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Tiki: Gods and Ancestors of Polynesia

Representations of the human form can be found in the arts of nearly every culture, from depictions of ancient Egyptian rulers (fig. 1) to images of Buddha from India (fig. 2) or European icons of the Virgin and Child (fig. 3). A means by which artists and cultures represent themselves, their rulers, gods, ancestors, spirits, or ideals, the images are sometimes realistically human, with natural and easily recognizable features; in other instances, the figure may be quite abstract or stylized in form (fig. 4). Among the peoples of Polynesia in Oceania, the human form, and motifs derived from it, are extremely common and share many characteristics. Most Americans are probably familiar with the term tiki; however, very few are aware of the term’s meaning. Tiki can be both the representation of the human form and its related motifs, from the full figure to the depiction of eyes. Through three figures from the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries, we can begin to understand the use of the human form in the arts of Polynesia as well as the cultures that created them.

This head of a man is broken from a life-sized statue. He is wearing a decorated headress. The lower sections of the headdress is damaged, as is the nose.
Small head of a Buddha figuret with a prominent top knot.
A wood sculpture of a woman holding an infant in her arms. They are both smiling but neither is looking directly at us.
Elongated figure of a man hanging from a tall pole by his hands.

Figs. 1-4, clockwise from top left: Egyptian. Head of Ptolemaic King Depicted As a Pharaoh, 300–100 BCE. Granite. Gift of Frederick Stafford, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 59.44; Gandharan. Head of Buddha or Bodhisattva, 2nd-4th century. Stucco with traces of pigment. Bequest of Herman B Wells, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2006.407; Ahron Ben-Shmuel (American, 1903–1984). The Captive (or The Martyr, Saint Sabastian), 1932. Bronze on wood base. Museum purchase with funds from the Estate of Herman B Wells via the Joseph Granville and Anna Bernice Wells Memorial Fund, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2017.63; Germany, Lower Rhineland. Virgin and Child, late 15th or early 16th century. Oak with traces of pigment. Gift of Grete Sultan, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2009.88

The world area known as Oceania contains the regions of Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia, Australia, and the Malay Archipelago. All of these regions are represented in the collection of the Eskenazi Museum of Art. While most of Oceania is tropical, there are parts of Australia, Aotearoa (New Zealand), and French Polynesia that are not, resulting in a wider variety of resources and more diverse artistic practices.

Given its accessibility in terms of travel and culture, Polynesia is an exciting region for Americans unfamiliar with Oceanic arts and cultures to begin studying. Islands of Oceania that are currently inhabited were populated by the year 1000 CE; although Polynesia was the last to be populated, archeological evidence suggests its cultural origins can be traced back to the Lapita, a culture that existed from 2000 to 650 BCE.

Polynesia, meaning many islands in Greek, includes the triangle of islands created by Hawaiʻi to the north, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) to the east, and Aotearoa (New Zealand) to the west. Although there are many diverse cultures across the widely dispersed islands within Polynesia, they share many common cultural ideas.

Among these ideas is an emphasis on genealogy, hierarchy, and the ability to trace one’s lineage. Polynesian societies are highly stratified and an individual’s social status is largely based on their genealogy. The highest levels of society often trace their lineage directly to gods and mythological ancestors.

Such cultural similarities in Polynesia also extend to the arts and are exemplified by similar postures and forms in their figures, including bent knees, inlaid eyes, a disproportionally large head, and a sense of dynamic energy.

These shared features, as well as symmetrical frontal posturing and arms with slightly bent elbows extended at the sides, are visible in this wooden figure from Rapa Nui known as Moai Kavakava (fig. 5). One of several types of Rapa Nui wooden figures, this form is thought to be the first kind of wooden figure carved by a legendary ancestor, Tuu-Ko-ihu.

Although little is known about the function of such figures, Moai Kavakava translates to “image with ribs.” It has been suggested that these figures represent the dead spirit of an ancestor, given their emaciated forms. However, the inclusion of a beard also suggests that this figure represents an individual who was alive at one time.

This figure epitomizes the classic style of Moai Kavakava with its prominent brow, emaciated form, extended earlobes, and goatee-like beard. As exemplified in the Eskenazi Museum’s example, the head is often carved with designs and considered an important part of the composition. Some scholars have suggested that these designs may be a representation of tattoo; however, the designs do not strongly resemble the forms of head tattooing used on Rapa Nui.

Inlaid eyes are a significant visual detail in Rapa Nui art and a common feature in Polynesian figures. They are present in all three of the Eskenazi Museum’s Rapa Nui woodcarvings (figs. 6–7) and are created using pieces of obsidian and bone. The final step of the creation process is the ritual opening of the eyes. It is believed that the eyes were set in place to invoke the figure, but could later be removed when the figure’s ritual function had been completed.

A curved wooden figure with both lizard and human features. The body is elongated and compact and the eyes are inlayed with bone and obsidian.
A chest ornament in a crescent shape, with two elongated human heads, one at each end of the crescent. The heads are facing upward, their chins pointing inward to the center.

Figs. 6-7: Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Lizard Figure, Moko Miro, 19th century. Wood, bone, and obsidian. Raymond and Laura Wielgus Collection, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2010.24; Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Chest Ornament, Rei Miro, 19th century. Wood, obsidian, and bone. Raymond and Laura Wielgus Collection, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2010.23

The concepts of mana, a force contained in both living and inanimate objects, and tapu, the ways of insuring that the flow of mana is properly controlled, were—and for many Polynesians—still are essential cultural tenets, and many arts reflect these ideas. Living and inanimate objects all have different levels of mana; the greater the amount, the greater the level of power, skill, and respect. A living being is born with a certain level of mana, and any extreme increase or decrease in mana is considered dangerous because it creates imbalance in society. In order to ensure this balance and the safety of the community, tapu is put in place. Tapu, from which the English word taboo originates, are rules or ways of ensuring that the flow of mana is properly controlled.

Mana can be transferred through physical contact; thus, it can also be transferred through the use of tools during the creation of objects and through objects themselves, especially those that have had skin-to-skin contact with an individual. Heirlooms were especially valued for creating a connection between the living and the dead, both allowing mana to transfer through objects to the next generation and also upholding the importance of genealogy.

Given the capacity for mana to be transferred through physical contact with objects, Polynesian artists and craftspeople were historically among the noble class. While this is no longer a firmly held rule, it is still very common for artists and craftspeople to be part of the noble class and often members of longstanding artist families. This status safeguarded the artists from losing too much mana through their practice, and it also served to increase the mana of the objects that they created. These artists would also historically often serve as specialists in temple rituals and oral arts.

Artists generally participated in long apprenticeships in order to gain the detailed knowledge of their craft. The creation of art was more than just the visual; artists were also trained in the understanding of the flow of mana. In addition to building practical skills, the apprentice learned prayers, chants, and songs in order to imbue the object with greater mana. The process of making was extremely important because the movement of mana could be controlled, to a degree.

Much like the Greek pantheon, Polynesia has specialized deities, including Tane, the god of fertility and the patron of craftspeople. In addition, families and communities had their own personal deities. In the early nineteenth century, a major change in Polynesian culture and artistic practice came with the conversion to Christianity. It was not long after the first European explorers arrived in the Pacific that Christian missionaries followed. Conversion to Christianity came in a number of forms—sometimes forced, sometimes as an addition to already existing beliefs, and sometimes it was willingly accepted. As a result, images of the old gods were considered inappropriate and, along with objects used or believed to be used in their worship, they were sometimes destroyed or removed by missionaries. It is worth noting that when missionaries removed these objects it was not uncommon for those objects to be brought to Europe, where they were celebrated, sold, and displayed. The removal of these objects from the cultures that made them, used them, and who’s mana remains in them, is an ongoing issue and source of pain for many Polynesians.

The tiki form is ubiquitous in Marquesas art because it symbolizes the link between the living and deified ancestors who could bring good or bad fortune. Known as tiki ke’a, small figures such as fig. 8 were used during rituals for healing the sick and as votive offerings. This figure’s goggle eyes, wide legs, gender-neutral form, wide mouth with visible tongue, and flared nostrils clearly identify it as Marquesan. With its bent knees, hands placed on its stomach, large head, and broad shoulders, this figure fits the broader Polynesian aesthetic.

Polynesian art has multiple layers of meaning and can be better understood when the viewer knows more about the culture of its creator. For example, a wide or open mouth to an American or European viewer may communicate happiness or a friendly disposition; however, to a Polynesian viewer the same facial expression communicates aggression and strength. In Polynesian art, the viewer is often encouraged to participate in the art, beyond simply looking, to better understand the object. This participation can occur through a study of the culture and the object’s role within it, dance, singing, spoken word, the use of the object, prayers, and more.

For the many cultures of Polynesia, there is no separate category or term to describe “art” as a pure aesthetic form. Polynesian art is always connected to its culture and includes the visual arts, as well as sounds, words, dances, and more. Although “art for art’s sake” is not a historical concept in Polynesia, aesthetics were, and still are, extremely important and deeply considered by artists and their communities.

This figure (fig. 9) comes from the Ha’apai island group in Tonga, which has long been known for its ivory carving. Such carvings are valued both for the skill involved in their creation and also for the use of ivory, which is considered rare and precious. Given their believed representation of ancestors or deities, it is not surprising that very few Tongan figures have survived to the present day as many were destroyed during the conversion to Christianity. This example is one of only nineteen small Tongan sculptures that exist today.

In Tongan aesthetics, Heliaki, or indirectness, is an important principle that expresses the inability of completely understanding an object through mere looking. Multifaceted levels of meaning extend beyond the visual, and to properly understand and appreciate these objects, and their cultural significance, Polynesian aesthetics and philosophy must also be taken into account.

Although this figure was made in Tonga, many similar figures have been found in nearby Fiji. There is a long history of interaction between Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, including trade, intermarriage, and war. Figures such as this one were also honored in Fiji, where they represented ancestor gods and were kept in shrines.

The variations in color that can be seen on this figure are the result of the inner and outer layers of the carved whale tooth, the form of ivory that was used. Due to repeated oiling, the figure has a rich, golden patina. Oiling was an important aspect of production and Tongan aesthetics—achieved through covering the figure in coconut oil and smoking it over a fire—to make objects more beautiful.

This figure embodies the Tongan ideal of beauty. The large head—a common feature in depictions of humans throughout Polynesia—relates to the idea that the head is the location of abundant amounts of mana. The figure’s stocky proportions, well-development breasts and backside, broad shoulders, large calves, and smooth, shiny surface represent qualities of Tongan female beauty. It also has other features typical of the Polynesian aesthetic, including a symmetrical frontal posture, arms extended at the sides with slightly bent elbows, and bent, flexed legs that represent the figure’s anticipated spring into movement or dance.

With Polynesia’s emphasis on genealogy and ancestry, it is no surprise that the human form is ubiquitous. The similarities and differences in human representation created by the cultures of Polynesia—only three of which have been discussed here—allow us to begin understanding the varied and layered cultures from which these figures originate.

Emma Fulce
Collections Specialist
Emma earned her masters degree in Art History from Indiana University with a focus on the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and Indigenous Art of the Americas. In her role at the Eskeanzi Museum of Art she works with and conducts research on the AOA collection.

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Fulce, Emma. "Tiki: Gods and Ancestors of Polynesia." Collections Online. Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University, 2020.

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