Art of the Marquesas Islands: Tradition and Change in French Polynesia

September 18, 2003 @ 10:00 am – 11:30 am
Goethe Room
Academy of Sciences
San Francisco

Carol S. Ivory, Ph.D.

Reviewed by Winfield Coleman

The Marquesas Islands received their name in 1595 from the first European to visit them, Juan de Mendaña. They were not visited again by Europeans until 1774, when Captain James Cook stopped by on his second voyage. The indigenous name, Feuna Enata, means Land of the People. Now a French territory, the Marquesas Islands are the most remote from a continent of any inhabited land mass. Six of the islands are inhabited today, with a total population of 8,000. Another 10,000 natives are now living in Tahiti.
Despite their remote location, the Marquesas have exerted a powerful influence upon the cultural imagination of Western artists and writers. Herman Melville jumped ship from a whaler, and spent three and a half weeks on Taipi. This experience became the basis of his first novel, Taipee. But the most famous European   associated with the Marquesas is Paul Gauguin, who, still searching for an “untouched” people, spent the last two years of his life there, dying in 1903.
The Polynesians, who settled the Marquesas, are   believed to have come from Taiwan, some 8,000 years ago. The proto-Polynesians developed the Lapita culture lens, characterized by certain pottery types, settlement patterns, and lithic remains, of which the most typical is the stirrup pounder. Many of the qualities of this cultural lens persisted into historical Polynesian cultures, and later, into the Marquesas.
The ceramic tradition of the Lapita peoples was  characterized by the use of faces and dentate designs in zones, or bands, dominated by geometric patterns. The art of tattooing is among the cultural artifacts likely to have developed at this time, although its origin is much   earlier. Many of the later tattoo patterns bear a distinct resemblance to pottery designs, and this tradition is still strong in the Marquesas.
It is believed the Marquesas were settled between 200 BC and AD 200. Little is known about Marquesan culture before contact with Europeans. The early contact period is considered the “Classic” period of the culture, but in fact, we have little with which to compare it. Marquesan communities consisted of scattered clusters along rivers. Houses and ceremonial structures of wood and thatch were built on top of these stone platforms, prehistoric remains of which are found throughout the islands.
Marquesan religion included creator gods who were dei otiosi, and of little importance in everyday life. Maui and other gods figured importantly in the foundation myths. They were followed by the ancestors, who formed the basic focus of religion. Feasts were given in their honor, and they were considered to dwell in Havai’iki, the land of the ancestors – a word with cognates in every Polynesian language. Carvings of the ancestors are all in the form of human beings. Large heads, symbolic of spiritual power, are set on plump bodies. The knees are flexed, and the hands placed upon the stomach. All are characterized by very large eyes; the word mata is a homonym meaning both eyes and face.
Large figures representing the ancestors, known as tiki, were made of wood and stone. Some were up to 9 feet tall. In all of Polynesia, only the Easter Island mo’ai were larger. A few of these monumental sculptures still remain in situ, virtually the only traditional art yet remaining on the island.
Song, dance, and speechmaking were considered the most important Marquesan arts. Others were used to reinforce status. Many Marquesan artifacts were made utilizing human bone and hair, while the human body was the most important motif. The bodies of ancestors, as well as those of ritual sacrificial victims, were used in these works. The human body was also a canvas, on which tattoos were placed.
Other status symbols  besides tattoos included fans of finely woven raffia, with carved handles made of wood, ivory, or bone. Modern artisans have been unable to replicate the fine weaving on these fans. Carved wooden staffs had pompons of human hair. Red cloaks may have been made of trade cloth. Perhaps the best-known artifact of the Marquesas is the u’u, or large club made of ironwood. Ironwood was known as to’a, the same word meaning warrior. The large, spatulate heads of the u’u were carved with heads whose eyes had pupils consisting of heads. There was thus a great deal of punning or play between the concept of heads and eyes, consistent with the homonym. Of particular interest were stilt steps carved of ironwood, with complex designs   featuring traditional geometric and human motifs. Stilts were used in funeral festivals, which featured ritualized competitions.
The first European visitors brought trade goods, of which glass trade beads and iron were the most important. (A dolphin tooth ornament with trade beads and tortoise shell survives.) Guns were also introduced, bringing a heightened intensity to the warfare. Catholic missionaries arrived in 1838, and in 1842, the Marquesas Islands were annexed by France.
The arrival of the Europeans wrought tremendous change in the islands. Of all the influences, the most   radical was the introduction of new diseases. The estimated population of 50,000 to 100,000 inhabitants at the time of Cook’s arrival had, by 1825, been reduced to 40,000. By 1866, the population was around 5,000, while in the 1920s, there were around 2,000 souls. This horrific devastation entailed a wholesale loss of knowledge, with severe consequences for the arts. This destruction was made even worse by the Catholic missionaries who urged the islanders to destroy the remnants of their past.
Even so, the arts never died out entirely. From the 1890s on, when steamships bearing tourists began to arrive on a regular basis, the art of the islands began to be used in new ways. Model paddles, clubs, and bowls were made for sale, the latter now decorated externally with designs derived from tattoos. However, not much of the older art survived, and while salvage archeologists of the late nineteenth century didn’t like this newer art, it became the basis of  the Marquesan art in the twentieth century. By the 1970s, when a cultural renaissance came to the islands, this is the art that was thought to be traditional.
Ironically, it was the arrival of a Catholic bishop in the islands that led to a cultural renaissance. A thriving   commercial trade in art has developed, abetted by the islanders’ travels to Tahiti and by the arrival, every three weeks, of the ship Ara Nui, which brings necessary      supplies  and tourists. In addition to carved wood, bone carving and tapa are being made again in quantity. Although changed, these arts serve as a continuing link to a proud past.