As in other regions of Polynesia, such as Hawai'i, Easter Island, or New Zealand, Marquesan figural sculpture was primarily religious in inspiration and function. Freestanding sculpture in the Marquesas ranged from large temple figures portraying deified ancestors to more intimately scaled images used for private devotion. On view will be a large wooden temple figure depicting a deified ancestor, and smaller devotional images in stone, as well as the islands' unique bone ornaments in human form.
Though rightly admired for its figural sculpture, Marquesan art reached perhaps its supreme expression in the richness and diversity of its decorative art. The exhibition will feature prized possessions like intimately scaled bone ear ornaments with minute friezes of human figures, delicate openwork headdresses of turtle shell and mother-of-pearl, ornate stilt steps used in ritual stilt-walking competitions, and deeply patinated hardwood war clubs, as well as functional items, such as bowls and stone pounders used in food preparation, and a striking composite feather headdress reassembled for the first time in more than a century. As this range of objects testifies, in the Marquesas virtually any object could be, and frequently was, richly decorated with anthropomorphic and geometric motifs.
The human body was also an important venue of Marquesan artistic expression. With their intricate tattoos, superbly crafted ornaments of shell, ivory, feathers, and other materials, and exquisitely detailed personal accessories, the Marquesans themselves often became living works of art. The exhibition will include several early European portraits of Marquesans showing their elaborate tattooing and other forms of personal ornamentation, including an original sketch made during Cook's voyage, which is probably the earliest surviving image of a Marquesan.