Art from the Marshall Islands and Kiribati; Dress Mats, Stick Charts and Fans

Home | Category: People, Life, Culture / People, Life, Culture


The Marshall Islands is considered part of Micronesia. Eric Kjellgren wrote: Scattered across the immense expanse of the tropical northwestern Pacific, the islands of Micronesia primarily lie above the equator and stretch from Belau, in the west, eastward to Kiribati. The region encompasses the arts and cultures of the four main archipelagoes of the Caroline, Mariana, Marshall, and Kiribati (formerly Gilbert) islands, as well as the Para-Micronesian, or "Micronesian Outlier," peoples of Wuvulu, Aua, and the Ninigo, Hermit, and Kaniet islands. [Source:Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007; Eric Kjellgren is a leading scholar of the arts of Oceania. Formerly curator of Oceanic Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and director of the American Museum of Asmat Art (AMAA) and Clinical Faculty in Art History at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, he has worked extensively with contemporary Indigenous Australian artists and done field research in Vanuatu]

The area today is divided politically into the independent nations of Belau, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, the Marshall Islands, and Kiribati, together with Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, which are, respectively, a territory and a commonwealth of the United States. The Micronesian Outliers form part of the nation of Papua New Guinea. When first encountered by Western explorers, the peoples of Micronesia and its Outliers spoke some twenty-eight different languages; all but two are still extant. 1 In the past the majority of Micronesian societies were ruled by hereditary chiefs, and chiefs remain highly influential in many parts of the region today.

Micronesia’s people comprises the second-wave settlers of Oceania and includes the people from the islands north of Melanesia, with an artistic tradition partly inherited by early Austronesian cultures from the Philippines and the Lapita culture. Micronesia’s most prominent work is the megalithic floating city of Nan Madol, a complex of artificial islands and canals built in a lagoon over the course of 400 years, from 1200 to 1600, until the arrival of European explorers and its decline in 1800. [Source:]

Eric Kjellgren wrote: Encompassed and linked by the ocean that surrounds them, Micronesia's peoples have from the beginning been master seafarers and navigators. The ancestors of present-day Micronesians arrived by two primary routes. The westernmost archipelagoes, Belau and the Mariana Islands, appear to have been settled directly from Island Southeast Asia, possibly from the Philippines, by at least 1500 s.c., and possibly as many as a thous and years earlier. The remainder of the Caroline Islands, as well as the more distant archipelagoes of the Marshall Islands and Kiribati, were settled by Lapita peoples, who were also the ancestors of the Polynesians, expanding northward from Island Melanesia beginning roughly two thous and years ago. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007; Eric Kjellgren is a leading scholar of the arts of Oceania. Formerly curator of Oceanic Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and director of the American Museum of Asmat Art (AMAA) and Clinical Faculty in Art History at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, he has worked extensively with contemporary Indigenous Australian artists and done field research in Vanuatu]

The earliest voyagers likely employed the same navigational techniques that are still practiced in some parts of Micronesia today, or ones similar to them. Using no instruments, Micronesian navigators are guided primarily by the stars and the form and rhythm of ocean swells. In former times navigators in the Marshall Islands constructed charts from thin sticks to show the positions of islands and the patterns of ocean swells. These charts were employed only on land, where they were consulted by experienced navigators and studied by novices, and were not carried along on actual voyages. The design and, in some areas, the ornamentation of canoes, essential to long-distance voyages as well as daily activities such as fishing, are also important art forms across the region.

Micronesian Art

Micronesian art is known for its use of minimal mediums worked with refined craftsmanship — simple and functional, yet of high quality. Eric Kjellgren wrote: Micronesian art typically embodies a spare aesthetic in which line and form dominate and surface ornamentation is often absent or greatly reduced.. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

In the past, sculpture and masking traditions in Micronesia were rare. Only Belau, Yap, a few other areas in the Caroline Islands, and some of the Micronesian Outliers had any substantial traditions of figural or architectural sculpture. Human figures were typically highly stylized. A study in contrasts, their features often masterfully combine a rigid angularity with gracefully curving lines.

Famous artifacts from the Micronesia region include wood carvings of stylized bowls, canoe ornaments, ceremonial vessels and sculpted figures by male artisans, as well as textiles, jewelry, and accessories by female artisans. Eric Kjellgren wrote: Micronesia's carvers devoted the majority of their time and talents to the creation of functional objects such as bowls, covered boxes, and other containers, as well as weapons, dance paraphernalia, and personal accessories. Many objects, such as the sleek hourglass-shaped bowls (apia nie) of Wuvulu and Aua, are starkly minimalist in their conception; their streamlined shapes perfectly merge functionality with an elegance of line that ranks them among the masterworks of Oceanic design. Micronesian artists also created a great variety of jewelry and other personal ornaments in shell, turtle shell, coral, fiber, and other materials, which often exhibit the same harmonious blending of angular and curving elements. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

The fiber arts in Micronesia were, and are, highly developed. As elsewhere in the Pacific, nearly all of the region 's diverse textiles and other fiber works are created by women. Across the region artists fashion intricately patterned plaited works, such as dress mats, fans, and family emblems, elegantly decorated baskets, and ceremonial textiles (some of which function as forms of currency), as well as more mundane articles such as everyday garments and sleeping mats. A distinctive feature of fiber arts in the Caroline Islands is the presence of loom weaving, a technique originally introduced from Island Southeast Asia, which in the past was used to create superbly patterned belts, sashes, and other ceremonial textiles.

Marshall Islands Weaving

The women of the Marshall Islands are renowned as some of the finest weavers in the Pacific. According to one tradition, if the umbilical cord of a newborn girl is placed among pandanus leaves or other weaving materials then she will grow up to be a talented weaver. In addition to weaving fine mats and baskets, weavers express their skills through the creation of personal adornments and hand fans. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Fine weaving from the Marshall Islands began to enter the United States in greater numbers from the middle of the twentieth century, when weavers produced works for sale to American soldiers who were based in the Marshall Islands during the Second World War and the subsequent period of US nuclear weapons testing that took place between 1946 and 1958.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection contains a Border for a Dress Mat (Jaki-ed, In, or Nieded) dated to the late 19th-early 20th century. Made by Marshallese Islanders from Pandanus leaves and hibiscus fiber, it is 29.5 inches high, with a width of 30.5 inches (74.9 x 77.5 centimeters)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection also contains Marshallese carrying mat. Dating to the late 19th-early 20th century, it was made from fiber and and is inches high, with a width of 27.12 inches (34.9 x 68.9 centimeters)

Marshall Islands Dress Mats

Eric Kjellgren wrote: In the Marshall Islands both men and women formerly wore ornate dress mats, called jaki-ed, in, or nieded, adorned with complex borders bearing intricate geometric designs. Each sex wore thejaki-ed in a specific fashion. Women wore the mats in pairs, one at the front and one at the back, hanging full length from the waist to form a skirt that extended to the ankles. When the skirt was formed each day, the back mat was always wrapped around the hips over the front mat, which allowed the richly patterned borders to be seen.[Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Once wrapped around the body, the skirt was secured by a long narrow belt. Men typically wore a single mat at the waist, tucked into a belt at the front, passed between the legs, and tucked into the belt again at the back to form a loincloth.

On important occasions, male chiefs and other highranking men wore a single mat full length at the front, like an apron, over a voluminous fiber skirt. 5 Made exclusively by women, the mats consist of a plain central section plaited from panda nus leaves to which the ornamental borders, created separately, were sewn using delicate needles made from bird or fish bone.

Although they required considerable time and care to produce, dress mats were designed for daily use and, when properly cared for, could be worn for about a year. Superbly crafted and delicately adorned, yet wholly practical, Marshallese dress mats are a testimony to the ability of Micronesian fiber artists to create striking works of art from the most basic materials. The art of making the mats, long in decline, has recently been revived by contemporary Marshallese artists.

When worn as garments jaki-ed became known as nieded. Women would wear nieded in a paired set with one at the front and the other wrapped around it from behind so that the patterns on both mats are visible. The garment would be secured by a belt around the waist. Men would wear similar garments as a single piece of cloth wrapped round the hips.

One Marshall Islands, dress mat (Jaki-ed, in, or nieded) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection dates to the late 19th-early 20th century and is made of pandanus leaves and hibiscus. It is 16 inches (41.9 centimeters) high. Another measures 32 x 34 inches (81.9 x 86.4 centimeters). A photograph from 1897-99 shows a young woman from the Ralik chain, in the Marshall Islands, wearing a skirt formed from two dress mats.

Making Marshall Islands Dress Mats

Among the highest expressions of the weaving skills of Marshall Islands women are jaki-ed, the finest quality of Marshallese mats. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Jaki-ed are woven from wūnmaan, a variety of pandanus, which is boiled, trimmed, and dried in the sun before being beaten to release the natural oils of the plant and then stripped ready for weaving. The weaving technique used to make the mats is a form of plaiting. Mat weaving is a highly social activity, with women gathering to talk and share stories as they work. Jaki-ed are woven in three parts, the jouj (central section) is woven first and then stitched to the separately- woven decorated border. The final element to be added is the bakwoj, which is sewn over the top of the seam between the jouj and the decorated border, both to strengthen the join and enhance the appearance of the mat. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

During the twentieth century, weaving of jaki-ed as garments began to diminish as Marshallese people adopted fabric clothing following influence from missionary contact and successive colonization by Germany, Japan and the United States. During the Second World War, women began wearing nieded again, as disruptions to shipping lines prevented the import of textile clothing. In recent years there has been an active program for the revival of jaki-ed weaving in Marshall Islands, where the techniques and designs are being researched and reconstructed. Today, jaki-ed have become a powerful symbol of cultural resistance and resilience within a nation profoundly affected by climate change and the legacies of US nuclear testing.

One Dress Mat (Jaki-ed, In, or Nieded) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection is 32.5 inches high, with a width of 34 inches (82.6 x 86.4 centimeters) In creating the borders, artists interwove the light tan panda nus with black fibers made from dyed hibiscus bast and reddish brown fibers derived from a local creeper to create geometric patterns of great delicacy and complexity, which appear to have been purely ornamental. Once completed, the mats were soaked in seawater and dried in the sun, which gave them a fresh, pleasant smell.

Marshall Islands Fans

Created by women, Marshallese fans (drel or rat) were of two basic types: a simpler form made from young coconut leaves, serving practical functions like cooling the body and fanning embers to kindle a blaze. and a more ornate variety made from undyed pandanus leaves and hibiscus bast dyed black. Like the larger dress mats, these pandanus-leaf fans are composite objects: the central panel is woven around the handle, and a separately woven ornamental border is sewn to it. The central portion often consists of a series of curved rib like elements, precisely interwoven. to create a complex grid of concentric forms that resemble Gothic arches. The form and ornamentation of the central panel and border, however, vary considerably, and in rare cases the central portion is rep laced by a translucent panel of turtle shell. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

There is little information on the use and significance of fans in the Marshall Islands. They were reportedly employed primarily in fire making, used to fan the flames or embers of a fire to kindle a blaze. However, the ornate nature of many examples, as well as the occasional use of precious materia ls such as turtle shell, strongly suggests that at least some fans were valued personal accessories used, like fans throughout the world, to cool the body in the tropical heat.

It was once the case that every island group across Micronesia had their own unique and identifiable style of hand fan. However, stylistic attribution can be difficult as woven goods were valuable items of exchange throughout the region, and fans were often traded and gifted between islands.

One fan (drel or ral) from the Marshall Islands in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection is made from pandanus leaves and hibiscus fiber. Dating to the late 19th-early 20th century, it is 16.5 inches high, with a width of 11 and a depth of.87 inches (41.9 × 27.9 × 2.2 centimeters) This fan is an example of the more elaborate variety, woven from pandanus and black hibiscus fiber, with a central rib pattern that radiates from a midrib-like handle and is surrounded by a delicately patterned border. Fans like this were likely a form of personal accessory.

Stick Charts

Navigational maps, commonly known as "stick charts," were originally used in the Marshall Islands by navigators during long ocean voyages. Although stylized, the charts were functional objects providing information on the locations of individual islands as well as wave patterns.

Eric Kjellgren wrote: For the people of the Marshall Islands, as for all Micronesians, navigation was and remains an essential skill on which the lives of navigators and all who sailed with them depended. Sailing among the scattered atolls of the Ralik and Ratak island chains, which together comprise the Marshall archipelago, the Marshallese made frequent ocean voyages. In former times long-distance voyages were made not by single vessels but by substantial flotillas, usually consisting of twenty-five to thirty, but at times up to eighty, large sailing canoes, each capable of holding forty or fifty people. The navigators, as a rule, all sailed aboard a single pilot vessel, which guided the other boats in the fleet. Restricted to chiefly men, the art of navigation was vital to the success of any voyage and possession of it brought great prestige and status. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Knowledge of navigational techniques was a closely guarded secret, kept and passed down only within certain chiefly families. To assist in recalling and, where appropriate, imparting the secrets of navigation, Marshallese navigators constructed schematic diagrams of the sea and islands that surrounded them from the sticklike midribs of coconut palm fronds. Commonly referred to as "stick charts," these objects were not charts in the strict Western sense of maps that recorded the position of every island and shoal. Instead, they were memory aids constructed as needed by individual navigators to remind themselves, and to instruct novices, about specific features of sea and land.

The form of stick charts was not fixed. The exact significance of a given example was known only to its maker, and even an experienced navigator could not fully interpret a chart made by another. Although they contained information essential to the navigator when at sea, stick charts were produced and consulted only on land, before the voyage began. For an individual to carry a stick chart along on a sailing canoe would be damaging to his reputation, as it called into question the extent of his knowledge and abilities.

Although Marshallese stick charts indicate the positions of islands (their locations, in many examples, are marked with cowrie shells), Marshallese navigation was based in large part on the detection and interpretation of the patterns of ocean swells. Much as a stone thrown into a pond produces ripples, islands in the sea deflect and interrupt the orientation of the waves that strike them, creating distinctive swell patterns, or dunung, which can be felt by experienced navigators in the motion of canoes at sea and used to guide the vessel to land. The presence and orientation of dunung and other ocean phenomena such as currents are the main features indicated on the stick charts.

Highly variable in their individual content, stick charts occurred in three types: mattang (nonspecific diagrams used to teach general principles of navigation), meddo (charts that show the swell patterns of a few specific islands), and rebbilib (charts covering all or most of the Marshall archipelago). Brandt, states that the "sticks" were made from the roots of the pandanus tree.

One Navigational Chart (Rebbilib) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection is made of coconut midrib and fiber. Dated to the 19th-early 20th century, it is 35.25 inches high, with a width of 43.25 inches and a depth of 1 inch (89.5 x 109.9 x 2.5 centimeters). This example consists of a gridlike structure of seven vertical sticks lashed to four horizontal ones. The corners extend outside the main grid, while three curved strips, possibly representing the patterns of ocean swells, extend from side to side. The intersections created by the slanting sticks at the corners may indicate the locations of specific islands. In some instances, small cowrie shells, absent on this example, are also used to indicate the positions of individual islands.

This work is of the rebbilib type. As was true of all stick charts, the precise features that this chart records were known only to its creator. However, as a general rule navigators used bent sticks to indicate the swells created by islands, and the intersections of the sticks marked places where swell patterns met in the open ocean. Short straight sticks indicated currents, whereas longer ones showed the direction of travel to specific islands.

Marshall Islands Jewelry

Eric Kjellgren wrote: Micronesian art is notable for the variety and inventiveness of its jewelry. Living primarily on low-lying atolls — narrow crescent-shaped islands of raised coral that provided little apart from wood and fiber — artists turned to the seas that surrounded them for a wealth of durable and beautiful materials for jewelry. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

In the Marshall Islands artists created a diversity of delicately crafted ornaments to adorn the head and neck. Some ornaments also served to mark the social status of the wearer. Among the most prestigious and highly valued were wide, comb-shaped pendants known as marremarre lagelag or buni. Reserved for chiefs, the pendants were fashioned from precious materials. Wide but extremely thin and fragile, some were made from turtle shell or whale ivory. Others, such as the present works, were painstakingly carved from the hard shells of Tridacna (the giant clam and related species), known in Marshallese as ladju or mejil labelab. When the pendants were newly completed the Tridacna shell had an appearance similar to white marble;

One pendant fragment (Marremarre lagelag or buni) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection comes from Arno Island in the Marshall Islands. Dated to the 19th-early 20th century, it is made of Tridacna shell and is 2.5 inches (6 centimeters) wide. Another from the same time and place is also made of Tridacna shell and is 6.5 inches (16.2 centimeters) wide. These works have become patinated through years of use. The significance of the finely carved toothlike elements, which are at times almost modeled in the round, is uncertain. When in use the pendant was strung on a necklace of delicately braided lengths of black and tan fiber and accented with brightly colored disks of pink and orange shell and other materials, attached through the numerous holes that appear at the upper margin. Thus adorned, the pendant formed the dramatic centerpiece of an elegant, chiefly necklace.

Art from Kiribati

Kiribati is known for breastplates and sword made with braided coconut fibres decorated with a pattern of small embroidered fish and feathers. Some swords are made of wood and sharks' teeth. [Source: Christie's]

The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection contains a fragment of a sleeping mat from Kiribati. Dating to the late 19th-early 20th century, this woven textile mat originates from the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati) and was made from fiber. It is 19.5 inches high, with a width of 34 inches (49.5 x 86.4 centimeters)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection contains a complete sleeping mat from Kiribati. Dating to the late 19th-early 20th century, it is made from fiber and is 37.25 inches high, with a width of 29 and a depth of .25 inches (94.6 × 73.7 × 0.6 centimeters)

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, William A. Lessa (1987), Jay Dobbin (2005), Encyclopedia of Religion,; “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia,, New York Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated August 2023

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.