Mangarevan Sculpture

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Located some 900 miles southeast of Tahiti, the tiny volcanic islands of Mangareva were home to a unique tradition within Polynesian sculpture. Like other Polynesian peoples, such as the Hawaiians or the Maori people of New Zealand, the Mangarevans believed in a broad pantheon of different gods, a number of whom were represented with wood images. On Mangareva, such images formed the focal point of rituals during which the priests, or taura, sought to communicate with the gods on behalf of the community. For each new ceremony, a structure was built on the grounds of the temple, or marae, to house the image of the god during the rituals that followed. During some rituals, the figures were dressed with headdresses and loincloths made from barkcloth, a textile made from the inner bark of certain species of trees.

On Mangareva, images in human form were collectively known as tiki and were created by specialist carvers, known as taura rakau, who worked under the patronage of the gods Motu-ariki and Te Agiagi. When their services were needed, carvers underwent a ritual initiation, which brought them under the influence of their patron deities. A semi-professional class of craftspeople, carvers were paid in food and other goods for their work. The initiation of the carving process itself was sometimes the direct result of divine inspiration. According to one oral tradition, it was said that an image would be carved after a new god had spoken through the mouth of a priest. Most of the surviving images from Mangareva depict Tu, god of the breadfruit trees, which provided the Mangarevans with their most important staple food. Other images represented Rogo, a god of rain and agriculture, Rao, a god associated with the planting of tumeric (a root crop that yielded a yellow pigment used to decorate the body and clothing), and other gods.

Wood images on Mangareva were originally fairly abundant, representing a variety of gods and deified ancestors. However, following the adoption of Christianity by the Mangarevans, virtually all of these figures were burned in 1835 at the behest of Christian missionaries. Today, only roughly a dozen examples survive, making them among the rarest of Polynesian sculptures. These examples, ironically, were saved by the missionaries themselves and sent back to Europe as evidence of their success in bringing Christianity to the Mangarevans.

Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 2003


Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. “Mangarevan Sculpture.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2003)

Further Reading

Buck, Peter H. Ethnology of Mangareva, by Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter H. Buck). Honolulu: Bishop Museum, 1938.

Waite, Deborah B. "Three Images from Mangareva: A Reappraisal." In Artistic Heritage in a Changing Pacific, edited by Philip J. C. Dark and Roger G. Rose, pp. 106–15. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1993.