Art of the South Pacific: Polynesia

First Things First...

South Pacific art history is generally organized into three geographic regions: Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia. While the regions have interacted, traded, and exchanged culturally for centuries, there are defining aesthetic, political, linguistic, and cultural traits within each region. This lesson considers art from Polynesia, comprised of islands within a triangular area bound by Hawai’i, New Zealand, and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) (See map in Slideshow for more). Polynesia is further subdivided into three sections: West Polynesia, East Polynesia, and the Polynesian outliers. West Polynesia (Tonga, Samoa and American Samoa, ‘Uvea, Futuna, Tokelau, Tuvalu, Niue, and Rotuma) also will include Fiji, whose indigenous populations are generally considered Melanesian. Fiji has cultural and arts traditions that align with West Polynesia, however, hence its inclusion here. Polynesian outliers include islands that are technically outside of the Polynesian triangle but are culturally related to Polynesia (Nukuoro, Kapingamarangi, Tikopia, Anuta, Rennell, Bellona, Nukumanu, Sikaiana, Ontong Java). East Polynesian islands are: the Society Islands, French Polynesia (including Tahiti), the Marquesas, Austral Islands, Tuamotu Islands, the Cook Islands, Chatham Islands, Rapa Nui (also known as Easter Island, nearly 2,300 miles off the coast of Chile), Hawai’i, and New Zealand. Geologically, Polynesia ranges from volcanic to coral islands, and its environmental diversity shaped cultural traditions via the media and technology available on the islands.

The Polynesian islands share linguistic and cultural similarities, although the material expression of each island group is different. Linguistic and cultural analysis place the migration movement from West to East, and the origin culture is generally cited as the Lapita peoples migrating through Fiji (in the second millennium BCE), landing at Tonga and Samoa, and eventually moving to other island groups. Lapita pottery is usually the starting point for chronologically organized South Pacific surveys (Read Jennifer Wagelie’s summary of Lapita culture here. Polynesian arts visually express the values and organization of life, belief, power, and knowledge within the region. The pieces in this lesson relate to three major themes: the paired concepts of mana and tapu, community and prestige, and genealogy, concepts that govern the aesthetic structures and use of objects. Mana is supernatural power that moves within and through people, time, and objects. According to Adrienne Kaeppler, mana is linked to genealogical rankings, fertility, and protocols. It is protected by a set of rules governing actions and ritual, called tapu. Social status was (and is) linked to these concepts, with specific members of the community holding specialized cultural knowledge. For example, hereditary chiefs (ariki, ali’i), sea experts (tautai), craftsmen (tufunga), and warriors (toa) all had mana, and they enacted their specialized knowledge in sacred spaces (like malae, marae, and heiau). It was important to use the correct and appropriate objects in the correct contexts, and history and lineages held (and continue to hold) an important place in Polynesian culture. Today, artists incorporate media and contemporary life (including global cultural influences) into their artwork, rooting new work within South Pacific artistic traditions, and this lesson notes just a few of these artistic changes within a vibrant contemporary art scene. The pieces in this lesson address Polynesian community, prestige, and lineages from the eighteenth century to present. The resources included (particularly video) are intended to aid students in reflecting on how many of these objects came into Western museum collections and to demonstrate how to engage with museum objects. Finally, a note on pronunciation: South Pacific terminology is used when possible, and these words may be unfamiliar and/or difficult to pronounce—as many South Pacific voices as possible are included through video to aid instructors in pronunciation, emphasis, and tone.

Background Readings

Carved by Raharuhi Rukupo of Rongowhakaata, Interior of a Maori meetinghouse, Te Hau-ki-Turanga, 1840–2. Owned by the Rongowhakaata Tribe. Te Papa Tongarewa Museum, Wellington, New Zealand.


D’Alleva, Anne. Art and Artifacts of Polynesia. Cambridge, Mass.: Hurst Gallery, 1990. (recommended textbook)

Kaeppler, Adrienne Lois. The Pacific Arts of Polynesia and Micronesia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. (recommended textbook)

Stevenson, Karen. The Frangipani Is Dead: Contemporary Pacific Art In New Zealand, 1985-2000. Wellington, New Zealand: Huia, 2008.

Thomas, Nicholas, Oceanic Art. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995. (recommended textbook)


Online resources:


Videos (interviews with scholars and curators)


Historical collections

Content Suggestions

This lesson uses nineteen objects (vessels, figural works, architecture, textiles, and body arts) in a wide variety of media and techniques available in the South Pacific to explore three essential and overlapping concepts to understand Polynesian aesthetic systems (mana and tapu, community/prestige, and genealogy). Those works include:

  • Dish for Yaqona, Fiji, early nineteenth century, wood and shell, Fiji Museum, Suva, Fiji
  • Pahu-Ra (Ceremonial Drum), Ra’ivavae, Austral Islands, 1800–50, tamanu wood, sharkskin, sennit, Indiana University Art Museum, Wielgus Collection
  • Tapuva’e (Stilt Step), Marquesas Islands, nineteenth century, toa wood, H. 17 ¾ in. (45.1 cm), Indiana University Art Museum
  • ‘U’u (Club), Marquesas Islands, early to mid-nineteenth century, wood and fiber, H. 60 1/4 x W. 6 5/8 x D. 3 3/4 in. (153 x 16.8 x 9.5 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller
  • Moai at Ahu Tongariki, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), 1400, volcanic stone and scoria
  • Moai Kavakava, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), nineteenth century, wood, bone, obsidian, Indiana University Art Museum
  • Hei Tiki pendant, Maori peoples, New Zealand, nineteenth century, nephrite, haliotis shell, H. 9 in. (22.9 cm), Indiana University Art Museum, Wielgus Collection
  • To’o (Image) representing the deity ‘Oro, Tahiti, Society Islands, eighteenth century, wood, coconut husk fiber, feathers, H. 18 1/8 x Diam. 2 7/8 in. (46 x 7.3 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller
  • Carved by Raharuhi Rukupo of Rongowhakaata, Interior of a Maori meetinghouse, Te Hau-ki-Turanga, 1840–2. Owned by the Rongowhakaata Tribe, Te Papa Tongarewa Museum, Wellington, New Zealand.
  • I’e toga (Fine Mat), Samoa, Early nineteenth century, pandanus fiber, parrot feathers
  • Tapa (clockwise, beginning top left):
    • Ngatu (Barkcloth), Tonga, 1972, mulberry and pigment, British Museum, 413 x 201 cm
    • Kapa (Barkcloth), Hawaii, eighteenth century, processed bark bast, 80 x 45 cm, Bernisches Historisches Museum
    • Siapo (Barkcloth), Samoa Islands, c. 1930–50, mulberry bark fiber, pigment, Indiana University Art Museum, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Edward J. Kempf
    • Masi Kesa (Barkcloth Panel), Naitauba, Lau Islands, Fiji, late nineteenth–early twentieth century, barkcloth, pigment, L. 165 in. (419.1 cm) Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Elizabeth S. Williams
  • Tïvaevae ta’örei (Patchwork Quilt), Cook Islands, c. 1900, Te Papa; Applique Quilts (in progress), Rarotonga, Cook Islands, 2014 (Photo: S. Beck Cohen)
  • Feather cloak, Hawai’i, c. eighteenth century, feathers and fiber, 259 cm, British Museum
  • Kākahu (Māori cloaks) in two styles, Te Papa.
  • Lei Niho Palaoa, Hawai‘i, early nineteenth century, walrus ivory, human hair, fiber, W. 4 1/4 x D. 16 in. (10.8 x 40.6 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller
  • Tatau: Video, Tales from Te Papa, Episode 87: Curator Sean Mallon discusses Samoan Tatau



Ariki/ali’i: hereditary chiefs.

Art: Thinking about Polynesian art history requires contextualization of the term “art” in Polynesian cultures—a combination of all creative processes in tangible materials, performance (singing, recitation, dance, music), and scent—the formal manipulation of any of these is considered art. Terms that aid in thinking about Polynesian culture are the following: skill, indirectness (the gradual unraveling of layers of meaning through the growth of cultural knowledge and experience over time), and integration (of the senses).

Genealogy: a governing principle of Polynesian culture, often expressed artistically through an emphasis on backbones and the recitation of family lineages, particularly amongst chiefly families.

Kaona (Hawaiian) or heliaki (Tongan): indirectness, one concept by which to understand Polynesian culture and art, referring to hidden or veiled meanings that are unraveled until cultural metaphors are understood (for example, an object or performance cannot be understood at a surface level, but must be examined through its social and cultural systems and evaluated by Polynesian aesthetic principles).

Kava: a drink, an infusion of Piper methysticum, a tropical pepper, used during ritual.

Mana/tapu: Mana is a supernatural power. According to Adrienne Kaeppler, one of the most prolific scholars of South Pacific art, mana is linked to genealogical rankings, fertility, and protocols. It is protected by a set of rules governing actions and ritual, called tapu.

Marae/heiau: sacred spaces in Polynesia.

Tapa/kapa: a pounded textile made of bark, by women, with designs made by rubbing, printing, and painting, often a prestige gift.

Toa: warriors.

Tufunga: craftsmen, whose skill in manipulating material culture is considered specialized knowledge.


Containers, like the dish for Yaqona from Fiji (early nineteenth century), are ubiquitous in Polynesia. Containers for sacred drinks and food, material culture treasures, and musical instruments (receptacles for sound) figure substantially in Polynesian life. This Yaqona dish, called a tanoa, is large and shallow and meticulously decorated. Made of wood (vesi, a high-quality wood used in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia with a red-brown color), a specialist carved it using a metal-bladed adze, rasped it with a piece of coral, and polished it using a boar’s tooth and pressure. The dish held a sacred drink, called Yaqona in Fiji (kava in Tonga, ‘ava in Hawaii and Samoa, and sakau in Pohnpei). As with all of the material art forms from Polynesia in this lesson, the Yaqona bowl is one part of an aesthetic and artistic structure that incorporated multiple media and performance, as well as the integration of many people to execute ceremonies (community). In the lesson, the bowl stands alone, while in situ it would be positioned within the materials for making kava (stones for pounding, mats for holding, polished coconut cups for drinking, and special attire worn by kava mixers, servers, and drinkers). Kava-drinking occasions vary among Polynesian societies, ranging from informal drinking to theater and spectacle; typically, kava ceremonies incorporate specialized speech, music, and performance, facilitated by the material objects. Adrienne Kaeppler discusses two ways that Yaqona features in Fijian society; the Yaqona drinking ceremony in the chiefly sphere borrowed from Tongan culture, and as a feature of Fijian priestly activity. First, consider the Fijian Yaqona bowl as part of chiefly events that reinforce social prestige and organize space onceptually. Yaqona-drinking spaces are oriented by placing the sea and land in a hierarchical order (with the sea being higher), relating the highest-ranking chief, who sits with his back to the sea to an (often mythical) ancestor arriving from the sea (genealogy). The chief is set “above the bowl,” and people of lesser importance sit “below the bowl,” opposite. There is a performative emphasis in Fijian ceremonies on the serving of Yaqona. Sculpted in the form of a bird, the vessel pictured would have been used by a Fijian priest invoking and being possessed by spiritual forces. Placed on the floor of a spirithouse, priests knelt in front of the dish, sipping Yaqona through a straw, as the lips and head of a priest (infused with mana), were sacred and could not touch the vessel. Similar types of dishes were also used by priests for mixing coconut oil and paint in preparation of engaging the gods. Many of these vessels entered museum collections through missionaries who collected them after the conversion of chiefs and priests to Christianity in the nineteenth century. At right, you can see a contextual photo of a man preparing Yaqona (you can tell he is of chiefly rank, as he wears a civa, the breast ornament). Additionally, you can explore all of the objects associated with this tradition through the exhibit “Fiji’s Treasured Culture,” a joint effort between the Museum of Victoria (Australia) and the Fiji Museum, Suva.

The Pahu-ra from the Austral Islands (1800–50) is made of Tamanu wood, with a sharkskin drum head and ties of plaited sennit. Tall and cylindrical in shape, the bottom of the drum is characterized by its intricate openwork carving. The degree of intricacy in this drum indicates that the carver used metal tools, and helps date the instrument, as the influx of European trade in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought a variety of metal tools through the Polynesian islands. Drums accompanied births, wars, and funerals, and they were incorporated into the use of sacred sites. Kaeppler cites similar drums used in Hawaii, and the Metropolitan Museum cites a 1777 sketch by John Webber showing one in use on a sacred site (marae) on Tahiti. The base of the drum is where the drum’s mana, its spiritual strength, was stored. Examine the image details, and observe the registers of carved crescents and human figures. According to Kaeppler, the crescent, also a tattoo motif, “means to cast a shadow, to drive away, ward off, frighten, spirit, apparition, and ghost, as well as brightness, shining, glittering, splendid…during rituals, the arms of human participants were raised skyward, forming crescents like those carved on pahu” (see suggested textbook). In these images, the crescent shape links the human figures, whose hands are joined around the drum base. Compare this pahu to another drum from the historically important Oldman collection at Te Papa. For an introductory article on musical instruments, see: Moulin, Jane Freeman. “Gods and Mortals: Understanding traditional function and usage in Marquesan musical instruments.” The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 106 (3) (September 1997): 250–83.

Figural sculptures also express Polynesian concepts about genealogy, prestige, community, and mana. The next several objects provide the opportunity to compare and contrast the formal expression of these ideas across different island cultures. Polynesian sculpture is made from wood, basketry, textiles, feathers, ivory, bone, and greenstone.

The stilt step and club (‘U’u) from the Marquesas Islands demonstrate how Marquesan artists conceive of Polynesian concepts visually. As seen in these Marquesas Islands stilt step and ‘U’u, wooden figural work from these islands is visually distinctive. Described as “goggle-eyed,” the stilt step featured on the left would have been lashed to a stilt five- to seven-feet long (the step being lashed about three feet up), and used in competitions where Marquesan men demonstrated feats of athleticism—namely races—but also spiritual strength during religious events. The full figure positioned around and below the step curve is a tiki (a figural representation embodying the first man), and although his facial features are typically Marquesan (emphasis on the rounded eyes and arched eyebrows), his body composition is typically Polynesian, with bent knees and arms carved across his stomach. To the right is an ‘U’u (war club), and according to Carol Ivory, they are the most popularly found objects from the Marquesas islands in museum collections. Compositionally, stilt steps and ‘U’u are carved in both high and low relief. The format of ‘U’u is a long piece of toa (hardwood) whose rounded, broad top functions as an armrest, carved on both sides with figural designs. Visible in both pieces are the extraordinarily large eyes and arched brows. Carved in high relief on the face are the eyes and the nose, which on the ‘U’u project from a horizontally placed bar. Above the large face, a smaller face appears on the very top of the club. Ivory also highlights the three registers of designs (including a second set of eyes) below the horizontally projecting bar, relating some of the designs to tattooing found in the Marquesas. It is these three registers of design that scholars use to separate ‘U’u into stylistic groups because those are the sections on which there is the most design variation (see fig. 5, p. 57 in Ivory’s cited article for her complete chart stylistic variation of ‘U’u in museum collections). The earliest contextual information about ‘U’u in western scholarship are drawings from the Cook expeditions. You can compare the one depicted here to another ‘U’u with a feathered handle from the Pitt-Rivers Museum, or for more information, see Carol S. Ivory, “Marquesan ‘U’u: A Stylistic and Historical Review.” Pacific Arts: The Journal of the Pacific Arts Association, No. 9/10 (July 1994), 53–63. Ivory’s article serves as a model for undergraduates doing comparative studies and historical contextualization for museum collections and would make an excellent short essay question or blog post reflecting on class material.

The large stone moai (left), moaikavakava figures (right), and barkcloth figures (not included) are three instances of figural arts on Rapa Nui (also called Easter Island), 2,300 miles off the coast of present-day Chile. The large moai carved from volcanic tuff are the most recognizable. The largest monolithic figural carving in Polynesia, the composition of a moai is one-third head and two-thirds body, emphasizing the head, the part of the body with the most mana. Moai faces have elongated noses and ears and heavy eyebrow ridges, and the carving on the chest emphasizes the clavicle. They likely had inlaid shell eyes (no longer in situ). Long fingers extend across the stomach area of the body, and some moai have additional carving on their backs like the moai Hoa Hakananai’a and the birdman cult at the British Museum (listen to audio or view sign language version here). Some moai have topknots called pukao made from scoria, a red volcanic stone also quarried on the island. Today, they are found partially carved in Rano Raraku (the basalt stone quarry, directly across the valley from Ahu Tongariki, pictured), re-erected onto ahu (ceremonial platforms often associated with burials and the ancestors), as well as unearthed from the “moai road” leading out from the quarry along the island (and, of course, in museum collections around the world). Of the moai positioned on ahu around the island, all except one group face inland, with their backs to the sea. Thought to have been carved between 1000 and 1680 (the broadest date ranges), a number of scholarly mysteries surround the moai; for example, how were they moved (see a number of theories here)? Ahu Tongariki, pictured, is the largest, with fifteen moai on the ahu. The moai are related to ancestors, and ahu are sacred spaces.

Moai kavakava are smaller, wooden figures also carved on Rapa Nui. Like moai, these figures have elongated earlobes, pronounced brow ridges and chins, and carved clavicles. They often have inlaid bone, shell, and obsidian eyes. Their skeletal forms emphasize the backbone and ribs of the figure, visually linking the figures to concepts of genealogical heritage and the ancestors. Like other Polynesian figures, the moai kavakava have bent knees and distinctively carved heads. They may have been worn around the neck and wrapped in barkcloth when not in use. Many moai kavakava feature incised designs on top of their heads. See other detailed images of moai kavakava at the Seattle Art Museum and the British Museum.

The figure at left is a nineteenth-century Hei tiki, a carved Māori nephrite pendant worn suspended from the neck. The medium nephrite is greenstone jade found on the South Island of New Zealand/Aotearoa. Tiki (as mentioned above) is a general term for human figures embodying the first man, and hei means something suspended from the neck. Both men and women wear the hei tiki, and while their meanings are varied, all are considered taonga (treasures), passed through families as heirlooms, and some are given specific names. All are imbued with mana and the histories and power of their previous owners. Compositionally, the figure here is typical, with tilted head resting on a bilaterally symmetrical body, open legs, and inlaid eyes (of shell, or, post-contact with Europeans, red sealing wax). Although tiki figures are found throughout Polynesia, the meaning of hei tiki pendants are less clear. Three theories proposed by the Te Papa Tongarewa museum are that hei tiki “represent Hine-te-iwaiwa, a celebrated ancestress associated with fertility and the virtuous qualities of Māori womanhood…Tiki, the mythical first human…[or] the unborn embryo, particularly children that are stillborn.” See this video from Te Papa, about Te Paea Hinerangi’s hei tiki.

According to Kaeppler, the early nineteenth-century To’o figure for ‘Oro (Tahiti’s major deity) is made from wood, covered in sennit and red feathers. The figure was periodically activated in the pa’iatua ritual at important events (like the installation of a chief, seasonal rituals, and times of crisis). Some figures, like the one pictured here, take figural form in sennit, emphasizing the face, arms and hands, and navel. Although they may not look like other Polynesian figures in the lesson, the aspects of the human form included indicate the most important human features that are repositories for mana (especially the head) or connections to the ancestors (the navel). The material, sennit, is spiritually important, and the skillful manipulation of the medium increases its value. To’o were kept in specially crafted godhouses and renewed through cleaning, rubbing with scented coconut oil, wrapping the figure in white cloth, and being presented with offerings like red feathers along with other sacrifices and incantations. According to Kaeppler, these objects also reinforced hierarchies within Tahitian society; only the highest-ranking people could participate in the To’o’s renewal; other people could look upon the figure; and still others could not even view the piece. Thus, the object renewed relationships between the spiritual and earthly realms through the practices associated with its use.

Māori academic and artist Sidney Moko Mead noted: “We treat our artworks as people because many of them represent our ancestors who for us are real persons…They are anchor points in our genealogies and in our history. Without them we have no position in society and we have no social reality. We form with them the social universe of Māoridom.” The Māori cosmos is rooted in ancestral traditions, continuously evolving over time into cultural and aesthetic traditions that move back and forth between the historical and the present people. The visual artistic traditions are highly valued in Māori culture, especially as expressed through carving, hand-woven works, and tattooing—all of which exist alongside dance, music, oratory, other types of performance, and architecture. Māori peoples share origin stories and concepts organizing society and material culture. The Māori creation story goes as follows: Rangi (the sky-father) lay with Papatuanuku (the earth-mother), and they had four offspring: Tane (god of forests), Tangaroa (god of fish and reptiles), Tu (god of destruction), and Rongo (god of cultivated foods), as well as two specialized gods (Haumia and Tawhiri—gods of uncultivated foods and the winds, respectively). With their parents still joined, the children debated how to separate them and bring light to the world. With Tawhiri dissenting, the others attempted to separate Rangi and Papa—with Tane succeeding by pushing his head against mother earth and his feet up towards father sky. Tawhiri rose with Rangi, letting loose his offspring (the winds, clouds, and hurricanes) against his brother. Tangaroa’s fish plunged into the sea and the reptiles fell into Tane’s forests. Rongo and Haumia hid inside mother earth. Rangi and Papa, never reconciled to their separation, connect through Papa’s sighs (rising as mists) and Rangi’s tears (falling as dewdrops).

It is this story that underlies architectural forms, like this Māori meeting house and pataka, the raised storehouses. Traditionally the pataka was the most important structure on a marae, but today it is the meetinghouse that is the most important and largest structure. The large structure is constructed in an A-frame shape with a recessed entry leading into an open interior space through an off-center door to the left with a carved lintel atop the entryway, marking the sacred space. The pointed roof is supported by central column posts that are carved and painted. The space is organized both vertically and horizontally modeling the cosmos, as an historical metaphor and an embodiment of the ancestors. Like the initial darkness Rangi and Papa’s children found themselves within, it is dark inside, as Rangi embraces the earth. Building materials come from the domain of Tane, and carved ancestors in posts and panels express genealogical relationships of members of the group to whom the house belongs. The meetinghouse has also been discussed as physically embodying the first ancestor, his head at the apex of the bargeboards (his fingers and arms), with the ridgepole running the length of the house down the center referencing the ancestor’s spine. Painted rafters are his ribs, and carved slabs around the sides of the house are more recent ancestors, joining the roof to the floor. These alternate with plaited wall panels, which also cover the floor. The right side (the important side) is considered tapu, reserved for visitors and men, and is associated with death. The left side, (less important) for locals and women, is associated with life. Important spaces within the structure are doorways and the porch (representative of transitions, as between life and death, or sex/reproduction). Lintels (pare) often represent Hine-Nui-Te po (goddess of death), and female symbolism is related to women’s roles in removing tapu to neutralize visitors with bad intentions. Meetinghouses often represent male ancestors, but have also incorporated female ancestors into the house. Carving must visually convey metaphor and allusions to cultural values and is a sacred act embedded with tapu. The spaces and objects of the meetinghouse are so culturally defined that, when painting replaced carving in meetinghouses, they carried the same meanings through a transfer of medium. However, after the 1870s, local histories and identities not regulated by tapu emerged in communities. Artists actively engaged their world that included a New Zealand occupied by both Māori and white New Zealanders, operating within traditional governing and belief systems and the structures of British colonialism. More on British colonialism in New Zealand can be found here. As in other visual art forms in this lesson, the meetinghouse and its various parts and visual structures are augmented by the actions and events that occur within the space. Other important parts of Māori iconography are the koru, spiral, and mangaia. Understanding the multiple layers of meaning embedded in and designed on a meetinghouse can only happen after a person spends time within the community and space; often, different meanings are unraveled over a long period of time.

Textiles like this Samoan I’e toga (fine mat) belonged to high-ranking chiefs. Belonging to and touched by powerful ancestors, the objects accrued mana as they were passed down through lineages, conveying that spiritual power to the present chief. Samoan fine mats were gifted on important occasions, with different meanings and names associated with different types of events. I’e toga are made by women—plaited pandanus in thin, narrow wefts in a check pattern, adorned with feathers (originally Collared Lory, and today, dyed chicken feathers)—and valued for the preparation of the medium and skill of the plait (resulting in a soft textile with a sheen). Watch Samoan women weave and discuss I’e toga here. Read more on the material preparation and weaving process here.

Tapa, or barkcloth, is as blanket term for Polynesian textiles made from tree bark (mainly the inner bark of the mulberry tree). It is known by different names, but pictured in this lesson are Hawaiian kapa, Tongan ngatu, Samoan siapo, and Fijian masi. Tapa is made using a multi-step process, and the design and method of elaborating the cloth varies on different island groups. Women separate the inside bark of the mulberry tree from the outside and soak the interior in water to soften it. The bark is beaten with a wooden beater on a wooden anvil to soften it further and create a thin layer of bark. In Hawaii, the bark pieces are felted together, while in the rest of Polynesia, layers of bark are pasted on top of one another, using an arrowroot starch paste (resistant to insects) or other adhesive starch. Pieces of barkcloth are also sewn to each other to make larger pieces (and sewing can also be seen in older and used pieces as evidence of repairs to the valuable and prestigious cloth). In some traditions, the cloth is beaten with a wooden beater that has incised patterns or rubbed against a patterned board (called an ‘upeti board), and has, therefore, an underlying pattern impressed into the cloth. The cloth is decorated in various ways, including painting, dying (one example of indigenous vegetal dye is a deep brown color made from the koka plant), and stamping. Tapa has multiple uses: as clothing (including, today, wedding and prom dresses), wrapping (ritual objects), funerary wrapping, and as a presentation gift at important ceremonies and weddings. Barkcloth sculptures are also found in Polynesia, most notably on Rapa Nui. Making tapa is a labor-intensive, gendered (women make tapa), skilled venture that was (and is) collaborative, and tapa-beating songs guide women as they create textiles together. Videos of women making tapa are included in the online resources above, and tapa-beating music is available on iTunes. In these four examples, you can see aesthetic properties specific to each island. Often, museum collections have portions, rather than complete pieces of tapa, as the large textiles are sometimes portioned off when gifted. For example, the Tongan piece seen here has been cut, with the numbers indicating the section of tapa on the original textile. This piece of Hawaiian kapa collected by an artist on Captain Cook’s voyages (today at the Historisches Museum in Bern) has been freehand painted in black and red, and you can observe where swatches of fabric have been cut from the textile. The Samoan siapo seen here has a composition consisting of grids and rows with triangles, rectangles, and circles creating a visually complex design, emphasized by black and brown pigments. The Fijian masi pictured has stenciled geometric designs in black and red pigments. For further reading on Tongan barkcloth, see: Kaeppler, Adrienne L, “Poetics and politics of Tongan barkcloth,” in Dirk A.M. Smidt, Pieter ter Keurs and Albert Trouwborst (eds.), Pacific Material Culture. Essays in Honour of Dr. Simon Dooijman on the Occasion of his 80th Birthday, (Leiden, 1995), 101–21. As a class activity, you could discuss cultural appropriation in relation to South Pacific textiles, using this article on Fijian tapa as a jumping-off point.

When European colonists and missionaries colonized South Pacific islands, they often introduced new clothing styles, materials, and techniques; these objects in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often replaced the clothing styles and artistic adornment traditions on the islands until concerted efforts to preserve and reintroduce traditional arts in the mid-twentieth century (although there were artists who continued making older art forms on nearly every island). However, in some cases, introduced art forms were assimilated to traditional island functions and became prestigious artistic traditions in their own right. One of these traditions is quilting, introduced by European missionaries and prized particularly in the Cook Islands, Tahiti, and Hawaii (see studies by L. Rongokea, S. Kuchler and A. Eimke, V. Poggioli, and S. Kamehiro). The tivaivai (sometimes written tivaevae), or Cook Islands quilts seen here are examples of an imported tradition being adapted by Cook Islands artists; they modified the designs for local visual expression and function. Like quilt traditions globally, Cook Islander quilters both piece and applique their quilts. Pieced designs (tivaivai taorei) tend toward tiny geometric shapes resulting in quilts with fractal-like patterns, and large-scale applique quilts (tivaivai manu) are vegetal designs with heavy embroidery outlining the applique pieces. According to labels in the Cook Islands museum on Rarotonga, the term tivaivai actually means to “patch repeatedly,” but the term tivaivai now refers to any style of the textile. Today, the quilts are prestige objects, often kept in special cabinets or given as gifts, and they serve to ceremonially designate occasions like weddings, rites of passage (like hair-cutting ceremonies), and twenty-first birthdays. Tivaivai also functioned as funerary shrouds. Originally, tapa (Cook Islands barkcloth) served these ceremonial functions. Quilting is both a collaborative and an individual art-making practice; often one woman will cut the designs, but many women may work on the stitching in a single tivaivai. Even if the stitchwork is completed by a single woman, women gather in groups to work on their projects together (as in quilt guilds globally), sharing stories, songs, and food while they work. As seen in the two Cook Islands quilts pictured here, the applique quilts often consist of a two or more contrasting colors and intricately cut designs. Pineapples, breadfruit trees, hibiscus, and other native plants are popular tivaivai designs, although quilters incorporate designs from daily life and the Diaspora flora. For more on contemporary Cook Islands quilting, see: Rongokea, Lynnsay and John Daley. The Art of Tivaevae: Traditional Cook Islands Quilting. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2001.

Like other artworks in this lesson, this eighteenth-century Ahu ‘Ula (feathered cloak) is made by a combination of skilled handwork and performance. The cloak can be discussed in three ways: as a prestige object, as an object imbued with mana and intimately woven into Hawaiian belief systems, and as a product of a collaborative artistic system. Constructed of a fiber network with honeycreeper and honeyeater feathers attached in conjunction with chanting, Hawaiian cloaks like this piece were prestige objects. This circular cloak with red and yellow feathers is the best-known compositional structure for these objects. The cloaks were worn during ceremonial and combat situations, alluding to their use in both organizing Hawaiians’ conceptual universe and also the active role that objects play(ed) in life’s important and dangerous moments. According to Teresa Wilkins, one meaning these cloaks carry in Hawaiian communities is unification, as their construction requires a cooperative effort. Additionally, Wilkins cites the color scheme as important for understanding Hawaiian belief systems; the color red is associated with warfare, being both the color of blood, and of the god Ku (For a seminal text on Hawaiian belief systems, see Valerio Valeri (1985), Kingship and Sacrifice: Ritual and Society in Ancient Hawaii). Through chanting during construction, the cloaks were imbued with mana, and the wearer was protected through the cloak, as well as through his own personal mana. The cloak is also a marker of social status, through its precious materials and value within the specialized spiritual and material skills necessary to the construction process. A single cloak could take years (or in some cases, decades) to construct and are heirloom pieces that, when worn, convey a public image of wealth and societal status. This cloak is composed of nearly half a million feathers, and Kaeppler has identified the precious object as one of the cloaks gifted to Charles Clerke, Captain Cook’s second-in-command on his third voyage, indicating that the straight neckline and rounded edge dates to a pre-European contact style. You can read more here, or for a thorough introduction to feather art from Hawaii, see: Wilkins, Teresa. Ruffling feathers: Hawaiian feather art 1770–2012. PhD dissertation, 2014.

Māori cloaks are made in a variety of media and with different techniques, and we will focus on the kākahu portrayed here, examining its material, techniques, composition, and aesthetic value. To see in-depth explanations by Māori scholars (art historians, anthropologists, conservators, scientists, and family owners) on how to examine and understand Māori cloaks, please see the 23 videos arranged and posted by Te Papa here. Kākahu convey mana onto their wearers, elevating their prestige through the value of their materials, the power in their skilled construction, and the weight of family history, as kākahu are often passed through families as heirlooms. Kākahu are constructed on a base frame made from muka, the extracted inner fiber of harakeke, New Zealand flax, and incorporating dyed flax, feathers, dog or goatskin, wool, and tassels, among other materials. Te Papa lists seven styles of cloak, ranging from a rugged rain-impermeable cloak, to the prestigious dog-skin cloaks prized before the Pacific dog’s (kuri) extinction in the mid-nineteenth century, to beautiful Kahu huruhuru and Kaitaka (feathered chiefs’ cloaks and skillful flax cloaks with woven taniko—geometric borders—respectively). Kaitaka are especially prized for the luminosity of the cloaks, which is created by the artist using muka (the inner fiber of the flax plant). The taniko (geometric border designs) are the only decorative design on the cloaks and are created using the technique of finger twining (with full and half twists of colored materials woven in by the artist). Kaitaka are invested with power (and reciprocate) the mana of the wearer, and when the Kaitaka is placed upon another person, it can emanate protective powers. Kahu huruhuru (feathered cloaks) are also highly specialized works, in which the artists weave the shafts of thousands of bird feathers into the flax fiber framework. Weavers use the feathers of different types of New Zealand (and introduced) bird species to allude to various Māori stories, metaphors, and personal messages. Māori art specialists also use feathers to establish provenance for cloaks, as feather types can indicate dates, geographies, and other information about a particular cloak. Different birds can also enhance the value and mana of a cloak; for example, the nocturnal kiwi’s feathers are especially prized, and the color (red) of the kaka bird are incredibly valuable. Contemporary Māori artists continue to explore the form and function of cloaks in Māori society: for example, Te Rongo Kirkwood’s glass-feathered cloaks (see the University of British Columbia collection).

The wealth of online resources connected to Māori cloaks presents an opportunity for students to deeply engage these artworks. One option for classroom activity is to ask groups of students to engage the various aspects of looking at, researching, caring for, and presenting cloaks, historic and contemporary. After watching the videos, students could investigate a cloak in a museum collection with very little associated information and present a plan for researching the piece (and then follow through with their plan).

The Hawaiian Lei Niho Palaoa in this image is another object of personal adornment infused with mana and connected to prestige and genealogy. Prestige objects worn by both men and women, these pieces are made of valuable materials: a walrus tooth or bone (whale teeth are were also used) pendant strung on cords of braided hair. A person’s head is the place with the highest concentration of mana, infusing the object with power. Scholars characterize the shape of the pendant as either crescent or tongue-shaped, both of which also allude to the presence of mana, conferred upon the wearer.

Tatau was (and is) an important aspect of Polynesian life, and is especially important in Samoa, New Zealand, Hawaii, the Marquesas, and Rapa Nui. Both men and women are tattooed with designs that are meaningful to the individual, and the art is associated with prestige, societal rank and status, and genealogical ties. Tattoos are signifiers of Samoan identity both on the island and in the Diaspora. Samoan men’s tattoos, called pe’a, cover the body from waist to knee; for women, the malu covers the upper thigh to behind the knee. Pe’a designs are dense, and malu designs are slightly less so. Traditionally, Samoan tattooing is performed with specialized instruments called ‘au ta. See images of them here, and watch Te Papa curator Sean Mallon speak more on the meaning of tatau here (also hyperlinked in the PowerPoint below).

At the End of Class...

As a pre-lecture classroom assessment technique, you could:

  • Have students engage some of the main ideas contextualizing Polynesian art to think about how Polynesian objects originally entered Western museum collections. Divide students into groups and ask them to blog about two of the earliest Pacific explorers: Captain James Cook and Abel Tasman. Ask them to construct a paragraph (as a group) about the given explorer. In a second paragraph, ask each student to discuss a work in a museum collection collected by Cook, Tasman, or a member of their crews. Students can source objects from one of the following books (Kaeppler, Adrienne Lois. James Cook and the Exploration of the Pacific. London: Thames & Hudson, 2009; Kaeppler, Adrienne Lois. “Artificial Curiosities”: Being an Exposition of Native Manufactures Collected On the Three Pacific Voyages of Captain James Cook, R. N., At the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, January 18, 1978-August 31, 1978, On the Occasion of the Bicentennial of the European Discovery of the Hawaiian Islands by Captain Cook, January 18, 1778. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1978), or by searching for Cook/Tasman objects in a repository like the British Museum. Another excellent resource for students is the Smithsonian’s “Creating Hawaii” podcast, discussing the construction of culture through objects.
  • As a one-minute paper warm-up, have students reflect in a few sentences on their readings. Ask them to discuss any of the following topics: Polynesian artistic media (natural materials and technology), social structure, or the importance of genealogies in the Pacific.
  • Ask students to discuss the terms mana and tapu, and use them to explore a specific work of art from their reading.

Lesson activities:

  • Have students watch the 23 short videos on Māori cloaks featured on the Te Papa website (in groups or before class). Divide them into groups and ask them to consider the various aspects of researching and working with Māori artists and cloaks in the museum context. Ask them to construct a plan for researching a Māori cloak—what kinds of questions need they ask, and to which experts do they turn? How would they figure out what types of materials are incorporated into a cloak? What kind of questions would they ask experts (artists) if they had the opportunity? What kind of information could they tell by visually examining a cloak?
  • Debate cultural appropriation in the South Pacific. Ask students to read an article about cultural appropriation, and ask them to debate and discuss different aspects of the argument. Further, ask them to investigate instances of cultural appropriation within their own countries or communities or regulations regarding the use of indigenous imagery. You could, for example, ask them to investigate this question in other media (like tiki imagery—you could use Daniel McMullin’s article as a jumping-off point: McMullin, Daniel, “Tiki Kitsch, American Appropriation, and the Disappearance of the Pacific Islander Body,” LUX: A Journal of Transdisciplinary Writing and Research, Claremont Graduate University. 2(1), Article 21. 2013). This topic also works well as a starting point for blog posts, end of lesson reflections, and as a connection to other sections of a course on global arts, as cultural appropriation is at issue for other art historical fields outside of the South Pacific.

To assess learning after class:

  • After the lesson, ask students to reflect on indirectness to contextualize a single work of Polynesian art. Ask them discuss why and how this concept is integral to understanding that artwork.
  • Assign students a contemporary artist from Polynesia, and ask them to write a single paragraph examining how one of that artist’s works engages and builds upon Polynesian aesthetic concepts combined with contemporary experiences. (For example: Fatu Feu’u, Mary Pritchard, Jim Vivieaere, Reuben Paterson, or Lisa Reihana).

Stephanie Beck Cohen (author) is a PhD Candidate in Art History at Indiana University.

Jon Mann (editor) is an Adjunct Lecturer at Lehman College, a Senior Contributor at Artsy, and a lecture contributor and editor at Art History Teaching Resources and Art History Pedagogy and Practice.