Oceanic art: Polynesia


A great deal of Polynesian art never survived the influx of Western missionaries who mutilated and destroyed any art they considered pornographic or idolatrous. However, these same missionaries also brought back many works to Europe. Among the Polynesian works that remain in museum collections are the characteristic greenish pottery of Fiji, remarkable examples of Hawaiian featherwork, exquisite mats woven in Samoa, wooden and stone ritual sculptures from the smaller islands, and pendants carved in jadeite from New Zealand. These peoples, unlike the Melanesians, intended to create enduring works of art. Artists were limited by strict, formal conventions peculiar to the traditions of their island; nevertheless many produced works that revealed great creative imagination within the stylized form.

The few surviving Hawaiian works attest to a strong tradition of sculptural wood carving without surface decoration. Highly decorative printed bark-cloth thickly figured with geometric patterns is typical of Fiji, and this powerful geometry extended to much of the ornamental carved work throughout W and central Polynesia. The Maori peoples of New Zealand continue to produce virtuoso examples of intricately carved wood sculptures. They create stone amulets known as hei tiki in the forms of embryonic birds and humans with heads bent to one side. They employ spiral motifs in intricate combinations, even in tattooing the human face. After death such tattooed faces are often preserved on their dried skulls as ritual objects. The Maori also make spectacular carved ceremonial canoes and houses. The Maori produce fine textiles with complex woven designs.

The Marquesas Islands have sculptures consisting of large monoliths made of stone, or smaller personal objects of shell, ivory, or wood. Double-headed war clubs used there often take on anthropomorphic form. The Marquesas islanders developed the tattoo into a fine art with which they covered the entire body. On Easter Island an economical woodcarving technique of great precision and beauty developed. The reddish volcanic rock, tufa, was carved to create gargantuan, expressive sculptures of humans weighing as much as 20 tons. Much Polynesian work was feathered, and many of the wooden figures were clothed and decorated.

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