Images courtesy of
Saskia Ltd.


Of chiefs and kings:

The inhabitants of Polynesia brought complex sociopolitical and religious institutions with them. Polynesian societies typically are aristocratic, with ritual specialists and chiefs heading elaborate political organizations.

Rapa Nui (Easter Island)

Silent stone sentinels:

The moai - stone sculptures found on the island of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) - provide a contrast These monumental sculptures, some soaring to heights of up to 40 feet, stand on stone platforms. These platforms marked burial sites or were used for religious ceremonies.

33-13: Moai (statues), Anakena, Rapanui (Easter Island). Stone.

  1. Statues
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  4. Statues

Beaten cloth:

Polynesians often make art forms for upholding spiritual power, or mana. The counterpart to mana, tapu, creates a dynamic opposition of forces dominating Polynesian social and religious concepts and practices. In addition to figural sculptures, Polynesians make decorative barkcloth (tapa), one of the major art forms by Polynesian women. Barkcloth plays a crucial role in society as clothing, bedding, and gift articles.

33-14: MELE SITANI, decorated barkcloth (ngatu) with two-bird (manulua) designs, Tonga, 1967.

  1. Another Example
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Rarotongan Art (Cook Islands)

Distinct regional modes developed within a general Polynesian style. Deity images from Rarotonga and Mangaia in the Cook Islands and from Rurutu in the Austral Islands have multiple figures attached to their bodies. These carvings probably also represent clan ancestors, revered for their protective and procreative powers. All such images refer ultimately to the creator deities that play a central role in human fertility.

A god barkcloth:

The central Polynesian island residents of Rarotonga carved various kinds of deity figures, including at least three types of staff gods. An example shows a profile figure with multiple layers of barkcloth wrapped around its center. Although the exact meaning is lost, the figures suggest procreative symbolism, a trait found in central Polynesian art and religion.

33-15: Staff god, from Rarotonga, central Polynesia, nineteenth century. Wood, barkcloth, pigment, and sennit, 3' 9" high. Otago Museum, Dunedin.
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Marquesas Islands

Ornamental protection:

Among the items produced by Marquesan artists were ornaments that often adorned the hair of warriors. Among the items produced were hollow, cylindrical bone or ivory ornaments (ivi p'o) that functioned as protective amulets and were worn until the death of a kinsman was avenged.

33-16: Hair ornaments, Marquesas Islands. Bone, 2 3/4" high.

Face to face:

Polynesian nobles and warriors accumulated various tattoo patterns to increase their status, mana, and personal beauty. An engraving illustrates a Marquesan warrior covered with elaborate tattoo patterns, which seem to accentuate different areas.

33-17: Tattooed warrior with war club, Nukahiva, Marquesas Islands, nineteenth century. Engraving.
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The Hawaiians developed the most highly stratified social structure in the Pacific.

Cloaked in majesty:

Because perpetuation of the social structure was crucial to social stability, most of the material culture produced (before American control) in Hawaii was intended to visualize and reinforce the hierarchy. Chiefly regalia was prominent part of artistic production.

33-18: ‘Ahu‘ula (feather cloak), from Hawaii. Red ‘i‘iwi, yellow ‘o‘o, and black feathers, olona cordage and netting. 4' 8 1/3" x 8'. Bishop Pauahi Museum, Honolulu.
  1. Similar Feather Cloak
  2. Feather Cloaks
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  4. Detail Similar Feather Cloak
  5. Similar Feather Cape

A defiant war god:

The Hawaiians placed deities such as this image of the war god Kukailimoku in semicircular rows within an enclosed temple area (heiau). Although styles differ in the various islands, the figures share a tendency toward athleticism and expressive defiance.

33-19: Kukai‘limoku (war god), temple image, from Hawaii. Wood, 2' 5 3/4" high (figure only). British Museum, London.

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The Maori (New Zealand)

Surrounded by ancestors:

The arts of the Maori peoples merge decorative embellishment with a bold human-figure style. On a door lintel (pare) from a Maori meeting house, a tatooed female figure probably represents an earth goddess (Papa) giving birth to the gods. Profile figures represent mythological creatures (manaia), which are associated with death and destruction. The panel symbolizes the dynamic between creative and destructive forces. Community members passing beneath this lintel were symbolically transformed from one state of existence to another.

33-20: Interior of meeting house (hotonui), Maori, Ngati Maru tribe, New Zealand (Aotearoa), built 1878. Wood, paint, and weavings, approx. 75'. Auckland Institute and Museum, Auckland.
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  3. Meeting House

Many of the traditional arts of Oceania are not practiced today, for they no longer have critical roles insuring cultural continuity and survival. Yet, in several places, these arts have been revitalized. New cultural awareness has led artists to express their inherited values in a resurgence of traditional arts.

Maori cultural renewal:

One example of cultural renewal is the school of New Zealand artists who draw on their Maori heritage for formal and iconographic inspiration. Historic Maori woodcarving reemerges in Cliff Whiting's Tawhiri-Matea (God of the Winds), designed for a modern environment, which depicts the Maori creation myth. In uniting native tradition with modernist design, the artist is renewing Maori cultural life in terms of its continuity in art.

33-21: CLIFF WHITING (TE WHANAU-A-APANUI), Tawhiri-Matea (God of the Winds), Maori, 1984. Oil on wood and fiberboard, approx. 6' 4 3/8" x 11' 10 3/4". Meteorological Service of New Zealand Ltd. Collection, Wellington.
  1. Similar Examples
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