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Unit 9: 700 - 1980 CE

The Pacific

Images 213-223

Main Ideas:

  • The islands' small size prevented complex civilizations from developing, so a lot of these cultures viewed anything they couldn't understand (a leader, foreigner, luxury good, etc.) as an intermediary with the divine

  • While these islands had different cultures, they shared many motifs about the sea and the natural world, which is why those themes are prevalent in their artwork

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Pacific Figurines & People

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  • Handheld figurines are often depictions of ancestors in a simplistic manner or including lots of natural imagery that, when activated, brings out the supernatural energy the ancestors' spirits
  • Non-handheld images and paintings use elaborate imagery such as indigenous details to glorify the power of past leaders and ancestors and bring their influence back to life

Image 214: Moai on Platform (ahu)

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Moai on Platform (ahu)


Rapa Nui (Easter Island)


c. 1100 - 1600 CE


Volcanic tuff figures on basalt base

  • Represents the continuity of the island: The idea that Easter Island's ancestors will always watch over the island and protect it
    • The statues face away from the sea (toward the island)  Represent the idea that they're always watching the island, and also allow the people of the island to worship them face-to-face

      • Eyes were previously filled in with coral​

      • Supposed to protect the island

      • These ancestors represent the ancestors who were among the first people to sail across the Pacific and establish Easter Island

    • The backside has carvings of bird figures → Represents the island's life cycle and continuity

      • These carvings were made much after when the sculptures were originally built due to a new ritual on the island​

        • This ritual was called the birdman cult ritual: An annual test of strength & endurance to determine who'll rule the island that year → Represents the island's continuity​

Image 216: Staff God

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Staff God


Rarotonga, Cook Islands, Central Polynesia


Late 18th to Early 19th Century CE


Wood, tapa, fiber, and feathers

  • The staff gods represent the supremacy of the Cook Islands' deities and their association with fertility
    • These staff gods represent the island's deities

      • The upper part is a head with carvings​

      • The lower part represents a phallus

      • It is composed of ironwood wrapped with bark cloth

    • The bark cloth is supposed to cover the length of the iron wood → Protects the ancestral power of the deity​​

    • The staff gods contain both male and female reproductive figures → Promotes fertility

      • Ironwood has male reproductive features​

      • Barkcloth contains female reproductive activities such as childbirth

    • Males make the ironwood and females make the barkcloth → Represents a community effort in supporting the fertility-related power of these deities​

Image 217: Female Deity

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Female Deity


Nukuoro, Micronesia


c. 18th to 19th Century CE



  • A representation of Micronesian people's ancestors, which was used in ritual ceremonies to activate their ancestors' supernatural powers
    • A very minimalistic appearance: a representation of a Micronesian deity, which is associated with a certain extended family group or temple

      • These deities were basically the spirits of the ancestors of that particular extended family group

    • Were placed in temples and decorated with mats and feathers, and people would give offerings of produce in a ritual ceremony → Helped honor the ancestral spirits that the sculptures represented

      • These annual rituals happened at the start of the harvesting season, so many harvested foods were offered to these sculptures

      • It was believed that these sculptures were the resting places of the family's ancestors → The ritual would activate those spirits as if they were supernatural

    • Many European artists drew influence from these figures due to their simplicity and minimalism

Image 218: Buk (mask)

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Buk (mask)


Torres Strait


Mid to late 19th Century CE


Turtle shell, wood, fiber, feathers, shell

  • A bird-shaped mask that ensures a plentiful harvest and hunt when activated in ritual
    • Made by the islanders out of turtle shell

      • Turtle shell is very precious ​→ Suggests its ritualistic importance

    • Has three registers:

      • Bottom: Depicts a human face​

      • Middle: Depicts a bird

      • Top: Depicts a bird's feathers

    • Represents a frigate bird

    • Islanders would dance wearing this mask at funerary or harvest ceremonies → Would help ensure a plentiful harvest or successful hunt of fish or wild game

      • The reason is because the bird itself "represents" the idea of a hunt or a harvest​

Image 220: Tamati Waka Nene

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Tamati Waka Nene


Gottfried Lindauer


1890 CE


Oil on Canvas

  • Seeks to glorify past Maori leaders and bring their spirits back to life
    • This is a portrait of the Maori Leader Tamati Waka Nene

      • These portraits record the ancestor's likeness and bring their presence back into the world​

      • He was born in 1780s and died in 1871 and ruled during a very critical time in Maori history

        • Ruled during the age of British colonization​

        • Even converted to Wesleyan faith and was baptized

      • Known as a man of great mana (influence & power)

    • Contains many aspects of indigenous Maori culture that help glorify his power and bring his presence and influence back into society

      • Wears a kahu kiwi, an elaborate cloak with kiwi feathers​

      • Wears an earring of greenstones

      • Holds a hand weapon called a tewhatewha which has feathers along its blade → Symbolizes his power and mana

      • Has an intricate facial tattoo called moko

Image 222: Malagan Display and Mask

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Malagan Display and Mask


New Ireland Province, Papua New Guinea


c. 20th Century CE


Wood, pigment, fiber, and shell

  • Created to represent a clan's unique identity which celebrates the clan's ancestors when activated in a ritual
    • The Malangan sculptures were created uniquely each time and represent a clan's unique identity

      • Contain representations of fish, birds, and other natural features representative of the clan's identity and creation​

      • The sculptures are destroyed after their usage in a ritual → All new sculptures are created with a different design to promote the vibrancy and innovation of the clan's people

        • Similarly, the masks are also created uniquely each time​

    • The sculptures and the masks were used at funeral rites to celebrate the dead and the vibrancy of the living

Pacific Abstract Artwork

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  • When creating mats, capes, and quilts, while most Pacific islands had similar motifs, each culture used its own locally-sourced materials and designed its own imagery to express key ideas about its own cultural heritage
  • Pacific architecture represented the idea that due to the lack of land and abundance of small nearby islands, people often built structures by the sea in multiple smaller components and navigated often between the islands

Image 213: Nan Madol

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Nan Madol


Saudeleur Dynasty


Pohnpei, Micronesia


c. 700 - 1600 CE


Basalt boulders and prismatic columns

  • Built on a series of artificial islands to separate the nobility from the commoners and showcase the power of the Saudeleur nobility
    • Is composed of many smaller artificial islands with canals in between

      • Nan Madol means "in between," referring to the canals in between the artificial islands​

    • We are not sure about how they were constructed, but some propose that the basalt was floated there on a raft from a nearby quarry

    • Was created as a set of artificial islands (and not on land) to "insulate" the nobility from the commoners

      • Its center was a special lavish residence for the nobility​

        • Because the canals were like natural barriers for the structures, they could focus their resources on lavishly decorating their structures rather than on the military​

      • Sometimes they housed political rivals in these islands so that the nobility can easily control and monitor them

    • Was later abandoned due to the hassle of transporting fresh water and food from inland (since there were no food or water sources on the artificial islands)

Image 215: 'Ahu 'ula (feather cape)

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'Ahu 'ula (feather cape)




Late 18th Century CE


Feathers and fiber

  • Its composition of rare red and white feathers symbolizes the supremacy and divine protection of the Hawaiians
    • The feathers (red, yellow, black) come from certain birds

      • Yellow feathers are the rarest​ → Capes with more yellow feathers are associated with more prestige and value

    • Wearing this cape symbolizes divine protection to the wearer

      • Red symbolizes divine → The red feathers symbolize divine protection to the person wearing the cape​

      • The construction of the cape was accompanied by religious prayers → Emphasizes the divine protection it offers

    • These capes were often given as gifts to visiting European captains → Represents how the Hawaiians wanted to showcase their supremacy and legitimacy through this complex cape

      • These capes would then be passed down to the wealthy sponsors of the European captains' voyages​

      • This cape (pictured above) was brought to England

Image 219: Hiapo (tapa)

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Hiapo (tapa)




c. 1850 - 1900 CE


Tapa or bark cloth, freehand painting

  • Tapa were used to represent a woman's wealth and has motifs that represent various aspects of Niue society
    • Tapa were generally made of pounded barkcloth from a mulberry tree

    • Tapa were generally created by women → More complex tapa signify a woman's wealth

      • Men crafted much harder materials like wood and stone, while women crafted softer materials like barkcloth, fibers, etc.​

    • Tapa were used for many daily and ritualistic purposes

      • Clothing, bedding, walls, wrapping images of deities, etc.​

    • Tapa designs often had geometric motifs, though Niue is the first Polynesian island to use naturalistic and human figures in its tapa

      • These naturalistic figures contain some ritualistic significance and signify the cultural and social identify of the Niue people​

Image 221: Navigation Chart

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Navigation Chart


Marshall Islands, Micronesia


19th to early 20th century CE


Wood and fiber

  • Represents how the Marshall Islanders used ocean currents and other traditional methods to navigate the open sea
    • The people of Marshall Islands had a unique method of navigating the seas by looking at ocean currents rather than a traditional map (way before the GPS was invented)​​

      • Marshall Islands had a ton of islands, and it would be hard to see the location of each island from the sea (especially in stormy weather)​​​ → Became important to look at patterns in the sea for guidance

    • The diagram pictured is a mental map (memory aid) for these navigators to visualize the path between the islands

      • Navigators would find features in the sea (currents, swells, etc.) and match them with this diagram to figure out where they are

      • Small shells represent the islands​

      • The pathways (lines) represent the ocean, as if the ocean is like a "highway" between the islands

        • The patterns of curves, bumps, straightness, etc. dictates a feature of the path (a current, swell, obstacle, etc.) between the two islands​

    • Each of these charts is different because it's a memory aid that depends on how each individual navigator views the ocean's layout

Image 223: Presentation of Fijian mats and tapa cloths to Queen Elizabeth II

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Presentation of Fijian mats and tapa cloths to Queen Elizabeth II


Fiji, Polynesia


1953 CE


Multimedia performance (costume; cosmetics, including scent; chant; movement; and pandanus fiber / hibiscus fiber mats), photographic documentation

  • Represents that the Fijians viewed visitors like the Queen as super important as if they had some divine or supernatural power that could help the Fijians
    • Queen Elizabeth II arrived in Fiji in 1953 and was given a very elaborate ceremony

    • The Fijian women are wearing skirts of barkcloth (called masi)

      • It's made of bark from mulberry trees and has intricate geometric designs​

      • Often presented as gifts in important events such as Queen Elizabeth II's visit

        • It's ​likely that the women are wearing a masi themselves and are giving one to the queen to wear

    • Each of them is also holding a mat that they made as gifts to the queen

      • Made by leaves of the Pandanus plant​

      • The simpler the mat's design, the more important its function → These mats appear plain, which shows that they viewed the queen's visit as super important

    • This warm hospitality showcases the Fijians' vibrant culture, but it's also likely that they viewed the queen as an important figure who could intervene with the divine on the Fijians' behalf

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