Art of Fiji: Kava Bowls, War Clubs and Barkcloth Panels

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According to to Fiji Guide: Most of the folkloric crafts are practiced in the villages, and village life is still the foundation of Fijian society. Mat-weaving is taught to nearly every village girl, and the making of masi (tapa) cloth is widespread. A craft that dates from the original settlement of Fiji around 1290 BC, pottery-making is still practiced in the lower Sigatoka Valley, the islands of Kadavu and Malolo, western Vanua Levu,the Rewa Delta and the province of Ra. Each district has its own distinct signature in its pottery style. Today the technique and division of labor differ little from those of pre-European contact times.

The Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) hosted an exhibition on Fijian art in June 2013 called “Chiefs and Governors: Art and Power in Fiji”. According to the museum: Chiefs and Governors introduces important aspects of Fijian art and culture, and highlights key moments of Fijian pre-colonial and colonial history. Combining historical and contemporary objects and installations, Chiefs and Governors emphasises the dynamism and creativity of Fiji. This was the first ever exhibition dedicated to Fijian art outside of Fiji. It drew on MAA's exceptional collection of Fijian artefacts, photographs and archives, a collection closely linked to the early colonial history of Fiji and the foundation of the Museum. Baron Anatole von Hügel, MAA's first curator, travelled within Fiji between 1874 and 1877, a period coinciding with Fiji's entry into the British Empire. Along with Sir Arthur Gordon (First Governor of Fiji) and Alfred Percival Maudslay (Sir Arthur's private secretary), Von Hügel assembled an impressive Fijian collection, including outstanding objects presented by Fijian and Tongan chiefs. This material formed the founding ethnographic collection of the Museum when it opened in 1884. The exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue: Chiefs and Governors: Art and Power in Fiji by Dr Anita Herle and Dr Lucie Carreau.[Source: Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology]

One prized Fijian piece at the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology is a Necklace of eight ivory figures, interspersed with smaller decorative 'teeth' type figures. Comprised of Human-shaped figures and pendants of whale ivory strung on fine plaited coir cords it was probably presented to Lady Gordon, wife of Sir Arthur Gordon. The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection contains a necklace made of whale ivory, fiber and glass beads. Dating to the mid to late 19th century, it is 8.87 inches high, with a width of 8.5 and a depth of.5 inches (22.5 × 21.6 × 1.3 centimeters) when worn.

Turtle-Shaped Kava Bowls (Darivonu)

Eric Kjellgren wrote: As in many parts of Polynesia, Micronesia, and Island Melanesia, a central element in contemporary Fijian ceremonial life is the preparation and drinking of kava, a mildly narcotic beverage prepared from the roots of the kava plant. In Fiji kava is known as yaqona. A wooden bowl in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection used to drink yaqona dates to the early 19th century and is 22 inches (55.9 centimeters) wide. This vessel, carved in the form of a vonu (turtle) is a tiinoa, a large bowl used to serve yaqona during communal drinking ceremonies. [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]

Yaqona has played an important role in Fijian art and culture since ancient times. However, the form and sea le of the vessels used to serve it, as well as the social context of kava drinking, appear to have changed significantly during the latter part of the eighteenth century. Prior to this, yaqona was consumed primarily by bete (priests) and initiated men as part of religious rites known as burau, in which participants knelt to drink yaqona from small shallow vessels of wood or earthenware or from small leaflined pits excavated in the ground.

These early wood yaqona vessels were described by the Wesleyan missionary Thomas Williams: "Fancy oil dishes and yaqona bowls, chietfy for the priests, are cut... out of very hard wood in a great variety of forms. I have seen one carved like a duck, another like a turtle, many circular and very fiat, with a curiously wrought foot." Williams also noted the existence of larger yaqona bowls, which at the time of his mission to the islands, from 1840 to 1852, were already in widespread use: "The large bowl for preparing yaqona is very heavy, and is giving place to that of Tonga, which is lighter."

Williams's reference to the popularity of the larger type of yaqona bowls retfects the pervasive influence of Tongan and Samoan kava rites and vessel forms on local Fijian practices, which began during the latter half of the eighteenth century. Tongans and Samoans who had initially arrived as warriors later settled among the Fijians, often in communities of specialized craftsmen, and introduced a different, more secular form of kava ritua I: rather than kneeling individually to sip directly from small vessels, groups sat around a large communal bowl and drank from cups made from coconut shell or other materials. As the Fijians gradually adopted this more communal ritual into their own culture, artists began to create larger bowls, or tanoa, from which to serve yaqona. The typical form of Fijian tiinoa, consisting of a large circular bowl supported by cylindrical legs, retfects Tongan or Samoan prototypes.

However, the imagery of figural examples, such as the present work, likely derives from the forms of the smaller vessels used in the earlier, more sacred yaqona rites.-Almost certainly created during the early decades of the nineteenth century, as the old and new forms of yaqona rituals began to fuse and evolve into a distinctively Fijian cultural institution, this serene turtle represents a masterful adaptation of an ancient form to a dynamic and evolving tradition, which continues to this da.

Ritual Dish (Daveniyaqona)

A wooden ritual dish (daveniyaqona) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection dates to the Early 19th century and is 12.75 inches high, with a width of 7.75 and a depth of 2.62 inches (32.4 × 19.7 × 6.7 centimeters). According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: This remarkable sculptural vessel is exceptionally elegant in its design and ingenious for its formal inventiveness. It is not simply a work of decorative art; it is a vessel conceived as a vehicle to elicit contact with ancestral gods. In a radical reinterpretation of form, the master carver who created it has fused the bold abstraction of a powerful physiognomy with the delicate contours of a receptacle. Despite its intimate scale, the looming ancestral figure exudes a powerful presence embodying the deep lineage of relations that were activated during its ritual use.

Sacred vesi wood was used for high-status ceremonial objects and formed part of the ritual paraphernalia of Fijian priests who were charged with the dangerous duty of entering into communication with gods and spirits on behalf of their chiefs. Delicately proportioned vessels of this kind were used to prepare and serve libations or to hold small amounts of sacred oil. Skillfully carved from a single block of wood, the shallow volume has been carefully hollowed to accommodate these liquids. The imbibing of the sacred yaqona plant in liquid form allowed the ancestor spirit to physically enter the body of the priest. Oil was used to anoint the body in preparation for the animated and highly physical ritual that involved the god taking possession of the priest. The figure’s hunched shoulders, heavy limbs and pronounced brow create an intensity appropriate to the solemnity of these ancestral invocations. Smoothed to a remarkable finish, the shallow curvature of the dish is remarkable given the hardness of the wood from which it is carved. A finely turned, gently beveled lip runs the length of the figure’s body and two elegant supports on the reverse allow for a modicum of stability ensuring that the vessel would not spill its precious contents when placed on the uneven earthen surface of the priest’s spirit house.

When placed upright, the figure assumes an extraordinarily powerful presence. Hollow eyes gaze directly ahead, lips gently parted, as if in a trance-like state echoing the context of its original use. The figure’s arms drop loosely down at each side and feature delicate hands with palms turned out as if in supplication, a nuanced reference to the solemnity of the rituals for which it was designed. The flat planar quality of the shallow vessel coupled with the bold volumetric head and corporeal presence create a formal tension at once dynamic and powerful. Above the concentrated brow of the ancestral figure is a simple raised ridge, likely a reference to the red and green feather headb and worn by Fijian priests. These were composed of a woven fiber base to which the bright and colorful red and green feathers of the lorikeet attached. These feathers activated the connection with the spirits of deceased ancestors and gods during ritual.

Fijian Breastplates (Civanovonovo)

Eric Kjellgren wrote: Worn exclusively by chiefly men, the superbly crafted breastplates of the Fiji Islands were precious and powerful objects. They were a prestigious element of ceremonial attire which, when worn into battle, were believed to make the wearer invulnerable to enemies. This protective function suggests that, like the gorgets formerly worn by Western 288 I military officers, Fijian breastplates represent a smaller, symbolic form of what was originally functional body armor. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

During the second half of the eighteenth century, warriors from the neighboring islands of the Tongan archipelago began to make repeated incursions into Fiji. To protect themselves from the arrows of Fijian bowmen, the Tongans (who used bows and arrows only in recreational competitions) fashioned massive circular breastplates of whalebone, which covered the entire chest. As the Tongans gradually became accustomed to the use of bows and arrows in war, the cumbersome plates fell into disuse, and by the early 1800s they had virtually disappeared. At about the same time, Tongan and Samoan canoe builders, who had begun to settle in Fiji in the late 1700s, began to fashion smaller breastplates as ornaments for the Fijian elite.

In form, these breastplates likely represent a fusion of the Tongan body-armor tradition with Fijian chest ornaments made from civa (pearl shell). As befitted both the wearers' status and the objects' now largely ceremonial function, the smaller breastplates were made not from whalebone but from whale ivory, a precious material often used, as here, in combination with the softly iridescent pearl shell. Such composite breastplates were known as civanovonovo.

Breastplates were worn at the center of the chest, suspended from two cords tied together behind the wearer's neck; another cord, attached to the first two, passed around the body to hold the ornament in place during battle and other strenuous activities. Carefully positioned on the underside of each element, the holes and lashings are not visible from the front. By the mid-nineteenth century the lashing technique was largely replaced by the use of rivets made from imported metal

One Fijian Breastplate (Civanovonovo) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection is made of whale ivory, pearl shell and fiber. Dated to the early 19th century, it is 7.75 inches high, with a width of 7.62 inches and a depth of 1 inches (19.7 × 19.4 × 2.5 centimeters). The construction of early-nineteenth-century breastplates, such as this one, reflects the canoe-building heritage of their creators: each element has small holes drilled at its edges and is lashed to its neighbors like the planks of a canoe. The ivory inlays of civanovonovo often resemble stars or crescent moons, but their precise significance is unknown. An early 19th century sketch shows Ratu Tanoa Visawaqa, a high chief from the Bau region of Fiji, wearing an elaborate breastplate of pearl shell and ivory. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Barkcloth from Fiji

Often referred to using the general term tapa, Barkcloth is a paperlike textile typically manufactured from the inner bark of certain trees, often the paper mulberry tree.Eric Kjellgren wrote: Created in myriad forms and varieties, bark cloth in Polynesia is produced exclusively by women. It was the only form of cloth in Polynesia prior to Western contact. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

In the Fijian archipelago bark cloth is known as masi. Employed in almost all aspects of daily and ceremonial life, masi in the past appeared in an enormous diversity of forms, from garments, such as turbanlike headdresses, sashes, and men's loincloths (malo), to enormous rectangular panels that served as room dividers, mosquito barriers, wall hangings, and ceremonial gifts.

In ceremonial houses (bure kalou) a long piece of white masi hung from the rafters served as a pathway down which divinities descended, entering the bodies of religious specialists to communicate with the human world. Although many of its former functions have been supplanted by the introduction of Western cloth and the adoption of Christianity, masi continues to play a vital role in contemporary Fijian culture. In former times most masi were unadorned.

However, Fijian artists both past and present also created a diversity of decorated types, known collectively as masi kesa. In decorating bark cloth, Fijians probably employ a greater variety of decorative techniques than any other Pacific people.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection contains a painted barkcloth (Masi kesa) dating to the late 19th-early 20th century. Originating from the Lau Islands of Fiji, it is 33.5 inches high, with a width of 165 inches (85.1 x 419.1 centimeters). Another from the same time and place is is 25 inches high, with a width of 86 inches (63.5 x 218.4 centimeters). A piece owned by the author Robert Louis Stevenson was 8 feet 9 inches x 9 feet 2 inches (2-7 x 2.8 meters). [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Making Barkcloth

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Practiced exclusively by women, tapa making is one of the most important and diverse art forms in Polynesia. Both now and in the past, the display and exchange of large pieces of tapa form important components of ceremonial life in many areas of Polynesia. In earlier times, tapa was also among the primary materials used for clothing. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

The creation of tapa is accomplished in several stages. Women initially remove small strips of bark from the tree, which are soaked in water and treated to make them soft and pliable. Using clublike wooden implements known as tapa beaters, they later beat the strips on a long rectangular block or "anvil" to form individual pieces of cloth. The edges of these smaller pieces are then overlapped and beaten again so that their fibers fuse, forming large sheets.

The finished tapa is decorated using techniques that vary from region to region. These include stencilling (as in the present example), printing, dyeing, and freehand painting. In many cases moist pigment was rubbed through the open areas using a wad of disused masi or bark The repeating geometric motifs of many tapa cloths at times resemble those seen on pottery produced by the Lapita peoples, who were the ancestors of present-day Polynesians. This has led some scholars to suggest that the designs seen in some contemporary Polynesian tapa and tattoos reflect the continuity of earlier Lapita prototypes.

Although the inner bark of th e paper mulberry (Broussentia papynfera) was the most commonly and widely used source of raw material for Pol ynesian bark cloth, a variety of other tree species were also used in some area s.

Barkcloth Panels (Masi Kesa)

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Fijian artists both past and present have created diverse forms of barkcloth, barkcloth. Decorated barkcloths are known collectively as masi kesa. In decorating barkcloth, Fijians probably employ a greater variety of techniques than any other Pacific people. The bold rectilinear patterns on the present work were produced through the use of stencils, a technique that is unique to Fiji. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Large pieces of masi kesa remain a central element of Fijian culture, displayed and presented as ceremonial gifts during important life passage rites, such as weddings, births, and funerals, and used to forge or to renew alliances between groups. Some masi kesa are of enormous scale, at times over 100 yards long, requiring scores of individuals to carry and present them in ritual procession. After receiving such a cloth, the ranking chief often orders it to be cut into a number of pieces, which are distributed to the appropriate recipients, who preserve them as objects of great value and importance. The present work, which, though extensive in scale, represents a portion of a much larger masi kesa, may have been cut from the original as part of such a ceremonial distribution. Although indisputably of Fijian origin, this piece of masi kesa later found its way to Samoa, where it was reportedly among a group of barkcloths presented in the 1890s to that archipelago's most famous expatriate resident, author Robert Louis Stevenson.

One Masi Kesa in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection is made of barkcloth and pigment. Dating to the mid-to late 19th century, it is 105 x 110 inches (266.7 x 279.4 centimeters). A piece of barkcloth (Masi) in the museum’s collection, dating to the late 19th-early 20th century, is 28 x 12.6 inches. (71.1 x 320 centimeters). Another comprised of barkcloth and pigment is 21.5 x 76 inches (54.6 x 193 centimeters). Yet others are 8 feet 9.5 inches × 9 feet.5 inches (268 × 275.6 centimeters) and 35.5 inches × 10 feet 2 inches (90.2 × 309.9 centimeters). A Gatu Vakaviti Barkcloth Panel in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection dates to late 19th-early 20th century. Made of Barkcloth and pigment, it is 9 feet 8.25 inches high, with a width of 92.5 inches (295.3 × 235 centimeters)

Decorating Barkcloth Panels

Richly patterned textiles from the Lau Islands in Fiji exhibits the complex imagery typical of many examples of Polynesian barkcloth. Eric Kjellgren wrote: The bold rectilinear patterns on many works were produced with the use of stencils, a technique that is unique to Fiji. Each of the numerous repeating elements that combine to form the overall pattern was created with a separate stencil (draudrau or vakamata) made from a banana or panda nus leaf into which the motif was cut. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

To print the motif, the stencil was placed on the bark cloth fibers. The artist or artists began at the edge of the cloth, using one or more stencils in succession to create the outer border, and then worked inward, at times leaving a blank central area which was later filled with larger motifs." In some areas the artists sketched out the pattern beforehand, making lines on the masi to guide them in the application of the stencils.

In other places they worked freehand, their skill and experience enabling them to visualize and execute the pattern entirely from memory. The patterns and, in some instances, the individual motifs on masi kesa were specific to individual localities and clans (mataqa!i).' Like the clan tartans of Scotland, the patterns of masi kesa were heraldic, marking the identity and affiliation of their makers. Although many individual motifs and design elements appear on bark cloths made throughout Fiji and extend to other areas of Polynesia, the overall patterns were the property of specific groups under an indigenous system of copyright, which is still respected today.

A 1982 photograph shows Adi Litia Vurvuru, an artist from Ekubu village on the island of Vatulele, applying stenciled patterns to a masi kesa panel to be used as a "wedding curtain" (taunamu), a ceremonial textile that will be displayed at a forthcoming marriage.

Fijian Clubs

Eric Kjellgren wrote: Prior to the pacification of the islands by British colonial authorities during the nineteenth century, warfare was central to many aspects of Fijian art and culture. A man's prestige and social standing were determined not just by his hereditary status as a chief or commoner but also by his achievements as a warrior. Many armaments, such as bows and arrows, spears, and sling stones, were used, but the most prestigious of all Fijian weapons was the club.' Small clubs were created to be thrown as projectiles, and larger examples, such as the present work, were intended for hand-to-h and combat. To slay an enemy with a club at close quarters brought more prestige than any other form of combat and earned the warrior the coveted status of koroi, or killer. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Like the swords of medieval Europe and Japan, Fijian clubs were often given individual names referring to their destructive powers, as the nineteenth-century missionary Thomas Williams observed: "Those [clubs] which belong to distinguished warriors have emphatic names, e.g. : A sautu, lamolamora, 'For war, though all be at peace.' Nataglkakerebole, 'The weeping' (i.e., for the dead I slew)... Kadiga ni damuni, 'Damaging beyond hope."'

At a man's death, the spirit of his club accompanied his soul on the journey to Bulu (the afterworld), to protect him from the dangers that lay along the way. The Fijians produced many different varieties of clubs, which were named and classified according to their specific form and function (slicing versus crushing types, for instance).

Some men, particularly in the early stages of their career, carved their own clubs, but most were commissioned from semiprofessional artisans, known as matai ni malumu, who specialized in club making.Compensated for their services with food and other gifts, matai ni malumu crafted each club to suit the status, physique, and taste of its owner.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art collection contains a Fijian club (Vunikau Vulibuli Vonotabua or Dromu Vonotabua). Dating to the early 19th century, it was made from wood, whale ivory and is 30.5 inches high, with a width of 5 and a depth of 5 inches (77.5 × 12.7 × 12.7 centimeters). This club type is known as known as vunikau bulibuli or dromu. It was created by uprooting a young tree and trimming off the roots to form the club head. Similar to a European mace, such clubs were designed specifica lly to inflict a lethal crushing blow to the head.

Particularly luxurious examples were accented with inlays of ivory, which earned them the additional designation of vonotabua, a reference to the whale teeth used to create the inlays. 11 The clubs were carved by Fijian artisans. However, the ivory inlays were produced by Tongan craftsmen; they were imported directly from the Tongan archipelago or, perhaps, created in the communities of Tongan canoe builders who resided permanently in Fiji. The size and heft of this club would have made it an effective weapon, but the superb finish and lavish use of ivory inlay suggest that it was intended primarily for ceremonial purposes. Another club in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection was from wood in the 19th century and is 1.5 inches high, with a width of 9.12 and a depth of 38.37 inches (3.8 × 23.2 × 97.5 centimeters)

Fijian Dance Clubs

Eric Kjellgren wrote: Beyond the battlefield, clubs played a role in Fijian etiquette, ceremony, and dance. When visiting other villages, men carried small clubs on their shoulders, which they lowered as a ceremonial form of greeting. Greatly enlarged versions of war clubs, too massive and unwieldy to be used in combat, were carried by chiefs during rituals. Small, lightweight types were created for use in dances and other performances, a practice that continues to this day. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

A dance club in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection is made of wood. Dated to the 19th century, it is 5.62 x 32.5 inches (14.3 x 82.6centimeters). A Gugu Dance Club in the collection is made of wood and pandanus fiber.Dated to the 19th century,36.5 inches (92.7 centimeters) long.

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

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