Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Tahiti

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Situated in the heart of Polynesia, the island of Tahiti has long held a fascination for Westerners, particularly the philosophers of the Romantic movement who held it to be an earthly paradise. In reality, however, the Tahitians, who referred (and refer) to themselves as "Maohi," had the same virtues and failings found in any human society. Like many other Polynesian peoples, the Tahitians formerly lived in a rigidly stratified society. At the top were the ali'i, or ruling chiefly class, a hereditary aristocracy believed to be descended directly from the gods and to embody the sacred power, or mana, on earth. Below the ali'i were the ra'atira, landed farmers and warriors, and below them the manahune, or commoners. Mainly living along the coast, the Tahitians were dependent for their sustenance on both agriculture and the rich bounty of the seas that surrounded their island home.


Tahitian art served two primary functions—to honor and communicate with the diversity of gods, spirits, and ancestors of Tahitian religion and to adorn the bodies of chiefs, warriors, and other high-ranking individuals.

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Cited Works of Art or Images (2)

  • Double-Headed Figure
  • God House

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As in many parts of Polynesia, Tahitian art served two primary functions—to honor and communicate with the diversity of gods, spirits, and ancestors of Tahitian religion and to adorn the bodies of chiefs, warriors, and other high-ranking individuals. Like other Polynesian societies, the Tahitians worshipped four primary gods—Ta'aroa, Tane, Tu, and Ro'o. However, at least in the late prehistoric and early historic period, a fifth god, 'Oro, the god of war and son of Ta'aroa, reigned supreme. In Tahitian art, 'Oro was represented by clublike images consisting of a wooden core wrapped in layers of woven coconut fiber on which facial and other anatomical features were only lightly delineated 1979.206.1481.


In addition to these more abstract 'Oro images, the Tahitians also produced a variety of more naturalistic renditions of the human form. Some of them likely represented gods, spirits, or human ancestors, which were called upon to serve the community in time of need. Others served as canoe ornaments or were used in the practice of malevolent magic.


Another important focus of the arts in Tahiti was the adornment of chiefs, priests, warriors, and other high-status individuals. Certain items, such as intricately carved ceremonial fly whisks with handles of whale ivory 1978.412.875, wooden stools, and long girdles adorned with precious bird feathers, served to mark and emphasize their owner's chiefly rank and sacred status.


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

Double-Headed Figure
Society Islands, Tahiti, probably Matavai Bay
Wood; H. 23 in. (58.5 cm)
The British Museum, London

With its massive blocky body and a head on each shoulder, this figure is unique in Tahitian art. Collected by an English sea captain in 1822, virtually nothing is known about its use or the reasons for its unusual iconography. The figure may represent a god, spirit, or ancestor, or may have been used in sorcery. Its enlarged belly may reflect the ancient Tahitian belief that the belly was the dwelling place of both the emotions and the human soul.

God House
Society Islands, Tahiti
Wood; L. 34 1/4 in. (87 cm)
The British Museum, London

With its four humanlike feet, hollow cylindrical body, and top shaped like the roof of a Tahitian house, this unusual object probably served as a "god house" in which sacred objects were stored. In Tahiti, as elsewhere in Polynesia, the divine power (mana) of the gods was expressed not only through anthropomorphic images but could also be manifest in almost any natural or artificial object. Thus feathers, shells, coconut fiber cordage, and other things might serve as god images, equally or even more powerful than their anthropomorphic counterparts. It is likely that this god house was created to contain such sacred objects when they were not in use during religious ceremonies.