Above: Modern tiki figures in the Marquesas
The ancient Marquesans were ardent warriors, practiced cannibalism, and emphasised tattooing.
The remnants of Marquesan culture which have survived feature stylised designs worked in wood, shell, bone and stone. Bark cloth, turtle shell, feathers and human hair, as well as dolphin and whale teeth, were also used in the manufacture of objects of great aesthetic appeal.
Of the five archipelagos of French Polynesia, the art of the Marquesans is unquestionably one that developed to a high level of refinement and originality, making it instantly recognisable anywhere. Marquesan art is characterised by the recurrent theme of the tiki, stylised animal figures and intricately interweaving patterns.
While in the Marquesas we were continually struck by the similarities between Marquesan art and Cook Islands art.
The tiki figure closely resembles the representations of the human form in the Cook Islands – flexed legs, hands held to a rounded stomach, and the large head set low on the shoulders giving the impression of quiet strength. However, the eyes of Marquesan tiki are more rounded, almost circular, and the nose is given broad nostrils. The eyes, in some cases, are enlarged to cover more than half the face and a wide mouth is formed by concentric ovals.
Tiki means man or human image but is also the name given to carved images representing gods. Large male tiki were used on me’ae, or outdoor temples, as representations of deified beings.
CILAMS has a tiki in its collection (its age and island of origin in the Marquesas is not known). A visiting dignitary from French Polynesia likely gave it as a gift, along with two other Marquesan items which are also in CILAMS’s collection. Also pictured (right) is a tiki from Hakahau, Ua Pou, carved by Piri Gilmore (2010).