Polynesian Art: Tikis, Whale Ivory Ornaments and Flywhisks

Home | Category: People, Life, Culture


Polynesia art is among the most famous type of Oceanic art and the most sought-after at auction. Among its first European collectors were Captain James Cook and the artists and scientists aboard the HMS Endeavour, which set sail for Australia and New Zeal and in 1768. [Source: Christie’s]

The connection between Polynesian art and the earliest discovery voyages of the South Pacific Ocean ‘make it the oldest and the most historically rich style of Oceanic art on the market’, says the specialist. ‘It’s also the rarest.’ This is because much Oceanic art was destroyed in the early 19th century as traditional cultures embraced Christianity. ‘ and most of what has survived is now housed in public collections,’ adds the specialist.

Among the most coveted Polynesian artefacts are Easter Island artefacts, Cook Island God staffs and Maori ornaments from New Zeal and — sculptural wood carvings, such as bowls, statues and clubs; objects associated with oceanic travel, including paddles and canoe prows; or any ceremonial object of artistic and cultural relevance.

Polynesia embraces over 1000 islands and includes New Zealand, Easter Island, the Cook Islands, Marquesa Islands, Fiji, Tonga and Hawaii. Eric Kjellgren wrote: The islands of Polynesia lie primarily within the vast expanse of the Pacific often called the "Polynesian triangle," whose corners are formed by Aotearoa (New Zealand), Hawai 'i, and Rapa Nui (Easter Island). The region today is divided into the countries of Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Tuvalu, Niue, the Cook Islands, and New Zealand, together with American Samoa, Tokelau, Wallis and Futuna, French Polynesia, the Pitcairn Islands, Hawai 'i, Rapa Nui, and the islands known as the Polynesian Outliers, which are governed by, or form part of, other nations. Despite the often immense distances which separate them, the peoples of Polynesia, who at Western contact spoke some thirty-seven separate languages (of which all but one exist today), are closely related, sharing a common genetic, cultural, and artistic ancestry. [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]]

Polynesian societies were, and in many areas still are, governed by a hereditary aristocracy of chiefs who, believed to be more directly descended from the gods than ordinary men and women, hold (or held) both sacred and secular authority over the commoners who constitute the majority of the population.

History of Polynesian Art

Polynesian art traces its origin in the Lapita culture.Eric Kjellgren wrote: The arts and cultures of Polynesia are believed to be descended from a single ancestral culture, which archaeologists refer to as Lapita and which first appeared about 1500 B.C. Lapita peoples had a highly developed series of art forms, including distinctive decorated pottery, figurative sculpture, and tattooing. Characterized by complex geometric designs, which in some instances include stylized human or animal images, Lapita art represents the forerunner of later Pol ynesian artistic traditions. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Probably originating somewhere in Island Southeast Asia, Lapita peoples dispersed rapidly eastward, across Island Melanesia. By 1000 B.C. they had reached the previously uninhabited archipelagos of Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, where by the middle of the first millennium B.C. their descendants developed the first recognizably Polynesian cultures. Between roughly 200 B.C. and A.D. 100, the Polynesians began to exp and outward into the immense expanse of the eastern Pacific, reaching the Marquesas and Cook Islands Opposite: Detail, cat. no. 191 between 100 B.C. and A.D. 100 and later settling the Society Islands, including Tahiti, and the other archipelagoes of the region. from these new eastern homelands, the Polynesians ultimately radiated outward to settle the far-ftung lands of Hawai 'i (ca. A.D. 500) and Rapa Nui (ca. A.D. 600), finally reaching Aotearoa and Rekohu (the Chatham Islands) about A.D. 1100. Everywhere they settled, the Polynesians brought with them a series of social, religious, and artistic traditions, which, sharing a common ancestry, often exhibit remarkable similarities throughout the region.

According to barnebys.com: Polynesian art suffered greatly from the arrival of Christian colonizers and missionary work, especially when it came to sculpture, which was traditionally endowed with supernatural powers and thought to incarnate spirits — a belief and tradition that Christianity suppressed. By the 19th century, depopulation of the region due to slave raiding and Western diseases led to the steady decline of Polynesia’s artistic output. Work mainly continued through secular art, such as with tapa textiles and kava bowl carving. However, most of Polynesian art was destroyed, making it the rarest of Oceanic art. Most of what has survived resides in public collections, and what comes on the market always commands high premiums. [Source: barnebys.com]

Since the 1970s, though, the arts and cultures of Polynesia have experienced a tremendous resurgence. Polynesia's artists and other cultural leaders, more than those in any other region of the Pacific, have brought about a vigorous renaissance of culture, language, and the visual and performing arts.Ancient art forms, such as wood carving, canoe building, and the fiber arts, have been revived or revitalized. Polynesia's artists have also embraced a diversity of other media and art forms. Today, the region is home to a burgeoning contemporary-art movement, centered in Aotearoa and Hawai'i, whose artists are increasingly gaining recognition in the international art world.

Characteristics of Polynesian Art

Eric Kjellgren wrote: Sculpture in Polynesia was a male art form. Polynesian women excelled, and excel, in the fiber arts, producing a diversity of textiles, baskets, and other works, ranging from sacred ceremonial objects to items for everyday use. The quintessential women 's art form was, and remains, the manufacture of bark cloth, often referred to by the general term tapa. Frequently adorned with geometric and other designs whose imagery and organization at times reflect affinities with earlier Lapita artistic traditions, bark cloths range in scale from small cloths used as garments or to wrap precious objects to massive ceremonial textiles sometimes more than one hundred yards long. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

In the past many of Polynesia's most magnificent decorative art forms centered on what has been described as an "aesthetic of inequality," consisting of sumptuous garments, ornaments, and personal accessories that marked the status, and enriched the lives, of the chiefly elite. However, the ornaments and implements used by commoners were also often superbly designed and decorated. Virtually all important objects, such as personal ornaments and weapons, had individual names and histories. Preserved and handed down as heirlooms, many were, and are, regarded as living entities, infused with the mana of the generations of individuals who have owned and used them.

As everywhere in the Pacific, the advent of Western contact and colonization brought profound changes to the arts and cultures of Polynesia. In some areas the introduction of metal tools in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries initially resulted in a brief, but spectacular efflorescence of wood carving. However, the devastating impact of introduced diseases, combined with the rapid conversion of Polynesian peoples to Christianity and the annexation of all but one of its archipelagos by Western colonial powers, ultimately resulted in the decline, interruption, or loss of many Polynesian artistic traditions.

Religion, Deities and the Supernatural in Polynesian Art

Eric Kjellgren wrote: Virtually all Polynesian sculpture was religious in nature. Almost all contemporary Polynesians are Christian, but in the past Polynesian peoples venerated a diversity of supernatural beings. The most powerful were the gods and goddesses who were responsible for the creation of the cosmos or who controlled broad aspects of the natural and human world, such as the sea or agriculture. Some gods, such as Tu Tane, Rongo, and Tangaroa, appear in various manifestations in cultures throughout the region. Besides the major gods, a myriad minor local deities served as the patrons and protectors of specific natural phenomena or human activities, including art forms such as carving, canoe building, and tattoo. Deified ancestors, both recent and remote, also played a central role in many areas, including Rapa Nui, whose renowned stone figures (moal) portray ancestral chiefs. In addition to the gods and ancestors, there were a variety of spirits who dwelt within the land and sea. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

The divine world was the ultimate source of mana (supernatural power), which in the human world could be manifest in people (especially chiefs and religious specialists), places, and both natural and manufactured objects, such as stones or carved images. Those individuals, locations, objects, or activities with large amounts of mana were considered tapu (sacred). By extension, the term tapu served as a warning that contact with that person, place, or object was supernaturally dangerous and consequently restricted or forbidden. from tapu came the English word taboo.

To portray and to contain the mana of their myriad deities, ancestors, and spirits, Polynesian sculptors created sacred images, which, when properly activated during ritual activities, served as temporary abodes or conduits for the beings they represented. These images included both anthropomorphic and, more rarely, animal figures, as well as more abstract works, in which the human form is either highly stylized or absent. Although their creators were often separated by thousands of miles, anthropomorphic sculptures throughout Polynesia are often strikingly similar in form and conception. Usually strictly symmetrical, the human figure is depicted in a frontal position, standing with the knees slightl y bent, the arms extended down the side or flexed at the elbows, and the hands resting on the stomach. The head, considered the most sacred part of the body, is usually greatly enlarged, comprising from a quarter to more than half of the total height. Sexual characteristics, when present, are usually only subtly marked.


Tikis are perhaps the best known images in Polynesia art. These sculptures represent the connection between man and nature, between heaven and earth, and symbolize creation and life itself. The Polynesians believed that the tiki was a patron saint and good luck charm and worshipped it as a kind of idol. The origin of the first tikis varies from island to island and is accompanied by myths and legends often unique to each island. In Tahiti, the story is told about Tiki, the creator of the world, who formed the first Tiki from a lump of clay and breathed life into him. Traditional tikis are hand-carved and often made of wood, stone or bone. [Source: aranui.com]

Wooden tikis from Mangareva in the Gambier Islands of French Polynesia are especially prized. The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection has one of these that dates to the 18th-early 19th century and is 38.3 inches (98.4 centimeters) tall. Eric Kjellgren wrote: The tiki (human images) of Mangareva bear eloquent witness to the achievements of Polynesian sculptors and are rare survivals of the great iconoclasm that followed, as it did throughout Polynesia, the conversion of the population to Christianity. With their sacred heads and loins swathed in garments of bark cloth, the figures originally stood in special houses at community marae (sacred sites) as well as in shrines erected in villages, likely for the worship of individual family deities. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Virtually the entire corpus of Mangarevan sculpture was burned or otherwise destroyed beginning in 1835. The following year, Te-Maputeoa, the 'akariki (parmount chief) of the archipelago, was baptized, and the islands' marae and their sacred structures and images were systematically destroyed. Only eight Mangarevan tiki are known to survive.Most, paradoxically, were preserved by the Catholic missionaries responsible for the destruction of the remainder. The missionaries, in the words of Father Delmas Mouly, "took care to save from the hecatomb the most remarkable specimens of Mangarevan art.

The information that survives about the imagery and identity of Mangarevan tiki is tantalizing but fragmentary.Wood images were fashioned to represent and contain the mana (supernatural power) of a variety of etua (deities), ranging from major gods found throughout Polynesia, such as Tu and Rogo, to a multitude of local divinities. The latter were primarily deified ancestors or the spirits of unborn chiefly children who had died in miscarriage. These more minor divinities revealed their existence through religious specialists, who became possessed by them while deep in a trance; one Mangarevan oral tradition stated that "a tiki was carved because a new etua had spoken through the mouth of a priest." It is possible that the present work represents such an ancestor or unborn chiefly child. However, there is evidence to suggest that it depicts a far more powerful deity. The Metropolitan's figure is one of a group of six similar images, two of which are identified in historic sources as images of Rogo. One of the four main deities of the Polynesian pantheon, on Mangareva Rogo was an agricultural etua who brought the rains that sustained the growth of crops, especially breadfruit, and whose presence was symbolized by rainbows and mist.

The Mangarevan tiki in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection represents the deity Rongo (Hawai’i: Lono). Dating to the Early 19th century, it originates from Mangareva, Gambier Islands and was made by the Mangarevan people from Wood and is 38.75 inches high, with a width of 10 inches and a depth of 8.25 inches (98.4 × 25.4 × 21 centimeters). Piercing through the sky on the arc of a rainbow, Rongo is responsible for the rains that sustain the vital breadfruit crop. Carved in the fullness of youth, this wooden figure references the agricultural abundance that was sought through the ritual presentation of the first fruits of the season to the gods. These ceremonies accompanied the appearance on the horizon of the cluster of stars known as Matariki (Pleiades).

A Ti'i is a is a stone-sculpture made by the Maohi of the Tautira region of Tahiti. One in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection dates to the early 19th century or earlier. It is 23 inches high, with a width of 17 inches and a depth of 11 inches (58.4 x 43.2 x 27.9 centimeters) and weighs 220 pounds (99.8 kilograms).

Tahitian Ritual Image of the Deity Oro

Eric Kjellgren wrote: As vessels for the mono (supernatural power) of divine beings, sacred images in Polynesia took many forms. In some instances the most potent deities were not represented by human or zoomorphic figures. On Tahiti, for example, the island 's preeminent deity, 'Oro, the god of war, and other divinities closely associated with him were manifest in more abstract images-the oblong effigies known as to'o.' Fashioned from symbolic and supernaturally powerful materials, to'o were composite objects. The images were constructed around a club-shaped core of too (ironwood), the primary timber used for Maohi (Tahitian) weapons and a material almost certainly associated with 'Oro as god of war. This central core was densely wrapped in layers of finely plaited coconut-husk fiber, which partially or completely concealed the wood portion. The process of wrapping was itself sacred. In some cases, once the wrapping had been completed, additional strands of fiber were applied to the surface, as here, to suggest the facial or other anatomical features of the deity. These wood and fiber components served as a substrate for the attachment of feathers, which contained the actual mono of the god.. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

The British missionary William Ellis described the importance of feathers in to'o images: For these feathers the gods were supposed to have a strong predilection.... [T]o them the power or influence of the god was imparted, and through them transferred to the objects to which they might be attached.... Many idols... were solid pieces of wood, bound or covered with finely-braided fibres of the cocoa-nut husk; to these feathers were attached on the outside by small fibrous bands.

To protect their sanctity, to'o, like many other Polynesian images, were wrapped in multiple layers of bark cloth, forming large bundles that were opened only on the most sacred occasions. As god of war, 'Oro was invoked and his support sought before all important military engagements. The British explorer Captain James Cook, who witnessed a sacrificial rite likely devoted to 'Oro at a moroe (sacred site) in Atehuru described the opening of such a sacred bark-cloth bundle: One end of the other bundle... was next opened but we were not allowed to go near enough to examine its contents, but was [sic] told the Eatua [atua (god)] was concealed in it, or rather what is supposed to represent him. This is a thing made of the twisted fibres of the husk of the coca-nut, shaped something like a large fid, that is roundish with one end much thicker than the other. We have very often got small ones from different people, but never knew their use before. Although 'Oro was predominantly associated with warfare, he also played other roles. In his manifestation as 'Oro-i-te-tea-moe ('Oro of the spear laid down), he was patron of the arioi, a semiprofessional class of performing artists composed of young men and women. The arioi, who were permitted great personal and sexual freedom but forbidden to have children, honored 'Oro as the god of the origin and fulfillment of sexual desire and of eternal youth. 'Oro was originally a deity of the island of Ra'iatea, and his worship appears to have been introduced to Tahiti shortly before the first European contact in 1767. Initially localized, the worship of 'Oro spread rapidly under the royal patronage of King Pomare II in the first decade of the nineteenth century and became the national religion of Tahiti.

Oro's tenure as national deity, however, was brief. In 1816 Pomare II converted to Christianity, and the island 's indigenous religion was overthrown. During this period the vast majority of to 'o and other images were destroyed. Stripped of their sacred feathers, those that survived were, ironically, often presented to or acquired by missionaries who sent them back to Europe as tangible evidence of their evangelical achievements.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection contains a ritual image (to'o) representing the deity Oro made of wood and coconut fiber by the Maohi people of Tahiti. Dated to the 18th century, it is 18 inches high, with a width of 3.75 and a depth of 2.75 inches (45.7 × 9.5 × 7 centimeters) To’o such as this were bound with a fiber “skin” to encourage deities to temporarily inhabit them. The act of binding was accompanied by the recitation of chants during which the fiber literally caught the chanted words, making them lasting and tangible. Loops of coconut cord on this to’o reference the body: eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. The navel, a portal to the sacred interior of the god image, is indicated by a small depression two-thirds of the way down the trunk.

Royal Fly Whisk (Tahiri) from Tahiti

The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection contains the Handle for a Fly Whisk (Tahiri) made of ivory and coconut husk fiber by the Maohi people of Tahiti. Dated to the 18th century, it is 11.75 inches high, with a width of 1.75 and a depth of 1.5 inches (29.8 × 4.4 × 3.8 centimeters) [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: This elaborately carved ivory flywhisk handle was once owned by the Tahitian royal family. In the late eighteenth century, it likely belonged to the chief Tu-nui-e-a-i-te-atua who united Tahiti and neighbouring islands under his rule in 1791, taking the name of Pomare I. This handle was among a group of objects sent by his son and successorPomare II, a recent Christian convert, to the missionary Thomas Haweis in 1818. Constructed entirely of cut sections of whale ivory which are bound at three points with finely plaited sections of coconut fiber cord, it is missing several plaited sections of coconut husk fiber which would have attached to its lower end to extend below in a tail or 'whisk'. It is commonly assumed that flywhisks were used to chase away flies from the food presented to chiefs on ritual occasions, a misconception reinforced, and then perpetuated, by early missionary observers who were resident on Tahiti from 1797 onward. Certainly flywhisks were important ritual regalia reserved for a chiefly elite but this focus on their likely practical function eclipses important cosmological aspects which were an equally crucial component of their construction.

Balanced on a wide collar at one end, a distinctive backward-arching figure infers a hollow space or canopy from which the central ivory stem extends in a series of openwork sections. The carving on each section is diverse, varying from angular sections with minimal intervention to more complex sections incorporating highly stylized figures that support each co-those with outstretched arms and legs give way to a series of simple incisions which indicate facial features on highly abstracted figures. Most striking is the largely uncarved tip which remains smooth, the final series of carved detail segueing into the creamy surface of the ivory.

Coveted for its rarity, whale teeth (known as ivories) were particularly potent. Whales were deemed to be the ata (shadow) or embodiment of Ta’aroa, the original creator god from whom all others derived. The bones and teeth of whales were therefore not merely symbolic or ornamental, they were relics infused with the essence and potency of Ta’aroa. Strong and lasting, they were his iho (or essence) made permanent. The bones of one were deemed to be the bones of all and in this way, the flywhisk handle worked metonymically to index the entire chiefly lineage and all its predecessors. Serial canopies painstakingly hollowed out along the length of the handle were therefore intended as a highly abstracted, visual expression of fundamental genealogical principles.

As Pomare II notes, these fly whisks were functional objects, used to prevent insects from alighting on the tapu (sacred) bodies of the royal family. However, the precious material from which they were constructed symbolically marked their owners as members of the chiefly elite. Fly whisks were among the ensemble of objects, including items such as stools and feather girdles, that were presented to chiefs as insignia of rank during their investiture. Such chiefly fly whisks were elite versions of the mundane implements used by lesser-ranking Maohi to keep flies off their bodies and food. Captain James Wilson, who brought the first British missionaries to Tahiti in 1797, vividly described the use of fly whisks: They never suffer a fly to touch their food if they can help it; and should they find one dead in their puddings, or any of their provisions... they throw it to the hogs. Hence they all carry fly-flaps; these are usually made of feathers, and fixed to a handle of wood ten or twelve inches long, sometimes, carved, sometimes plain.... Whenever you enter a house, or approach a place where provisions are preparing, this is the first thing they offer you. When the provisions are dressed and hot before you, the boys continue to fan away the flies with fly-flaps, nothing being more offensive or disagreeable than that a fly should get into their mouths. Besides the two ivory fly-whisk handles presented by Pomare II to Haweis, only two others are known.

All four examples are composed of multiple openwork segments, carved from the teeth of sperm whales and lashed together with lengths of braided coconut-husk fiber. To carve such delicate openwork from the dense, hard ivory with tools of stone and shell required enormous time and labor as well as exacting precision. The bases of the handles are adorned with stylized ti'i (human images); the feather or fiber brush of the whisk would have been attached to the slender, unadorned portion at the opposite end. The figure on the Metropolitan's fly whisk is the most naturalistic of those on the four handles that survive.

Of indeterminate gender, it is portrayed with the back arched dramatically, so that both the feet and the head touch the surface above. Some scholars interpret the imagery of the openwork segments above the figure as a stylized spinal column or as abstract ti'i standing one atop the other, imagery possibly symbolic of the successive generations of ancestors in chiefly genealogies.

Art from the Marquesan Islands

The Marquesan Islands, a group of volcanic islands in French Polynesia, are famous for their arts and crafts. The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection contains a wooden club ('U'u) made by the Enata people of the Marquesan Islands. Dated to the 19th century, it is 57.37 inches high, with a width of 4.5 and a depth of 7 inches (145.7 × 11.4 × 17.8 centimeters). A suspended bowl from the same time and place is made of coconut shell, bone, seeds and fiber and is 4.75 inches in height, with a diameter of 6.62 inches (12.1 x 16.8 centimeters)

A Fan (Tahi'i) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection was made of wood, bone and fiber by the Marquesan (Enata) people. Dated to the 19th century, it is 18.5 inches high, with a width of 17 and a depth of 1 inches (47 × 43.2 × 2.5 centimeters). Fans in the Marquesas were carried by prominent individuals of both sexes as marks of social status. Displayed at feasts and other events, their visual impact was enhanced by the elegant manner in which they were carried, especially by women. Made from narrow strips of plant fiber, the blades were woven around dagger-like wood handles (ke'e), sometimes sheathed in a sleeve of bone.

A wood fan handle (ke'e) is dated to 1820-50 and is 14 inches high, with a width of 1.75 and a depth of 1 inches (35.6 × 4.4 × 2.5 centimeters). The earliest fan handles were apparently unadorned, but by the early 1800s, artists began to decorate them with numerous small tiki (human images). Typically arranged in pairs, shown back-to-back and stacked one atop the other, these tiki, like human images elsewhere in Marquesan art, likely portray deified ancestors.

Whale Ivory Ear Ornaments (Hakakai)

Marquesan art is particularly notable for the richness and diversity of ornaments created to adorn the human body. Ivory ear ornaments, or hakakai, were made from whale teeth or, in smaller examples, pig tusks and were worn by both men and women. Obtained in precontact times only from chance strandings, whale teeth were among the rarest and most precious objects in the Marquesas. One hakakai in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection was made in the Marquesas Islands by the, Enata (Marquesan) people, Dated to the early 19th century, it is 2.4 inches (7 centimeters) long. Describing Marquesan ornaments, Captain David Porter, an American naval officer who visited the islands in 1813, observed : "No jewel, however valuable, is half so much esteemed in Europe or America, as is a whale's tooth here."

Eric Kjellgren wrote: Ear ornaments of whale ivory may have existed in the precontact period. However, they became far more abundant in the early nineteenth century, when European and American whalers and traders seeking sandalwood (a fragrant timber that grew in abundance in the islands), brought large numbers of whale teeth to the islands to exchange for sandalwood, food, and other commodities. [Source:Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Carved in one piece from the massive teeth of sperm whales, larger hakakai, such as the pair seen here, were worn by men. In form, hakakai consist of a large disk worn in front of the ear and a curved spur, inserted through a large hole in the earlobe, that projected behind the ear. A small stick, placed through a hole drilled through the spur, held each ornament in place, and a length of cordage attached to the spurs of the two ornaments was passed over the top of the head to support their considerable weight. 4 In both large and small hakakai the spurs were frequently adorned, as here, with small tiki (human images). However, prior to Porter's visit, no Marquesan ear ornaments with such tiki figures were either described or collected, suggesting that this more ornate form developed in the early nineteenth century as both large supplies of ivory and steel carving tools became available through trad e with passing vessels.

Marquesas Islands Headdresses (Uh ika na)

Eric Kjellgren wrote: Like fine jewelry in Western societies, personal ornaments in the Marquesas were worn primarily on important occasions such as feasts, festivals, and religious rites, as well as by warriors going into battle. Among the finest Marquesan ornaments were the headdresses known as uhikana, which were an important component of ceremonial regalia for haka'iki (chiefs) in the southern islands of the archipelago. Worn on the forehead, uhikana consist of a headb and of coconut-husk fiber adorned with a large central disk of iridescent pearl shell overlaid with a delicate openwork plaque of turtle shell. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

A Marquesas Islands Headdress (Uh ika na) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection dates to the late 19th century and is made of pearl shell, turtle shell and fiber and is 18 inches (45.7 centimeters) long. The ends of the headband are adorned with smaller pearl- and turtle-shell plaques and end in loops through which a short length of cordage was tied to secure the headdress at the back of the head.

The exquisitely detailed plaques of the uhikana were fashioned from the fragile, translucent plates that form the outermost layer of sea-turtle shells. Consisting of complex openwork compositions whose central elements are further adorned with human faces and other motifs in low relief, these plaques were among the most intricate and technically challenging works produced by Marquesan artists. The plaques on uhikana are carved in two distinct styles, an earlier type consisting of geometric motifs and a later figurative form known as the "tiki star," in which the faces of six tiki (human images) radiate from a central disk.

The tiki star is, as in the example seen here, surrounded by an circular openwork b and surmounted by two hooklike forms, which resemble the ceremonial fishhooks from which sacrificial victims, or heana, were formerly suspended as part of some Marquesan religious rites. Whether this distinctive configuration of tiki faces had a specific meaning at the time the uhikana were made is unknown, but some contemporary Marquesans state that the six faces symbolize the six inhabited islands of the Marquesan archipelago. The tiki-star image appears on wood clubs created for sale as curiosities during the last decades of the nineteenth century, suggesting that this type of uhikana may date to the same period. The tiki star is one of several Marquesan motifs that appear in the work of the islands' most renowned expatriate resident, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), who spent the final years of his life in the archipelago and is buried at Atuona, on the island of Hiva Oa.

Marquesas Islands Pipe Bowls

One of the first Western practices to be widely adopted in Polynesian cultures was the cultivation and smoking of tobacco. In the Marquesas Islands archaeological surveys reveal the presence of clay trade pipes as grave goods in contexts that otherwise show no evidence of outside contact, indicating that pipes, and presumably tobacco, were among the earliest foreign goods to gain wide acceptance. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

By the early nineteenth century Marquesans had begun to cultivate tobacco as well as to create their own distinctive smoking pipes, which they called epaepa or pioro. Although direct historical evidence is scant, the earliest epaepa appear to have been composite objects consisting of a carved stone pipe bowl with a hole in the side into which a separate pipe stem, made from a hollow reed, was inserted. Pipe bowls of whale ivory likely began to be manufactured in the early nineteenth century when whale teeth, extremely rare in the precontact era, were brought to the islands in large numbers as trade goods by European and American whaling ships and other vessels.

Like the earlier clay trade pipes, some continued to be buried with their owners.-Others were treasured within families as heirlooms and by the early twentieth century had already been passed down for several generations. Enjoyed by members of both sexes, the use of pipes and tobacco, like many other aspects of Marquesan culture, was governed by sacred restrictions, or tapu. Men and women were not permitted to smoke together, and in some localities a woman could not smoke a pipe belonging to a man, whereas a man could smoke one belonging to a woman.

One Pipe Bowl (Epaepa or Pioro) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection was made of whale ivory by the Marquesan (Enata) people. Dated to the early 19th century, it is 2.5 inches high, with a width of 1.12 and a depth of 1.12 inches (6.4 × 2.9 × 2.9 centimeters) This example is adorned with three small tiki (human images), whose poses and features closely resemble those on Marquesan ivory ear ornaments dating to the same period. Like most Marquesan tiki, the figures likely portray deified ancestors. At least some Marquesan artists appear to have specialized in pipe making. In 1843 a French missionary reported that one Marquesan chief was able to earn the majority of his living through carving pipes. Even when they were in widespread use, epaepa remained highly valued objects.

Bird-Shaped Lidded Bowls from the Marquesas Islands

Eric Kjellgren wrote: The lidded bowls, or kotue, of the Marquesas Islands are among the most elegant expressions of Polynesian wood sculpture. Only about a dozen examples are known, all of which share the same distinctive shape, with a subtly curving form that suggests the body of a bird adorned at one end with a projection resembling a bird 's tail and at the other with a fully modeled human head. With their prominent goggle-shaped eyes, narrow bandlike mouths, and serene facial expressions, the heads on the kotue are similar to those of other human images, or tiki, which appear throu ghout the islands' sculpture and decorative art. Marquesan tiki typicall y represented etua (supernatural beings consisting primaril y of deified ancestors) whose powers protected and sustained the community. Despite the rarity of kotue, examples have been collected from nearly all of the six inhabited islands in the Marquesan archipelago, indicating that the form may once have been widespread. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Versatile as well as elegant, bird-shaped vessels in the Marquesas were first noted by Western observers in the late eighteenth century, and a number of names and functions are attributed to them in the historic sources. The earliest description of kotue is that of the English missionary William Pascoe Crook, who noted that the vessels were adorned, as here, with "a Nob, carved in imitation of a mans [sic] head" and that they were used "to hold provisions." Fitted with removable lids to protect their contents, kotue were used for storing a variety of items, including popoi (a paste made from pounded breadfruit that was, and remains, a staple of the Marquesan diet), personal ornaments and other valuables, and 'eka (turmeric), a precious yellow-orange powder used to adorn the skin. One Lidded Bowl (Kotue) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection was made of wood, Marquesan (Enata) people in to the late 18th-early 19th century and is 6.5 inches high, with a width of 8.5 and length of 13.5 inches (16.5 × 21.6 × 34.3 centimeters).

Besides their everyday functions, some kotue appear to have been used in funerary contexts. As in other Polynesian societies, in the Marquesas the head was considered the most sacred part of the body. During the early contact period, Marquesan artists created special vessels to contain the skulls of haka'iki (chiefs) and other important ind ividuals, and the contemporary Marquesan cultural authority Toti Te'ikiehu'upoko states that vessels known as kotue were created specifically as skull containers. An early twentieth-century account states that small oblong vessels adorned with birds' heads were used to carry the heads (likely in the form of skulls) of haka'iki to the islands' sacred ritual sites, or me'ae. The collections of the community museum on the Marquesan island of Ua Huka today include two bowls recovered from a burial cave, similar in shape to the present work, both of which still hold human skulls.

Art of Austral Islands

The Austral Islands are the southernmost group of islands in French Polynesia. The remote archipelago consists of five small islands about 650 kilometers (400 miles) south of Tahiti. Eric Kjellgren wrote: The intricacy and refinement of the arts of the Austral Islands, immediately struck the earliest European explorers who reached their shores more than two centuries ago. About Austral Island carving, Joseph Banks, who visited the island of Rurutu in 1769 as a member of English explorer Captain James Cook's first voyage to the Pacific, wrote: "Of the few things we saw among these people every one was ornamented infinitely superior to any thing we had before seen."' We know little, however, about Austral Island artists or the imagery and significance of their creations. The Austral Islanders were converted to Christianity in the earl 1820s, largely by recent Maohi (Tahitian) converts sent by the London Missionary Society, and the population decimated by introduced diseases. What historical information survives regarding the precontact culture of the Austral Islands is sparse and fragmentary. One early Western observer, however, reported that carvers in the islands held sacred status and that while working they observed strict prohibitions, or tapu, and were fed only particular foods prepared b religious specialists. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection contains several works from these islands. A club dated to the 19th century is made of wood and is 11 feet (3.5 meters) in length. A wood ladle dates to 1820-40 and is 23.5 inches (59.7 centimeters) long. Another is 54 inches high, with a width of 6 and a depth of 5.5 inches (137.2 × 15.2 × 14 centimeters). A wooden bowl also dates 1820-40 and is 4.12 inches high, with a width of 6.62 and a depth of 12.12 inches (10.5 × 16.8 × 30.8 centimeters).

Rita Reif wrote in the New York Times: Curators, collectors and dealers of tribal art converged on Sotheby's in New York in May 2000 to view, gossip about and bid small fortunes for two 19th-century Polynesian rarities: a brilliantly colored Hawaiian feather cape and a curious Austral Islands necklace of whalebone, ivory and human hair. Their obscure histories (they were unknown to scholars until the sale was announced in January) and their freshly restored condition made them hot topics of discussion in tribal art, a field considered one of the most rumor-ridden in today's art market. Such concerns notwithstanding, the objects brought record prices for Polynesian art. [Source: Rita Reif, New York Times, June 11, 2000]

The necklace was worn by champion warriors in the Austral Islands who, it was said, were allowed to possess any woman while wearing it. The necklace is an exotic assemblage of plaques and spheres carved from whalebone and whale ivory, strung on a cord wrapped in human hair. While admirers praised it as more complete than the 14 other known examples, critics said it had been overly restored and looked bleached. The necklace, expected to bring $175,000 to $250,000, was sold for $313,750.

Flywhisk from the Austral Islands

The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection contains flywhisk (tahiri ra’a) from Rurutu or Tupua'I Island in the Austral Islands made of wood, coconut fiber, human hair. Dating to the early-mid-19th century, it is 30.25 inches high, with a width of 6 and a depth of 2.37 inches (76.8 × 15.2 × 6 centimeters) [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Dynamism was a crucial aspect of Polynesian god images, and closely associated with their effectiveness as ritual objects. As part of ritual practice, priests encouraged gods to pierce through the sky into the earthly realm by fanning vigorously with ceremonial flywhisks, known as tahiri ra’a. Fanning, (or ‘whisking’) in bold, gestural movements to mark the steady rhythm of genealogical chants encouraged the arrival of the gods, who were said to bear down to the earthly realm on the wind. This specific ritual function was thus a way to attract gods out of the darkness of the spirit world to enter into the world of light, inhabited by humans, where they could be safely consulted.

James Morrison, a crew member of HMS Bounty, who accompanied that vessel’s infamous mutineers on a short-lived attempt to settle the island of Tupua’i in 1789, leaves us the earliest description of the imagery of these iconic art works which were used by Austral Island chiefs: ‘The Old Men have walking Staves & handles of Fly flaps made of the same wood, highly finished, on the Top of their Staves they generally have Carved a double figure of a man representing a figure with one Body & two Heads & some of two, standing back to back, their Fly flaps are made of the Fibers of the Cocoa Nut twisted & plaited very Curiously.’

The finely carved finial figure in this example has a pair of curving heads which bow forward, tapering to a proboscis-like tip. Two sets of rectilinear arms extend from the figure’s narrow shoulders to frame a single teardrop-shaped body. A series of delicately executed notches distinguishes precise detail in each figure, outlining the contoured edges of limbs — legs, feet, and abstracted hands which appear to be clasped, elbows nearly resting on the knees. Facial features are reduced to a single brow line, bisected by a central ridge that represents the nose and extends over the top of the head as a crest. The peg-like projections on the forehead represent ornamental topknots of hair, a coiffure worn by man of chiefly rank in the Austral Islands. The form of each topknot is echoed by the navel (pito) which projects from the center of the torso. These figures represent the earliest line of deified ancestors, supernatural beings who inhabited a primordial era alluded to in their saurian, or reptile-like, features.

Commonly referred to as ‘flywhisks’, these elegant upright sculptures have long been misunderstood, suffering from overly literal interpretations that overlook their deeper cosmological significance. Dynamism is implied in the name atua (or a-tua), the collective term for Polynesian gods, which refers to revolving or turning repeatedly around a central axis. This spinning motion is manifest in the carving of this tahiri particularly in its highly abstract finial, which seems to be doubled but actually represents a single figure in motion. The figure’s feet taper elegantly into four pairs and appear to delicately side-step around the central shaft when the tahiri is rotated on its vertical axis. The same action causes a series of circular spools and rounded discs to appear to descend downwards along the length of the wooden shaft whose lower section is bound with lengths of reddish-colored coconut fiber cord and human hair. These are highly significant materials that refer to genealogical relations between the current generation of chiefly men and their forbears. The springy coconut-fiber whisk element at the bottom further reinforces a sensation of movement and spinning. Sections of polished pearl shell tied into the bindings of tahiri would have flashed and jangled when twirled, creating the luminosity and sound that created the appropriate conditions for ritual, enhancing the efficacy of its principal objective — to summon forth the gods from the dark reaches of the ancestral realm (te po) into the light of day (te ao).

Austral Islands Drum (Pahu)

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: In the Austral Islands, as elsewhere in Polynesia, drums almost certainly formed part of the ritual paraphernalia of sacred sites (marae), where they were played to accompany songs, dances, and ceremonies. Only roughly a dozen Austral Islands drums survive. They consist of tall, thin-walled cylinders of hardwood with drumheads of sharkskin, kept stretched to the correct tension by lengths of cordage secured to a series of lugs. While the upper portion of the instrument was frequently undecorated, the drums have ornate openwork bases often adorned with stylized female figures, possibly representing ancestors or dancing women. The beauty of Austral Island drums was apparently appreciated well beyond the archipelago prior to western contact. Examples appear in eighteenth-century sketches made by early European explorers in Tahiti, some four hundred miles away. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

One Austral Islands Drum (Pahu) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection is made of wood, sharkskin and fiber. Dating to the early 19th century, it is 51.37 inches high, with a width of 9.37 and a depth of 10 inches (130.5 × 23.8 × 25.4 centimeters). Eric Kjellgren wrote: The islands' elegant, slender drums, or pahu, were painstakingly hollowed from a single piece of hardwood.Across the upper end of the tall, thin-walled cylinder was placed a thin tympanum (drumhead) of sharkskin, stretched to the correct tension by numerous lengths of braided coconut-husk fiber secured to a series of rectangular lugs. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Roughly a dozen examples survive; several are attributed to the island of Ra 'ivavae, though the drums may also have been carved elsewhere in the archipelago.' No historical accounts of their use exist, but as in other Polynesian societies, drums in the Austral Islands almost certainly formed part of the ceremonial equipment of marae (sacred sites), where they were played to accompany songs, dances, and other ceremonies.

Austral Island pahu, whose upper portions were often undecorated, are distinguished by their elaborate openwork bases typically adorned, as here, with rows of stylized female figures with prominent triangular breasts, possibly representing ancestors or dancing women.-The lower bodies of some figures take the shape of broad, concentric crescents, which Western scholars have variously speculated represent dance skirts, curved pectoral ornaments, stylized thighs, or the emanation of mana (supernatural power). There is evidence to suggest that the superb craftsmanship of Austral Island pahu (an aesthetic that would likely have included their sound as well as their ornamentation) was recognized beyond the archipelago before the coming of Europeans. A depiction of a ritual on Tahiti, made in 1777 by the artist John Webber, who accompanied Cook on his third voyage to the Pacific, shows what appear to be imported Austral Island drums in use on a Tahitian marae. If this is indeed the case, such drums would have been brought northward to Tahiti by sailing canoes as part of a centuries-old network of exchange relationships that linked the peoples of the Austral and Society lslands.

Austral Islands Dance Paddle

Eric Kjellgren wrote: In parts of Polynesia the decorative arts are characterized by an affinity for intricate and refined surface ornamentation. This love of embellishment-of sacred and secular objects, bark cloth, and, through tattooing, the human body-arguably found its supreme expression in the laishly ornamented surfaces of the distinctive paddleshaped implements produced on Ra'ivavae and Tupua'i, in the Austral Islands. The objects are as enigmatic as the are ornate, and there is no direct historical evidence about their precise purpose or function. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

William Anderson, who accompanied the British explorer Captain James Cook on his third voyage to the Pacific, noted that canoes on Tupua'i were "manag'd with small paddles whose blades were nearly round." The blades of the paddle-shaped implements typical I have a rounded form, but their size, proportions, and ornamentation would have rendered them unsuitable for use as canoe paddles.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection contains a dance paddle made of wood from the Austral Islands. Dated to 1820-40, it is 52.75 inches high, with a width of 14.5 and a depth of 2.75 inches (134 × 36.8 × 7 centimeters). This work has three handgrips and the shaft is too short and thin to allow it to function effectively as a canoe paddle. Instead, it appears nearly certain that these objects were ceremonial, and it seems reasonable to speculate that, like the paddle-shaped rapa of Easter Island, they served as dance paddles, used to accentuate the movements of the bod during sacred and secular performances. A number of Austral Island chiefs' staffs adorned with similar imagery survive, and it is possible that the paddles, too, served as insignia of social rank.

Like other Austral Island art forms such as drums dance paddles appear to have been produced both for local use and for trade to the Society Islands, where they may have been present before the arrival of Europeans. The paddles' form and original function, whatever it may have been, are likely of precontact origin. However, virtually all the surviving examples were created between 1821 and 1842 and are one of the most prolific expressions of the broader eft1orescence of wood carving that took place in many regions of Polynesia in the earl postcontact period. Some paddles may have been fashioned for local use, but the vast majority were made for trade to passing ships as part of what was, even then, a ftourishing Western market for Polynesian "curiosities." Introduced metal tools were likely used in initially shaping the objects, but Austral Island carvers appear to have preferred indigenous carving tools made from shark's teeth or shell for the finer surface carving. Although astounding in its complexity and detail, the surface imagery of the paddles is based on scarcely more than a half dozen basic motifs, which appear in an infinite variety of combinations such that no two examples are identical.a The intricate bands of designs on the blade of this work, for example, are composed of only three design elements: concentric circles with radiating lines, minute rows of nested crescents, and X-shaped motifs, which some scholars interpret as highly stylized human figures. The rectangular crossbar is adorned with two rows of more realistically rendered female figures, and the apexes of the handgrips are crowned by rings of similar figures, facing outward, with their heads adorned with paired topknots of hair. The flexed knees and upraised arms of the figures, as well as the portrayal of these women in lines and rings, suggest that they are dancing.

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.com; “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia, Encyclopedia.com, 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 factsanddetails.com, please contact me.