The opening of the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition was the first time the visiting Marquesans had seen these representations of their culture.
In conjunction with the opening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City of Adorning the World: Art of the Marquesas Islands, (May 10, 2005 – January 15, 2006) Carol Ivory, who was the advisor and consultant for the show, lectured on Marquesan art, her research specialty, at the Barr Graduate Center. Attending the lecture were 15 Marquesans, a remarkable fact in that the Marquesas Islands are marvelously remote. To reach the Marquesas, one must first reach the already remote Tahiti, and then travel another 800 miles.
At the end of the lecture, Toti Te’ikiehu’upoko, the director of the Marquesas cultural organization, stood and noted to the crowd that this was the first time he’d heard a lecture on the Marquesas that did not start out with Paul Gauguin.
Or Herman Melville, for that matter. Or Thor Heyerdahl. In other words, few westerners are familiar with the Marquesas themselves, let alone their art, except through the accounts of a few intrepid western observers.
Ivory, who is professor of art history and chair of fine arts at Washington State University, is deeply satisfied that the show at the Met will give at least a few previously uninitiated westerners a glimpse of Marquesan art.
Our ignorance is perhaps understandable, due not only to the Marquesas’ isolation, but also to a certain peculiarity of the culture itself, at least from our perspective. There is no word for “art” in the Marquesan language, Ivory writes in her essay in the exhibition catalogue. For lack of an equivalent, the seminal Marquesan-French dictionary translates art as “curiosity” or “antiquity.”
Although such notions are foreign to the Marquesan understanding of their art, they do reflect, ironically, our difficulty in grasping it. Ivory notes in her essay a bias on the part of the Met that art is old.
Few of the objects in the exhibition, in fact, date more recently than the 19th century. Most of the objects, which include feathered headdresses, finely carved tobacco pipes and war clubs, and various body ornaments, left the Marquesas long ago with missionaries, officials, tourists, and anthropologists. The opening of the Met exhibition was the first time the visiting Marquesans had seen these representations of their culture.
Indeed, the Marquesans lost much of their knowledge of early art forms, says Ivory, due not only to the objects being taken from the islands, but also as a result of their conversion to Christianity and the prohibition of traditional practices, internal strife, and widespread death from introduced diseases.
In spite of such adversity, says Ivory, Marquesan art did not die out. Rather, it has been transformed. In addition to traditional carving, contemporary Marquesan art revolves mainly around the dancing, chanting, and singing associated with festivals, and the regalia and costumes that go along with these activities.
“Marquesas,” says Ivory, “is alive, exciting, and beautiful.”
Ivory visits the Marquesas once a year. Every year, she is invited to lecture on Marquesan art on a combined freighter-tour ship that sails amongst the Marquesan islands from Tahiti. The boat goes to all six of the inhabited islands. “And then,” she says, “I’m there,” far from New York and Pullman, in the islands that provided the subject for Melville’s first book, Typee, and where Gauguin died.
Click here for information about the exhibition catalog, Adorning the World: Art of the Marquesas Islands, co-authored by Carol Ivory.