Micronesia is one of the three major culture areas of the Pacific. It is comprised of 2,500 islands located in the north Pacific Ocean, between Hawai’i and Japan. The region, consisting of mostly low-lying coral atolls, has a combined population of around 200,000 people. Despite the fact that the islands are scattered across 8 million square kilometers of ocean, a distinctive Micronesian style does exist. Functional forms, streamlined designs, and, in some cases, complex surface decoration characterize the art of this region.
The islands of Micronesia are divided into seven different nations or territories. The majority of the central islands, known as the Caroline Islands, belong to the Federated States of Micronesia. As an independent nation in free association with the United States, the Federated States of Micronesia is divided into four states: Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae. To the west of Yap (also considered a part of the Caroline Islands) is the Republic of Belau (or Palau). To the north are Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, which are both territorial protectorates of the United States. To the east of the Caroline Islands are two archipelagos that run roughly parallel, known as the Republic of the Marshall Islands. To the southeast are Nauru and Kiribati (formerly known as the Gilbert and Phoenix Islands), which are independent nations.
The Pacific Ocean plays a central role in the lives of many Micronesians. Not only is it used for fishing, inter-island travel, and, formerly, warfare, but it also serves as a conduit for trade networks and political alliances.
Micronesian artworks directly associated with the ocean include stick charts from the Marshall Islands (1978.412.826) and weather charms from Yap Island (2003.243), both of which were associated with long ocean voyages. Stick charts were originally used as navigational maps, showing the location of different islands, and the patterns created by waves and currents. Weather charms, known as hos, served as protective devices against bad storms and evil spirits. These charms represented Yalulawei, benevolent water spirits. Prior to a voyage, the power of the Yalulawei would be summoned by the navigator through chanting. It would then be taken along in the canoe to ensure a smooth and safe voyage.
The island of Belau is best known for its large men’s houses, or bai. Traditionally, these houses served as club houses for men. As a gable ornament, most men’s houses had a carved representation of a young woman with legs spread wide (1978.412.1558a-d). According to local legend, the figure represents a promiscuous woman named Dilukai, who was tied in this position by her father as a warning to all the women of the village to be chaste. Dilukai is occasionally flanked on either side by representations of her brother Bagei. Due to Bagei’s embarrassment at his sister’s behavior and his desire to bring her shame, it is believed that he was the first one to carve her image in a bai.
Belau is also the center of an elaborate ceremonial gift exchange system. Traditionally, men exchanged items such as pieces of pottery, porcelain, or glass-bead necklaces as a form of currency. Necklaces were also given to women during pregnancy or just after the birth of a first child. To mark significant moments in their lives (such as marriages, births, and deaths), Belauan women traditionally exchanged among themselves beautifully crafted turtleshell “money” (1978.412.756). These elegant pieces highlight the patterns inherent in the turtleshell.
Caglayan, Ph.D., Emily. “Micronesia.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/micr/hd_micr.htm (October 2004)
D'Alleva, Anne. Arts of the Pacific Islands. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998.
Kaeppler, Adrienne L., Christian Kaufmann, and Douglas Newton. Oceanic Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997.