art as well as in other domains, Eastern Polynesia formed a region apart. Unlike Melanesia, for example, where figures are often abstract and
polychrome, Polynesian sculpture is rarely painted and relatively realistic.
But can we really talk of Polynesian art when it was never art for art's
sake ? It had above all a religious or decorative function. The wooden
or stone anthropomorphic statuettes called "ti'i" or tiki had a religious
significance, whereas articles for useful or ornamental purposes were simply
given a decorative design.
The Marquesans were the most skilled in the decorative arts. Their
artisans covered the whole surface of all their creations with complicated
designs often inspired by the shape of the human body. It is therefore
very surprising that their tapa are never decorated, whereas Tongan and
Samoan artists, their inferiors in the other arts, were masters in designing
Petroglyphs are the least well known of the Polynesians' graphic works
of art. These carved stones can be seen most frequently in the Society
Islands. They represent stylized characters including the costume of the
leader of a funeral in Tahiti, or turtles and fish in Bora Bora.
The famous tiki, the Marquesan name for the "ti'i" of Tahiti, is found in
various situations, and those decorating combs or the handles of fans are
very finely carved. Those that were a little larger and made of wood were
perhaps already used for religious purposes. They are to be found as posts,
as individual statuettes averaging 30 cm in height, or as components of
canoes. Although we can imagine how some of these were used, (the cleat
for example), we still do not know whether these carvings, when they formed
part of a canoe, indicated ownership or a representation of the Gods indispensable
The most coarsely fashioned stone or coral "ti'i" were usually found on
the marae or at the boundary of sacred land. In the Austral Islands, where
the decorative arts no doubt were most characteristically Polynesian, important
articles, usually made of wood, were carved with fine geometric motifs.
Human forms, especially on drum bases, are completely original and have
nothing in common with the famous tiki, which seems today to be the only
symbol of Polynesian art.