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POLYNESIA TRIBAL ART

          

In examining the tribal art of Polynesia, we will first look at the evidence of tribal art that has been recorded by the early explorers of the Polynesian triangle prior to the advent of the missionaries. It is unfortunate that so little has been preserved as the result of the zeal of the missionaries in persuading the native people to attest their fate in Christianity by destroying their wooden tribal gods. The record of the missionaries give the following indications of the number of tribal gods that were destroyed. For example, a great burning of tribal gods took place in Moorea, Tahiti, in 1813 with the same destruction taking place at Raivavae in 1822 when 133 idols were destroyed. In Rarotonga, in 1827, 538 idols were destroyed and John Williams recorded the destruction of idols in Tonga in 1839 as 273 to 275.

Polynesia mourning dress.

Collected by Captain Cook, a number of artifacts are considered
priceless today. This Polynesian mourning dress of bark cloth
has feather tassels and a feather cloak. Pearl shells brighten
the crescent-shaped wood crest piece; slips of mother-of-pearl
adorn the upper apron. Feathers of tropic birds adorn
the headpiece mounted over the face mask of shell.

The surviving examples of tribal art are but a remnant, a faint echo of the robust tribal art that existed at the time of European discovery. They do represent however a manner and style of figure sculpture unmistakably characteristic of its area. In this respect, every high island in the Tahiti group had its own style and its own regional features and characteristics to its tribal art. These represent a good starting point for the understanding of Polynesian tribal art as they form the basis of the tribal art that the Polynesian voyagers extended into New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island and as such were the forerunner of the tribal art of these places.

This carving probably decorated the stern of an
Austral Islands canoe. It was given by Captain Cook
to his great official patron Lord Sandwich.

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The images from the Society Islands have been well recorded and display a squat rugged naturalism in a somewhat stiff pose. The head is large, shoulders square, the arms thin, and the hands are located on the abdomen. The legs are usually stout and slightly bent with the thigh slightly shorter than the shank. There are considerable variety of these figures but on the whole they maintain the general style indicated above which provide us with the basis for readily recognizing tribal heart from the Society Group.

 

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Jane Resture
(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 6th October 2009)