Subscribe to our RSS feed:

RSS Feed Button

Land of Ancient Tattoos
by N.F. Karlins
"Exotic and rare" are the words that best describe the almost 80 pieces in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current gem of an exhibition, "Adorning the World: Art of the Marquesas Islands." The show is the first devoted solely to work from the Marquesas in an art museum. Filled with intriguing objects, it leaves the viewer with as many questions as answers.

The Marquesas Islands, which can be visited today by cruise line, cargo ship and air, consist of six main islands and many smaller ones. They lie in the middle of the southern Pacific Ocean, about 800 miles northeast of Tahiti. Remembered as the final home of Paul Gauguin, the Marquesas only became generally known in the West with the publication of Herman Melville’s first novel, Typee, in 1846.

The Marquesas Islands were colonized by the same people who settled in Tahiti, Hawaii and New Zealand between 200 BC and 100 AD. Yet the Marquesas developed a unique style of art, at least in part because of its volcanic origins which created lush valleys cut off by mountains. Self-sufficient groups living in one valley raided others. Warfare was intermittent but constant. Its purpose was not to defeat opponents but to gain a sacrificial victim or to repay the capturing of one.

Warfare, elaborate rituals -- some involving the ceremonial ingestion of slain enemies -- and a way of life that entwined the sacred with what we would call the artistic gave rise to impressive large and small stone sculptures, wooden sculptures and implements, feathered headdresses, small ivory and bone ornaments, and the most extravagant tradition of tattooing in the Pacific.

The human body in the form of a tiki, a human figure with large eyes, frontal pose, rounded belly and a wide mouth is the archetypal Marquesan design element. Tikis are thought to represent supernatural ancestral beings and probably also human ancestors and chiefs. In large stone and wooden sculptures made for sacred ritual areas, in smaller stone images for private devotions and in small ivory or bone ornaments, a tiki appears unadorned, as in a more than three-foot-high wooden figure from the 19th century in the exhibition. Its flat head was probably used for food offerings.

In tattooing and in what-are-assumed-to-be tobacco containers, coconut and wood bowls, fan handles, war clubs and other objects, the tiki is integrated into a decorative scheme, often with multiple tikis and abstract designs.

Facial tattoos appear in the first European drawing of a Marquesan, a chief, in red chalk. It is attributed to William Hodges, the official artist of British Captain James Cook’s second Pacific voyage, which dates the work to around 1774. The British arrived almost 200 years after the Spanish, who named the islands and then left. Unlike the Spanish, the British documented what they discovered.

The chief’s portrait records not only the many patterns of his facial tattoos, but his serpentine beard, large wooden ear ornaments, necklace, barkcloth robes and an elaborate multi-part headdress of feathers with cut-out turtle shell overlay and seeds.

A composite headdress, similar to the one the chief wears, is in the show. This spectacular piece, assembled from several different individual sorts of headdresses and based on a print and is the first one to be seen in over one hundred years.  

An even more impressive display of tattooing, this time of a high-ranking man with his full body on view, appears in an 1813 copperplate engraving by Wilhelm Gottlieb Tilesius von Tilenau, an artist with an 1804 Russian expedition to the Marquesas. Every inch of this man’s body is adorned. He holds a fan and chief’s staff, both prestige items, but his tattoos are the most prestigious thing about him.

If a Marquesan man could afford the pain and expense, he would be continually tattooed all his life. Women were tattooed on arms, legs and shoulders with smaller motifs behind their ears and vertical lines on their lips. Like all creation, whether of objects or rituals, tattooing was considered sacred and was performed by specialists.

In the mid-19th century, whalers arrived, followed by missionaries. They brought diseases that decimated the population, destroying the oral culture on which many of the pieces in the exhibition are based. With the adoption of western mores and dress, much of the remaining lore behind traditional Marquesan art was lost.

One unnerving piece in the show is a barkcloth effigy, one of only three in existence. Made of painted barkcloth pulled skintight over a wood armature, the figure is an eerie presence. No one knows what the effigy means or why it was made or how it was used. It may have hung on the ridgepole of a sacred ceremonial site along with bird effigies, which have been chronicled but none of which have managed to survive.

Another mystery concerns wooden sculptures of legs and arms completely covered with tattoo designs in low relief. Two legs of the thirteen individual limbs that are extant are in the exhibition. Why single limbs? Were they made, as has been suggested, for westerners as furniture supports, since the legs have tenons?

"Adorning the World: Art of the Marquesas Islands," organized by Eric Kjellgren, the Metropolitan Museum’s Evelyn A. J. Hall and John A. Friede associate curator of Oceanic art, is accompanied by a catalogue containing essays by Mr. Kjellgren and Carol S. Ivory that provide as much information as is available on the pieces in the show, as well as an excellent overview of Marquesan culture. The exhibition, which opened to the public on May 10, 2005, is on view to Jan. 15, 2006.

N.F. KARLINS is a New York art historian and critic.