Visiting Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion?

You must join the virtual exhibition queue when you arrive. If capacity has been reached for the day, the queue will close early.

Learn more

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays


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.

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 (The British Museum). 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 (The British Museum).

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.