Micronesia: Between Sea and Sky

"What is important above all else for the people of Micronesia is to understand how the sea, sky and earth fit together," Adrienne Kaeppler observes with succinct accuracy in L'Art oceanien. Marooned on their tiny volcanic islands strung like drops of coral and fire across the waters of the Pacific, this seafaring people has always been oriented toward the sea and has forged its mental and spiritual universe and taken its inspiration from the immense waters that surround it. Trading links, diplomatic relations and exchanges of gifts and materials have all encouraged the people of Micronesia to set to sea, leaving their tiny atolls behind. While carving was not (with a few magnificent exceptions) among their chief artistic preoccupations, these intrepid sailors nevertheless created canoes as proud as cathedrals and communal houses as lofty as ships.

Magellan was the first European to land on the shores of Micronesia in 1521, the Portuguese navigator dropped anchor at Guam, to be followed seven years later by a certain Alvaro de Saavedra Gerion. Disembarking at Pohnpei, the latter named the island "Barbudos," after the beards worn by the local people. Contact with Europeans did not intensify until the early 19th century, with the arrival, in the coveted waters of the Pacific, of whalers and merchant ships on their way back from Asia. These were followed, in classic fashion, by missionaries, colonists and soldiers.
Effigies of gods, Hawaii Basketry, feathers, hair, shells, mother-of-pearl teeth
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Few of the world's regions seem to have been regarded with such indifference, or even contempt, as Micronesia. A melting pot of cultures, languages and artistic practices, all of which reflect these complex origins, this archipelago of "little island" (as its name suggests) has a disconcerting, almost disturbing side. while some of its inhabitants undoubtedly came from southeast Asia nearly 4,000 years ago, others display unmistakable similarities with the peoples of Melanesia, and even of Polynesia.
Many and complex as they are, these lines of descent are an indication of the long history of migrations behind peoples who quite simply defy all classification or generalization. One common denominator nevertheless links these populations: their overriding love of the sea and its inexhaustible resources, fulfilling needs ranging from the economic to the spiritual and artistic. Besides dividing people, the ocean also sometimes unites them.
Figurine representing a divinity. Caroline Archipelago, Nukuoro Atoll, Hardwood
Canoes were honored above all other objects and frequently invested with religious symbolism, and among some Micronesian population their construction was the prerogative of high-ranking members of society. With their deep hulls, large triangular sails and sides painted sometimes in the solemnly religious colours of red and black, all united by a rare purity of line, these vessels were created not merely as a means of transport over the ocean but also as a source of communal pride. At Truk (Chuuk) the great war canoes known as wa faten were equipped with detachable carvings in the form of birds with tails spread and beaks facing each other. Far from being purely decorative, these embellishments to the prow and stern served to broadcast the intentions of the canoe's occupants: peaceful if the figures were in the low position, warlike if held high.
Post figure - Solomon islands, Ulawa, Wood, h. 84.5 cm.
Miniature models of these boats, faithfully reproducing every detail of the originals, were kept in meeting houses, where they were displayed on shelves or suspended from the roof beams. Dedicated to particular spirits or gods, these models were believed to house the souls of dead people. Remarkable fetishes ("good weather charms") in the form of human heads spiked on sticks, intended to keep malevolent spirits at bay and offer protection from storms and typhoons, completed the arsenal of Micronesian sailors, eternally subject of the whims of the "Great Ocean."
Dish, Western islands, Wuvulu (Maty islands), Hardwood, glossy red-brown patina
Motifs drawn from the sea and the flora and fauna also can be found less obviously in other, equally original works from Micronesia, in the form of splendid shell-encrusted covered containers, tortoiseshell dishes, and stools for grating coconut, whose stylized outlines are reminiscent of birds. although extremely rare, anthropomorphic images also formed part of the Micronesian repertoire, as may be seen from the impressive wooden statue from the Caroline Archipelago now in the Auckland Museum. couched in an aesthetic vocabulary of singular restraint, this monumental figure (more than six feet high) is believed to represent Ko Kaw, protective god of the Sekawe clan and wife of Ariki Tu Te Nato Aki, god of the kingdom of death. The same plastic power and stripped-down purity of form can be found in another masterpiece in the Barber-Mueller collection: a female figure verging on the abstract, a distant and fortuitous cousin of the idols of the Cyclades, which were also fashioned by unknown seafaring sculptors. Whether she is a tutelary goddess or the spirit of an ancestor, one thing is certain: the hieratic, full-frontal pose and the powerful torso and burly shoulders are marks of an authoritarian divinity, feared and respected. Some ethnologists even conjecture that such a goddess would probably have been honored with human sacrifices.
Figure of the god A'a, Austral Islands, Rurutu. Wood
(British Museum, London)
But above and beyond these curious white masks fringed with goatee beards, these precious mats and belts decorated with tattoolike motifs, and these fabrics so tantalizingly similar to their Indonesian counterparts, the genius of Micronesia is illustrated in supreme fashion by its dazzling architecture, at once monumental and decorative, symbolic and practical. Solidly planted in the ground in order to resist the ravages of storms and cyclones, the meeting houses, or bai, of the Caroline Archipelago, Yap and Belau (formerly Palau) offer a striking sight, with their imposing stone platforms, high sloping roofs like ships' sails and deep overhanging gables. Virtuoso examples of the architect's art, built without the aid of a single nail or screw but only with removable pegs, these ceremonial buildings also bear striking similarities to the lofty buildings of the Southeast Asian islands and Melanesia. The same hierarchical organization of space, the same symbolism of the cosmos and the same penchant for narrative decoration are common to all. Thus, the gables of the houses on Belau sport numerous images linked to the notions of fertility and prosperity (including plants, fishes, food animals, roosters and phalluses), while rows of severed heads recall practice of head-hunting, linked to the cult of ancestor worship throughout Southeast Asia and Melanesia.
Figure of the god Rao, Gambier Archipelago, Mangareva island. wood
The narrative scenes that unfold, in black, white and other pigments, on the beams and facades of these houses are full of freshness and spontaneity. These entertaining bas-relief, in which the tutored eye may make out particular episodes from the mythology of specific islands, the outlines of European sailing ships or shoals of fish in some way represent the collective memory of the island, and its visual and poetic chronicle. sometimes straddling the roof was the brazen, haughty figure of Dilukai, a young woman whose provocative posture, her legs spread wide, was a paradoxical reminder of the virtues of chastity. Micronesian legends recount how Dilukai's brother Begai carved this lascivious portrait of his sister in order to chastise her for her shameless ways. Above and beyond its original symbolism, the vigor and intensity of this image proved irresistible to the German Expressionists of Die Brucke group, from Ernst Ludwig Kirchner to Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and from Max Pechstein to Emil Nolde. Unlike their French counterparts, some of these young artists were only too eager to accompany ethnological expeditions, accumulating sketches and drawings "on the ground" that would later provide inexhaustible inspiration and exert and influence over their entire subsequent output.
Melanesia: Realm of the Singular
While in Western eyes the names of Polynesia and Micronesia stood for purely geographical concepts, that of Melanesia was rapidly colored by a distinctly disapproving moral stance. dubbed "black savage," the people of Melanesia - survivors of a Stone Age culture long vanished in the West - were dismissively lumped together under the pejorative name of Kanak indians. Yet these island-dwellers distributed over a string of islands forming an arc between New Guinea (which is included) and New Zealand (which is not) now stand revealed as exceptional artists, whose creations defy any attempts at generalization or classification. for her, unlike in Africa, all that is singular, individual or different - in short, anything that smacks of flair and imagination - reigns supreme.
Male figure with two heads. Soeciety Islands, Matavai Bay, Tahiti. Wood
In the cultures of these mountainous islands pitted with volcanoes, there was nothing monotonous, nothing static, nothing shackled to the services of conformism. The overriding aim here was to dazzle, to amaze, to intrigue - and sometimes even to terrorize. To this end, no element was left to chance: artistic activity became a "laboratory" in which forms and techniques were experimented with in a truly astonishing spirit of freedom. The materials used, whether lasting or ephemeral, were both striking and compelling in their eclecticism from simple palm leaves to human hair, passing on the way every possible variety of wood, grain, fruit and colored day, and not overlooking the skins of certain mammals, the shimmering feathers of numerous birds, shells, tusks, skulls and teeth, as well as delicately ethereal spiderwebs.
Staff or stick topped with human head, Easter Island. Wood
the great specialist in these regions, Christian Kaufmann, nevertheless holds up a winning to Western art lovers from the outset: "to Western yes, Melanesian forms of expression seem more heterogeneous, more complex, "savage" and archaic, more strange even than their counterparts in Polynesia." And he throws down a further challenge: "What do we see? Are these individual works, in the sense understood by European art from the Renaissance to the present day, that is to say unique creations - ex nihilo for preference nowadays - by individuals becoming increasingly different from one another? Or are these rather images that have become art, but which belong fundamentally to ancient cultures, subject to the conditions of life in the tropics, and which have grown in complexity as they have evolved historically?" Furthermore, have "artists" in the European sense of the term ever really existed in Melanesia? According to Kaufmann, "image maker" would be a more appropriate term, reflecting the primordial importance in these societies without writing of the role and place of these "bearers of tradition," who were also the exclusive and specialized keepers of a visual tradition. 
Figurine representing a moai kavakava, Easter Island. Wood
But as is sadly so often the case with what used to be termed "primitive" art, our conception of the creations of Melanesian culture is nonetheless only partial. Though dominated to all appearances by static pieces (such as the tree-fern funeral effigies of Vanuatu, the doorposts of New Caledonia, the ceremonial dwelling posts of the Solomon Islands and the men's longhouses of New guinea), the output of these islands only attained its full, captivating power through its extraordinary talent for movement and metamorphosis. In this, Melanesia is similar to Africa: only those who have experienced at first hand the haunting quality of a masked dance can begin to understand from within the mental and artistic world of these peoples. Whether relating scenes from the creation of the world or, more prosaically, chastising, soliciting or even attacking the spectators, all the masks with their ruffs of feathers and leaves play on the element of surprise. Equally unpredictable are the stick figures of Malekula, dancing about like marionettes above a leaf screen. Nor should we forget either the portable mannequins of the New Guinea Highlands, carved heads raised high in the air on takes, or finally the yena masks, driven into the ground but with enormous heads that the slightest shake would set nodding.
Dance staff (rapa), Easter Island. Wood, 18th century
One essential principle inherent in Melanesian art should not be forgotten, however: none of these works was conceived in order to be contemplated in isolation or seclusion (let alone in a museum display case). Each was intended to take its place in a well-defined environment, as part of a structured group. Rhus masks and decorations, the complex iconography of dwellings, ceremonial places and ritual dances formed a single whole, with a duty to proclaiming together the symbolic relationship between the present-day clan and their distant origins. For if there is one essential difference between the art of Polynesia and that of Melanesia, it is precisely in the close and omnipresent relationship between the latter and the fundamental organization of society "Figures of ancestors," not of gods, is the attribution generally given to these effigies by Western scholarship. All too often, sadly, we do not know how to read these disconcerting forms and images, prisoners as we are of our naturalistic, rationalistic European conception of the world. Perhaps we should take comfort in the fact that the triangular facades of the Abelam spirit dwellings in New guinea do not have the same meaning for the fully initiated, who have completed the seven stages of initiation, as for the partially initiated. hence it behoves ethnologists to remain particularly modest in their assertions, and to bear in mind Christian Kaufmann's advice: "to begin with, perhaps we should try to dream like the Melanesians. ... but for this we lack visual memories of a Melanesian childhood."
Fine stone sculptures - stylized pestles and mortars - unearthed by chance by gardeners or road improvement works, represent in the eyes of archaeologists the most ancient examples of artistic works by the inhabitants of the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Displaying a highly developed aesthetic vocabulary, these sculptures are generally dated to about 8000 BC.
Old Maori chief, with face tattoos
In about 2000 BC, however, a radically different culture arose in these regions, dubbed Lapita after the archaeological site in New Caledonia which had yielded some vestiges of it. Although numerous questions still surround the origins of these populations (some believe they came from Indonesia or the Philippines, while others maintain that the culture originated in New Britain or New Ireland), one thing is sure: these were people who spoke Austronesian languages, rather than the Papuan languages of their predecessors. but it was their art, and most notably their ceramic work, that was a bout to invade the whole of the Pacific region, revealing the scale of contacts and exchanges between the islands as well as the emergence of a veritable cultural melting pot. From deepest Melanesia to the islands of Samoa and Tonga in the extreme west of Polynesia, indeed, we find the same vocabulary of complex geometrical motifs and stylized human figures. Even more significantly, the same repertoire is also found on objects belonging to the Dongson civilization of Southeast Asia, thus demonstrating the complex nature of the relationships between all these South Pacific cultures. while archaeologist have drawn attention tot he development of certain iconographic themes, numerous mysteries still shroud the true part played by the Lapita heritage in the domains of cults and beliefs - a matter on which ethnological research may succeed in shedding some light in years to come.
New Guinea is that strangely shaped island, like a proud bird raising its head, that lies like a bridge between the world of Indonesia and the continent of Australia. This patchwork of cultures and peoples (speaking more than 700 languages according to some ethnologists) was for many years little known and little understood. Worse as a focus of dread and alarm, New guinea was single-handedly to crystallize all the fears and fantasies aroused in Westerners by these wild, virgin territories, so far distant from any vestige of "civilization." here diversity, eclecticism and the ephemeral are the rule, and any attempt to encapsulate the art of this region alone in just a few pages is a daunting challenge, verging on the impossible. Here, more than anywhere else, the meaning and symbolism of these disconcerting objects constantly escape our Western judgments, constrained to gape in mute wonder before such technical prowess, ingenuity and playful creativity. here, in the shadow of mountainous peaks capped with snow or ice, on the margins of swamps and the banks of muddy rivers and on the fringes of dense and humid tropical forests, the union of the macabre and the poetic, the dreamlike and the sophisticated, and of animal, plant and human life is celebrated with power and passion. Declamation, music, dancing, masks, body painting, tattoos and the organization of villages and gardens,: all forms of artistic expression are designed to communicate with the world of the ancestors, to mark rites of passage and to rehearse over and over again the intimate spiritual links that unite humans with their environment.
Pendant (hei tiki), New Zealand
The complex nature of the play of influences between these remote regions and the primitive civilizations of Southeast Asia cannot be over-emphasized. To be convinced of this, it is sufficient to admire the graceful curves and counter-curves that decorate the prows of war canoes, interpreted by some as evocations of water spirits, or as stylized depictions of coral, of octopus, the art of New Guinea borrows such motifs in order to recreate them, mingling tradition, innovation and individual initiative with rare power. Naturalism, expressionism, abstraction: no aesthetic vocabulary appears to have been overlooked in this remarkable laboratory of shapes that the Western world has not ceased either to explore or to praise in recent decades.
Young Maori dignitary wearing a sacred pendant
Among the most fertile and inventive of all regions of new guinea is the small patch of swampy land in the v4ry north of the island, following the sinuous meanders of the river that has inspired its name: the Sepik province. Here every object - from the simplest coconut bowl to the most colossal men's longhouse, from a precious flute mouthpiece encrusted with shells and mother-of-pearl to the decorated skull of an ancestor; from a roof finial to a complex arrangement of flowers and foliage that could be blown away in an instant by the merest breath of wind - possesses a poetic power and creative intensity rarely found. And if thee is one basic premise that we would do well to forget in the context of these regions, it is the myth of the anonymous "primitive" artist. We have already seen the extent to which we must qualify or modify this prejudice, still clung to so doggedly, with regard to Africa. Here, even more, there are tired stereotypes, no hard and fast rules, no comforting hidebound prototypes. Each Sepik artist has his own strong identity, respected and recognized by the community, and is given a man date to produce his own distinctive works under the protection of something akin to our copyright laws.
It is up to him to enhance his reputation by impressing a discerning and demanding public with his originality and his sill at transcending existing models and his aptitude for the tricks of the artist's trade, handed down from generation to generation. It comes as no surprise to discover that the Surrealists were greatly taken with this intrinsic and exhilarating freedom, in which lies the genius of the Sepik people. here a bird's beak becomes a crocodile's jaw, there the spinal columns of an ancestor is transformed into an insect. Sinuous arabesques, pointed breasts and jutting shoulder blades are all so many means of scrambling all categories of representing the human body, which instead is taken apart ad infinitum, offering itself as a conundrum to all those eager to decipher these streams of enigmatic signs which some Western scholars have described as "automatic writing."
Fly whisk handle topped with a pair of janiform figures, Austral Islands
It is a language that appears more serene, more harmonious and more balanced than the art that flourished on the shores of Lake Sentani, in the island's west is the influence of the ancient civilizations of Southeast Asia discemible there once again? Sadly a joint policy of destruction b the colonial government and missionaries caused most of the sculptures that once embellished ritual houses to he hurled into the waters of the lake. As luck would have it, however, they were fished out again a few years later, their outlines dulled and their surfaces and handsome decorators scarred by their unfortunate experience. Almost simultaneously, Western artists discovered another example of the creative genius of this people: Painted cloth made from beaten bark, soon to be supplanted by ordinary cotton prints.
Human-form bowl. Used for the sacred yagona beverage offered by priests to ancestral spirits, Fiji Islands
But if there is one art above all that has enjoyed an unprecedented vogue in recent years, it is that of the Asmat people. Who has not admired their oblong shields, with motifs outlined in relief and silhouetted powerfully against a polychrome red, white and black background? yet the primary function of this type of decoration, elegant and sophisticated though it may be, was to terrorize any enemy with its implicit allusions to the practice of head-hunting (a function that aesthetes and collectors preferred to overlook, concentrating instead on extraordinary graphic freedom, worthy of a Paul Klee). The principal purpose of Asmat art, nevertheless, was to appease the ancestors and avenge the souls of the dead, in order to prevent them from disturbing the world of the living with their demands and wanderings. Numerous carved wooden figurines reminded every member of the tribe of this duty.
Fly whisk handle topped with animal-headed human figure, Austral Islands
The static quality of these effigies (invariably shown squatting, elbows on knees) was probably a reference to the fetal position in which all human life starts, but also and more importantly to the Asmat custom of burying their dead in that position. The same symbolism of death was to be found in large numbers of other sculptures in Melanesia, including the Korwar figures of the Bay of Geelvink: believed to be able to communicate with the dead, and even to appease the souls of those who had died by unnatural means, these angular, disjointed figures in fact served as supports for the skulls of the dead, and were thus reliquaries of the most solemn religious significance.
The Gulf of Papua, in the heart of New Guinea, appears to have developed an original aesthetic language inspired essentially by representation of the human body, the face in particular. Oscillating between naturalism and stylization, and between disjointed, angular lines and cures and countercurves, it is a style immediately recognizable above all others, despite the infinite number of variations adopted by the assortment of different peoples living in the region. The ritual houses of the Elema, with their immense pointed facades as impressive as a cathedral, offer a truly astounding repertoire of forms covering their walls: depicted standing or squatting, anthropomorphic figures in bias-relief picked out in color - not unlike the faces used to decorate shields - are believed to represent spirits of ancestors.
Vertical drum. (Two views of details), Austral Islands, Wood fiber
The Purari people, concentrated around the estuary of the great river that gave them its name, displayed the same obsession with the human dave, which appears in numerous guises and truncated forms on masks and sacred boards, occasionally abridged to a jaw armed with teeth - an extreme and macabre example of this type of reduction. subtler still, the motif of two "Cs," back to back and linked in the middle by a circle o diamond, would appear to give rise to an example of the metamorphoses so liberally used and abused by the people of Melanesia, for cannot the trained eye detect - in what at first sight seems merely a confusion of sinuous lines - a somewhat disturbing proliferation of human faces, or a true "cryptoportrait" of a guardian spirit? It is true that, following the example of numerous island tribes, few peoples have celebrated the cults of trophy heads with such enthusiasm: it was a point of honor for every clan and village to possess its own collection, with the finest specimens neatly arranged on shelves like so many tangible signs of the community's prosperity and power. This practice, so reprehensible to Western eyes, nevertheless gave rise to a singularly original and prolific art form - as may be seen in the magnificent hooks from which the skulls were hung, with two dimensional curves and volutes which have seduced many a Western collector.
In the western Solomon Islands, as in other regions of Melanesia such as the Vanuatu Islands and the Sepik area, modeling over the skull of a dead chief represented the supreme act of homage. The special quality of the materials required for this delicate task (including a paste made from parinarium nuts and a multitude of tiny shells to reproduce the jewellery worn by the deceased when alive) are an indication of the exceptional nature of this practice, reserved for the very greatest figures. Once they had undergone this remarkable treatment, the skulls themselves were considered as artifacts alongside canoes and wood carvings.
Mask (lali) - New Ireland Muliama area. Bark cloth, fibre, plant matter, cloth
The other artistic creations of the Solomon Islanders, though less bizarre and unexpected, nevertheless share the same austere stylization and the same language of ascetic minimalism, far removed from the exuberance displayed by some of their neighbours. Among the indisputable masterpieces produced by them are the lively figureheads they carved in hardwood, highlighted with a handsome and gleaming black patina. One example, now in the Barber-Mueller collection, still brandishes a macabre trophy in the form of a human head, intended to ward off evil as well as making unmistakable reference to local customs. The same black sheen (the result of a subtly blended mixture of smoke black, sap and plant ingredients) and the same shell and mother-of-pearl decorations are to be found on other objects made by these inspired fishing people, including ritual axes, dance paddles (koka) and above all sacrificial bowls in the form of human heads and recipients for offerings sporting handles in innumerable different variations. The jewellery worn in the archipelago (including forehead ornaments carved from large shells and highlighted with openwork patterns in tortoiseshell, and large disk-shaped pendants decorated with stylized cut-out silhouettes of frigate birds), rivals the most distinguished creators of contemporary jewelers in its elegant restraint.
If we were to adhere dutifully to the strict definition of masks as "second faces" intended to disguise the features of the wearer, we would risk overlooking a large number of artistic phenomena that are inextricably linked with this notion of metamorphosis and splitting in two, so highly prized by the peoples of Oceania. One fact emerges clearly, however: while Melanesia appears as the spiritual home of masks (from Sepik to New Caledonia, via new Ireland and New Britain), Polynesia, by contrast, seems to have spurned mask-making in favour of the facial ornaments and tattoos that its peoples have raised to high levels of perfection. This curious division apart, however, few populations seems to have celebrated the virtues of disguise and masquerades, the sublimation of "self" to the "other," with such enthusiasm. Masks come in bewildering variety - headdress masks, helmet masks, costume masks and sculpture masks; masks made from plants, wood or painted bark; giant masks and gossamer-fine masks; black or polychrome, terrifying or soothing masks; funeral masks, dance masks, ceremonial masks, war masks and masks for sheer fun. As diverse in function as they are in form, they display a dizzying range of aesthetic languages and materials, from tortoiseshell to human hair, from tree fern to cassowary feathers, and from sheet metal to rattan and resin and coatings.
Necklace used for ritual sorcery, New Guinea. Fibre ring, shells, bones,
pig's tusks, sections of a mother-of-pearl pectoral ornament, maximum height 38.5 cm.
If there is one people above all others who have displayed unprecedented genius in the making of what we hardly dare call masks, it is the Baining of New Britain. virtually independent of their wearers, these gigantic faces appear to shed tears of blood from their hypnotic eyes as they seem to defy the laws of gravity. These "phantom" faces, as light as kites and as unreal as mirages, find their opposite to the brutal power of Malagan masks from New Ireland, "barbaric" collages of forms and meanings that are simultaneously exotic, disturbing and savage. 
The sculptures made by the deft and expert carves of New Ireland are both strange and fascinating. Far removed from any notion of restraint or sobriety, these remarkable combination of eclectic forms, colors and materials conspire to create structures of great subtlety while simultaneously offering the most hermetic of puzzles to our Western judgment. any artistic achievement lies precisely in the ephemeral nature of these flimsy constructions of fiber, wood, bark and feathers. No sooner were they completed than they were consecrated and burned, after the customs reserved for objects of all kinds used during the death rituals of New Ireland, known as malagan.
Hook for hanging skull trophies
Papua New Guinea, Gulf of Papua, Hardwood h. 70 cm.
Corresponding to the richness of the message transmitted (including references to the spirit world, ancestors and the history of the clan) was a profusion of images, mingling elements from the human, animal and plant kingdoms with a rare degree of extravagance. here you can make out the outlines of a flying fish, there a pig's tusks, the crimson crest of a cock or the silhouette of a bird with a snake in its beak: in short, a teeming inventory of the natural world that would prove irresistible to the Surrealist poets, themselves adept at collage techniques and associations of ideas as burlesque as they were incongruous. Indeed, the friends of Andre Breton would place the Bismarck Archipelago (as New Ireland was then known) plumb  in the middle of their ideal map of the world.
Fragment of tapa cloth, Cook Islands. Beaten bark
This overwhelming horror of the plain and unadorned was in marked contrast  to the extreme stylization of the chalk effigies called kulap which were placed in small ritual shelters, away from the unclean gaze of women and children. Of an unblemished whiteness, like a Japanese Noh mask, or sporting a rictuslike grin and highly expressionistic face painting, these figurines served as the earthly evidence of the souls of the dead - when they were not carried off by night to be sold in secret to a European collector.
She fixes us with her bulging eyes, her head daubed with strange and violent red and blue streaks. Who is she? the ogress Nevimbumbao, comfortably installed on her rush-seated chair from which she surveys, like a dea mater, the surrounding chaos of Picasso's studio. By what bizarre quirk of history did this curious figure made from plant fibers and tree fern contrive to cross the oceans in order to end up in the workshop of the most inspired painter of the 20th century? Picasso himself was undoubtedly almost totally ignorant of the culture that had produced this "idol" with features hesitating somewhere between the horrific and the numerous, between the grotesque and the terrifying. Nevimbumbao's native land was Malekula, one of the "coral and fire islands" that make up the Vanuatu archipelago. "The land that stands upright" is the rough translation of the name chosen by the island's native inhabitants when it gained independence in 1980. Struck by their sepulchral beautify, composed of mists and ashes, Cook had christened these islands the New Hebrides; while the Frenchman Bougainville, seduced by their gentle landscapes and soft light, preferred the name Great Cyclades, with its Homeric overtones.
Skull trophies and carved boards, from the Gulf of Papua. Period photograph
Ever since those voyages, archaeologists and ethnologist have pored out over more than 500 miles within the arc of Melanesia, repositories of a prodigious wealth of rituals and costumes that have miraculously survived not only devastating earthquakes and other natural disasters but also the iconoclastic fury of men. Here again, it would be insulting even to attempt to classify such a great diversity of aesthetic languages and functions. but one this is unmistakable: the extraordinary creative skill of this people, who have sued virtually every available organic material (including pigs' tusks, spiderwebs, pastes made from plants and human hair and skulls) to express their fascination with death and their veneration of the souls of the departed. The inhabitants of Vanuatu describe their extravagant and fragile headdresses made from ferns and fibers, their wooden masks fringed with beards, and their marionettes bristling with feathers as being flowerlike. Admired by the living, these ritual objects, so beautiful and full of color, were conceived in order to appease and seduce the ancestral spirits. Sadly, the objects that we admire in museum display cases are all too often, like their African counterparts, missing vital parts: masks without their feather ruffs and cloaks, statues minus their brilliantly colored markings, and drums abruptly condemned to silence, never more to utter the muffled violent music of the ancestors, haunting and sacred.
Group of atingating drums, Northern Ambrym, Vanuatu. Early 20th century - Old photograph
Far from deploring the joint actions of museum curators and collectors, the Ni-Vanuatu have expressed their gratitude to the "white men" who have preserved thousands of objects that would otherwise have been destroyed once their ritual function had been fulfilled. One solitary question still haunts their spirits, however. Rhese funerary figures topped with the corpse's own skull, these sculptures fashioned from wood, tree fern or stone, the materials of which indicated different social ranks by their degree of fragility, these magnificent mats woven from pandanus leaves and sometimes dyed by women, these great ritual dishes with their breathtaking design: are all these objects definitively and categorically dead? Certainly they are deactivated, decontextualized, deconsecrated, we might be tempted to reply. but equally certainly they are not despised, ignored or ridiculed.  
According to the ethnologist Maurice Leenhardt in Gens de la Gande Terre, the inhabitants of New Caledonia "raised the ground level to create a slightly elevated roadway in the form of a hog's back. About 35 to 200 feet long and 17 to 35 feet wide, this roadway is bordered at regular intervals by edark araucurias (monkey-puzzle trees) or coconut palms, planted with care so that the curve they form exaggerates the sense of perspective. Together they form a handsome avenue, at the far end of which stands a large Caledonian hut, surmounted by an arrow of white shells. Flanking the avenue on either side is another avenue, narrower and level, bordered by araucarias and eerythrinas (coral trees). ...All these surfaces are covered with fine and carefully tended lawns. This green covering of the ground is supposed to resemble a carpet so closely that the Kanak people, and especially the women, now instinctively and mechanically weed out every blade of grass around them that might interfere imperceptibly with the harmony of the lawn. Straight, level, carpeted with soft grass, bordered with coconut palms, curved, arranged - where the terrain permits - in regular terraces, and all leading to the mound of the Great Hut, dominating the whole, these avenues display rare qualities of design, of restraint and of aesthetic awareness. They real the great taste and profound sense of overall design possessed by the people." Should we then view the Kanak as sophisticated and ingenious planners or - better still - veritable landscape architects? This is what Leenhardt appears to be saying in this piece, in stark contrast to the black and diabolical image peddled by generations of overtly racist Europeans.
Board carved with "portrait" of a guardian spirit,
Papua New Guinea, Gulf of Papua, Wood, h. 192 cm
Considered for many years as specimens that had barely emerged from the Stone Age, the people who colonized the islands in the far south of Melanesia more than 3000 years ago were nevertheless capable of creating an aesthetic language of their own, frequently austere and sometimes unvarying, but always imbued with an unusual artistic power. Massive, virile and severe, and dominated exclusively by the people's devotion to the worship of their chiefs, and traditions, this is an art devoid of any anecdotal element or superfluous decoration. All artistic endeavour here - from the erection of great huts and the sculptures that embellished their doorposts of any anecdotal element or superfluous decoration. All artistic endeavour here - from the erection of great huts and the sculptures that embellished their doorposts and roof edges to the making of masks, ritual axes and clubs - had but one raison d'etre: to exalt the power of the chiefs and their ancestors. And all Kanak work seems to be haunted by the same disturbing and instantly recognizable race, with deep eye sockets, broad, jutting cheekbones and a prominent and sometimes hooked nose. Among the most spectacular and successful of all their creations is their procession of powerfully carved wooden masks, with lips curled in a manner that is both menacing and intriguing.
Shields, From left to right:
Papua New Guinea, Hardwood, 165 x 75 cm.
Papua New Guinea, Wood: 142 x 30 cm.
Solomon Islands, Wood, shell inlays: 81 x 26 cm.
Irian Jaya, Hardwood: 166 x 51 cm.
On December 20, 1843, Lieutenant Commander Julien Laffeniere reported: "We saw appearing in the midst of the scene two great black masks with features that were hideous in both shape and size, surmounted by great feathered caps of the colback type. The people who wore them had their upper bodies covered with a type of short cloak, also in black feathers, which accorded well with the rest of the disguise." The French naval officer went on: "These two figures came and leaped about before those present, to the chanting of the Paliki-Pouma troupe, rushing from one end to the other of the open space between the singers and the spectators, and presenting us with a highly original type of savagery; all these black men, completely naked, feebly lit by the flickering red light of a straw fire which was rekindled from time to time, stamping their feet and contorting their bodies while waving their long arms about, hissing like snakes or uttering piercing shrieks or muffled groans, the two monstrous masks meanwhile rushing and leaping a bout like wild bests unchained, and all this noise, all this agitation, conducted and regulated by the voice and animated gestures of Chief Pailiki-Pouma, himself fairly hideous: it was a tableau that had something infernal about it, and that would have been worthy of the most talented painter."
Hector Raraana 1913 photograph, a native of Ulawa
"Monstrous," "hideous," "infernal:"; these words would recur with monotonous regularity in the accounts of explores and missionaries as they described the sacred rites and "terrifying" masks of the Kanak people. Only in the 1930s, with the more enlightened approach of avant-garde artists, would these objects acquire the status of true works of art. With their glistening black surface, their eyes and teeth often picked out in white and their lips highlighted in red, these powerful sculptures in the round certainly had the necessary attributed to seduce seven the boldest of the Cubist painters. but as in Africa, Kanak masks and Melanesian masks as a whole were not intended merely as screens to hide the wearer's face. These masks, indeed, are complete costumes, made of wood, plant fibres and human hair, which the wearer would put on as a disguise to conceal not only his body but also his identity. They were also in some way an attribute of the chiefdom, a profoundly sacred accessory put at the disposal of the chief by the founding clans. Complex and ambiguous, they were the incarnation - according to the ethnologist Jean Guiart - of the avatars of a single demiurge: Gomawe, lord of the kingdom of the dead, god of money as well as the individual whose features he is supposed to reproduce Kanak masks - whether intended for death rites (sometimes including in their composition the hair of men in mourning) or war, or simply for dancing - above all reflect the cultural identity of a people who have managed to survive the vicissitudes of history. Nowadays their role is chiefly playful: the spectators are first frightened, then they laugh at their fright. And nowadays, too, they are told that the masks are only objects. 
Delighted to have discovered the beginnings of a true religion among the Polynesians, the missionaries nevertheless burned numerous "idols" that they deemed too "pagan" in an immense auto da fe. Among the figures that escaped was a strange wooden sculpture, smooth and abrupt as a Brancusi, representing Rao "god of the shameful divinity" and "cadaver of the Devil." Sent to France as a token of the conversion of idolatrous peoples, and preserved today in the Musee des Arts d'Afrique et d'Oceanie in Paris, this work from the Gambier Islands is now one of the most celebrated examples of the arts of Oceania. Paradoxically, it is also one of the least well documented. At times the sole surviving response to questions posed by scholars is the contempt of the missionaries and early explorers.
West scholars tend too often to lump together under the convenient heading tiki gods of the Polynesian world that in fact have nothing to do with one another. what, for instance, do a colossal basalt effigy from the Marquesas Islands and a rare ivory figure from the Fiji Islands have in common? Every aspect of these works - their size, their ritual function and their aesthetic vocabulary - seems rather to point up their differences. While the first embodies the tutelary figure of an ancestor or god, the second was in all likelihood shrouded in bark cloth, like corpses, and displayed during funerary rites of a propitiatory nature.
In Tahiti, anthropomorphic figures, or ti'i were accompanied by other figures made simply from sticks covered with fiber netting or to'o. On the Cook Islands, the presence of the divine was expressed through poles carved with a face at one end and a penis at the other. In New Zealand, "god staffs' were ensnared in a mesh of cords from which only a carved face was allowed to emerge. The further east one travels, in short, the more anthropomorphic figures seem to give way to quasi-abstract forms. The germ of common features with Melanesian cultures is unmistakably present. do not the staffs of the Society Islands and the "god staffs" of the Cook Islands evoke, on a smaller scale, the great poles planted in front of ceremonial buildings in New Caledonia? And this is only one of a multitude of questions that paint the way to a fundamental re-evaluation of the history of the Oceanian world.
"It was about an hour and a half after we had set off again after pausing at Vaihou that we began to make out, standing upright on the side of the mountain, great figures that cast immense shadows over the wretched vegetation. Arranged in no particular pattern, they looked toward us as though to see who was coming, although we also noticed a few long profiles with pointed noses looking in other directions. ... They had no bodies, but were only colossal heads, emerging from the ground on long necks and held erect as though scanning those distant horizons, eternally still and empty. What race of humans do they represent, with their pointed noses turned up at the end and their thin lips held in a pout of mockery or scorn? No eyes, only deep cavities beneath the forehead, beneath the vast and noble arch of the brows - and yet they appear to be gazing in thought."
Figurehead, from a canoe used for head-hunting expeditions, Solomon Islands. Wood, nautilus shell inlay.
Loti was only one of many travellers, from James Cook to Alfred Metraux, who would succumb to the disturbing fascination of these strange and herculean statues carved from the soft stone of the Rano Raraku volcano: the now celebrated moai of Easter Island. Gazing toward the houses of the lineage with their backs to the sea, standing proudly on the plinth of their open-air sanctuary (or ahu), these immense statues with their coral eyes and curious "hats" of red tufa have spawned an industry of theories and counter-theories. some lie flat on the ground, sometimes shattered, invaded by lichens and abandoned; others still scrutinize the sky, upright and in single file; others again seem like unfinished sketches, still imprisoned in the rock. Alfred Metraux bluntly described these gigantic inert effigies as "monstrous cripples." What culture could have been wealthy and sophisticated enough to conceive monuments of such haughty arrogance? What sculptors could have been sufficiently inventive and skilled to accomplish such a gargantuan task? And what was the meaning of these stone giants with their unfathomable gaze? Distancing themselves from sensationalist theories of doubtful integrity, ethnologists prefer to stress the coherence of this body of work produced over nearly a millennium, peaking in all likelihood in the 14th and 15th centuries. According to the most generally accepted theory, the statues are representations of gods or ancestors, chiefs or other distinguished figures raised to the ranks of protective gods of the lineage. All appear to obey the same aesthetic canons, with torsos reduced to massive trunks surmounted by disproportionately large heads with strange eyes (a preoccupation found obsessively in all Easter Island sculpture and throughout Polynesia). In addition, some of them bore on their necks incisions of the form of undulating lines or chevrons, probably alluding to ritual tattoos. with their technical virtuously (if only by reason of their weight, reaching up to 80 ton), these sculptures could only be commissioned works produced by highly specialized artists. Known as tahonga, these "sculptor-priests" passed down their skills and expertise from generation to generation and were well versed in all the rituals that attended such creations, from the first blow of the pick on the rock to the final polishing of the piece. Paid in fish or crayfish, these men were held in high regard by the community for which they carved these colossal figures.
The tahonga were probably also responsible for the creation of wooden figurines that are no less astonishing, with fleshless ribcages, emaciated cheekbones and a fixed, wild-eyed stare verging on the hypnotic. sometimes two-headed, sometimes hermaphrodite, with arched and elongated bodies, these moai kavakava or "beings from the other world," push this stylized idiom to the limits and exert a compelling power. Moai papa, for their part, have surprisingly flat upper bodies, punctuated only by breasts that emphasize, once again, the sexual ambiguity of the figure. Composite creatures mingling anthropomorphic characteristics with those of lizards or birds, and representations of seals, turtles, fish and mollusks complete the repertoire of the Easter Island sculptors. Paddles or dance staffs (rapa), meanwhile, surmounted by Januslike faces that seem to look both forward and backward, scrutinizing the visible and invisible worlds, are strikingly elegant and modern.
Oceania Arts - Part 3
Melanesia Origins
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