tiki is sufficient to evoke the artistic world of the Marquesas Islands, so the word tatu, meaning 'tattoo' informs the artistic activities of the Maori people. Widespread throughout Polynesia (from Samoa to Tahiti and from Hawaii to Easter Island), the art of tattooing was perfected by this seafaring, warlike people who landed on the coats of New Zealand about AD 1000. No potential medium seems to have escaped the passion for decoration and their delight in lines and spirals: the same repertoire was to mark the scarified cheeks of their chiefs, the flourishing architecture of the granaries and communal houses and the prows of their immense war canoes, as well as musical instruments, quilt boxes and other objects of daily life.  A strange decorative vocabulary is to be found in these curvilinear compositions, in which the discerning eye may gradually make out an anthropomorphic figure evoking the memory of a dead ancestor, the profile of a head with a disproportionately large, pointed tongue like a bird's beak, or the outline of a lizard, crocodile or fish.

Forehead decoration, Marquesas Islands. Pearl oyster shell, tortoiseshell, woven fibers, dolphin teeth.

While tattoos on women were confined to the lips and chin, on men they extended from the waist to the knees, as may be seen in numerous engravings based on sketches executed by members of Cook's expeditions. Facial tattoos, sacred in essence, were apparently the preserve of high-ranking dignitaries, who remained tabu throughout the time necessary for this delicate and painful operation, during which they were fed through a carved funnel.  From the deep and tortuous lines etched on the faces of chiefs it is only a small step to the grooves and slashes cut into statues and the wooden beams of meeting houses: here again is the same horror of the unadorned, the same proliferation of curve and counter-curve found throughout maori architecture. Spirals and chevrons, hybrid creatures combining human and reptile features, evocations of birds, monsters in contorted or aggressive postures, primordial divinities with arms raised, ancestral figures with tattooed buttocks: in short, a teeming, swamping, disturbing cosmogony, like the bestiary of a medieval cathedral or illuminated manuscript.

Meeting houses, conceived in their entirety as the images of the bodies of distant ancestors, were not the only symbolic representations of the cosmos. The great war canoes seemingly fulfilled a similar metaphorical role: the splendid carvings decorating the prow thus represented Father sky in the upper part, with Mother Earth shown horizontally below. Images of spines and ribs in the stern were references to the world of the ancestors. In contrast to this profusion, Maori jewelry carved in nephrite - a type of jade, hard and difficult to work, with a handsome emerald color - seems a model of restraint. Generally following the sinuous outlines of a tiki decorated with eye motifs in mother-of-pearl, pendants were endowed with a highly valued prophylactic power. Precious talismans, they were handed down from generation to generation.  

Among the peoples of Polynesia, the arts of the dance, theatre, poetry and oratory were held in the same high esteem as weaving and jewelry-making, architecture and sculpture. One many islands, the art of oratory took precedence. In Samoa, to cite only one example, orators delivery a speech would be wrapped in a length of bark cloth and equipped with the insignia of their function: a fly whisk and staff. although the Tahitians did not display any particular aptitude for the plastic arts, they excelled in the performing arts, as may be deduced from the magnificent workmanship of their musical instruments, including exuberantly carved drums and finely decorated bamboo nose flutes. Composing, acting and dancing were viewed as noble activities worthy of the highest respect: chiefs and their wives and children would take part in theatrical performances, arrayed in their most sumptuous costumes and finery for the occasion. sometimes satire and mockery formed part of these performances, which freely lampooned priests and rulers. Tahiti was also celebrated for its arioi, or professional clowns, who travelled from island to island performing their caustic monologues.
War trumpet. Marquesas Islands. Sea conch, human hair.
In other circumstances, such ads death rituals or presentation ceremonies, music and dance, performed by specialized artists in the middle of ceremonial enclosures, assumed a supremely sacred significance. 
In Tahiti, no ceremony surrounding the presentation of a gift was complete without the presence of a large piece of bark cloth, or tapa: an indication of the importance accorded to these prestigious objects that entranced European voyagers with the sophistication of their workmanship. With a few rare exceptions, making tapas was a female affair. Handed down by a goddess (Polynesian cosmology attributed the origin of this fabric to the goddess Hina, who could be seen beating bark under a banyan tree at the full moon). It was an art practices only by women, though planting the trees was men's work.
Hawaiian chief's helmet, Hawaii. Feathers, fibers.
Collected during Captain James Cook's third voyage, 1778 (British Museum, London)
Far from being merely a garment, the tapa was also a mark of rank, merit and wealth. it also fulfilled a deeply religious function, enveloping the statues embodying gods set on ritual platforms, or serving as a shroud at death rituals. A badge of identity, the tapa also announced ethnicity, featuring the decorative repertoire specific to each region and to each clan.
In the Fiji Islands, stencilling was the preferred decorative technique; in Tonga, the tapa played a mnemonic role, serving as the sketchy outlines of a form of writing and narrating historic deeds; in the Marquesas, the tapa was white, unless used to cover the heads of ancestor figures, in which case it was covered with tattoolike patterns that gave it the appearance of human skin. The exceptionally refined tapa of Tahiti bore printed patterns of leaves and flowers, while their Hawaiian counterparts were distinguished by the wide range of colours. but the most arresting were undoubtedly those of Easter Island, covered with anthropomorphic figures representing gods. 
Headdress. Generally worn by nobles. Hawaiian Archipelago basketry
the peoples of Melanesia were to push the techniques used in making tapas to even greater heights. The Baining of New Britain in Papua New guinea, for instance, would stretch them over a fine wicker or bamboo framework in order to create their unmistakable masks; gigantic insects with long noses and a dreamlike quality that was to captivate the Surrealists, and most notably the Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti.
Oceania Arts - Part 2
Melanesia Origins
Please enter your email address for your free Pacific Islands Radio Newsletter!


Hosted By Topica

Pacific Islands Radio Stations
Jane Resture's Oceania Page
Jane's Oceania Travel Page
(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 1st December 2008) 

eXTReMe Tracker