In the early twentieth century, the social, political, and artistic situation in Polynesia remains much as it was in the latter part of the 1800s. With the exception of Tonga, which, while becoming a British protectorate in 1901, remains an independent kingdom, other Polynesian islands continue to be politically controlled by European and American colonial powers. The first half of the century marks the most intensive period of research by anthropologists, linguists, and others intent on recording information on what they frequently perceive to be the region’s vanishing cultural and artistic traditions. The most renowned of these is Margaret Mead (1901–1978), whose study of Samoan adolescence and sexuality, Coming of Age in Samoa, becomes an anthropological classic. Polynesian art and culture, however, endure. Artists continue to practice a variety of art forms for their own use, including the production of barkcloth and mats as well as the creation of nonfigural wood carvings such as bowls and headrests. What figurative sculpture is produced during the first half of the century, however, is almost universally made for sale.
In the decades after World War II, as part of the larger global movement toward decolonization, parts of Polynesia achieve independence, including Western Samoa, Fiji, the Cook Islands, and Tuvalu. Others, such as the Austral, Tuamotu, Marquesas, and Society Islands, as well as American Samoa, remain under the authority of other nations or, as in the case of Hawai’i, become formally incorporated into them. Beginning in the 1970s, many Polynesian peoples, particularly Hawaiians and Maori who live among the majority settler populations of their original homelands, become increasingly active in asserting their cultural identity and seeking greater political autonomy. The same period witnesses a wider renaissance of Polynesian culture and art across the entire region. Some artists devote themselves to rejuvenating or reviving indigenous traditions such as wood carving and the making of barkcloth. Others use Western materials and techniques, integrating them into their own artistic and cultural traditions to create distinctively Polynesian forms of contemporary art.
In the West, the twentieth century is characterized by growing recognition of the achievements of Polynesian artists. Polynesian imagery becomes an important influence on the work of a number of Western artists, including Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) and the Surrealists. Previously regarded as curiosities or sources of anthropological information, Polynesian objects are acknowledged and exhibited as works of art. Polynesian works are incorporated within broader surveys of Oceanic art, such as the landmark 1946 exhibition Arts of the South Seas at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The distinctive traditions within Polynesian art are also increasingly examined in exhibitions such as Te Maori at the Metropolitan Museum in 1984. By the close of the century, works by contemporary Polynesian artists from Hawai’i, New Zealand, and other areas have also begun to attract a wider audience.