Polynesian Art is some of the most valuable and sort after pieces of tribal art. There are many different Polynesian Art types, which vary depending on the region they come from. This article helps to visually show the main types of Polynesian Art. It aims to help the reader identify which region different Sculpture comes from. The best-known Art in Polynesia comes from the New Zealand Maori. Other Polynesian Art is rare but also highly collectible.
Polynesia was not the only region in the Pacific to produce sculptures. New Guinea sculptures are as varied.
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Polynesian Art general information
Polynesian Sculpture represented gods, deities or an ancestral hero. They were sometimes made free standing but are also often found as part of an object like the top of a fly whisk. Polynesian art also includes bowls weapons and Jewellery by they are covered in other articles.
They vary in size from very small charms made to hide on your person to monumental sizes made for the outside a ceremonial enclosure.
The following is a visual guide to types of Polynesian Art but due to the huge variety throughout the Pacific, it is far from inclusive. It is probably better to think of this article as a brief introduction to this fascinating group of art forms. If you want more detailed information about a particular piece please feel free to contact me.
Polynesian Sculpture by Area
Hawaiian free standing sculpture made for tribal use is exceedingly rare. Only around 150 examples exist worldwide.
Sculptural Art tradition in Hawaii was directly linked to the islands traditional religion. In 1819 the island became Christian and the old gods destroyed and abandoned to rot.
The sculptures that remain from the pre-Christian era though are amongst the most powerful and collectible pieces of art
Cook Island Sculpture
Cook Island Art
Sculpture from the Cook islands were of important Ancestral figures. These ancestors were often the first voyageurs to land on the Cook Islands. These ancestral sculptures were the main focus within the cultural enclosure.
The majority of Cook island Art was destroyed along with the temples shortly after the arrival of the London mission Society by 1821.
Cook island is also well known for their ceremonial Adze.
Easter Island Art
Easter Island Polynesian Art
Most people associate Easter Island Sculpture with their giant stone Moai. There are however lesser known small wooden sculpture which in my opinion are even more fascinating. Wooden Easter Island sculpture has Four main types.
Starved Male figures Moai Kavakava
Full bodied Male Figures Moai Tangata
Female Flat bodied figures Moai papa
Lizard – men hybrids Moko
Austral Island Art
Austral Islands Sculpture
Very few freestanding sculptures exist from the Austral islands but the few that there are, are superb.
The islands are best known for its wonderfully carved Austral island Paddles and drums.
There are also a few very rare staff gods and wonderfully carved fly whisk handles
Austral island paddle terminal
Austral Island Paddle
Fly Whisk Terminal
Austral island drum
Tahitian Art / Society Islands Art
Tahiti / Society Islands sculpture
The majority of Sculpture from Tahiti are of the god Ti’i. Ti’i sculptures were mainly put on the top of canoe prows of double-hulled fighting canoes.
Tahiti was one of the first places in the pacific to undergo massive change from western contact. Sculptures from Tahiti are exceedingly rare
Marquesas Islands Art
Free standing sculpture from the Marquesas islands is very rare. A Marquesan sculpture is normally a part of a utilitarian object.
The Marquesan islands also produced superb war clubs
Marquesan stilt steps used in a sport. The step attached to a round pole about 6 feet long and 2 inches in Diameter.
Quite a few exist in collections.
Marquesan fan handle
Tonga is better known for its Tongan war clubs than its figurative sculpture.
Figurative sculpture from Tonga is very rare. Sculpture is done in hardwood or sperm whale Ivory.
Figures are female and have simple clean forms with superb clarity.
Fijian Polynesian art
Artistically Fiji has acted as a cultural bridge between Melanesia and Polynesia. The function of free-standing Sculpture within Fijian society unknown but most of the free-standing figures from Fiji are female. Fijian carvers are better known for making war clubs of which there are thousands of remaining examples.
Some figures are in the form of dishes used by “native priests”.
Fijian figurative sculpture tends to be rough and unrefined. It is however extremely rare so very collectible.
Some Fijian clubs were so venerated they were not used but kept in a special house.
The New Zealand Maori were prolific sculpture artists and there are whole books on just Maori Art. Maori Sculpture and Maori Art will be in a separate article.
This is just some examples, so I hope you can appreciate the vast variety of Polynesian Art styles. The Pacific is probably the most prolific figure-producing region of the World after Africa. As Oceanic Art, they are extremely expressive and come in a vast variety of sizes forms and functions. It is a great pity that the majority of people who visit the Pacific only get to see the modern Tiki art produced for sale to tourists.
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