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Exhibitions/ Adorning the World

Adorning the World: Art of the Marquesas Islands

May 10, 2005–January 15, 2006

Exhibition Overview

Located in the South Pacific some eight hundred miles northeast of Tahiti in French Polynesia, the Marquesas first became widely known in the West as the setting of Herman Melville's first novel Typee, based on the writer's personal experiences on the islands after he jumped ship from the American whaler Acushnet in 1842. Today, the Marquesas are perhaps best known as the final home and resting place of artist Paul Gauguin, whose later works often include imagery inspired by Marquesan sculpture and designs. Long before Gauguin ever painted there, however, the Marquesas were a world adorned. Known for its elegant stylization of the human form and intricately decorated surfaces, Marquesan art encompassed a remarkable diversity of materials and forms. From mundane items to sacred images of gods and ancestors, artists richly embellished virtually every type of object they made. Art in the Marquesas was created to honor the archipelago's diverse deities and ancestors, decorate the bodies of its people, and adorn the objects employed in daily activities. It pervaded virtually every area of sacred and secular life.

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.

The exhibition is made possible by Air Tahiti Nui and Tahiti Tourisme.

Additional support has been provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.