Polynesian artifacts are on display all over the world. They reveal and highlight our culture far beyond the scope of our islands. Find out about the Marquesan tiki preciously guarded by Picasso, one of the most famous artists of our time and fond admirer of indigenous arts.
In 1907 Picasso visited the collection of African and Oceanic Arts at Musée d’ethnographie du Trocadero in Paris. Later on Picasso remembered that when he first went there in 1907, “the smell of dampness and rot there stuck in my throat. It depressed me so much I wanted to get out fast.” He also said “Suddenly I understood why I am a painter!” By the year 1919, he was qualified as an adept of tikis! During the early years in Paris, Picasso’s studio seemed to visitors like a cabinet of curiosities. The first museums were not called museums, they were called Curiosity Cabinets. In an article about Picasso, Andre Salmon (French poet, art critique and writer) described the impression made by Picasso’s early studio in the Boulevard de Clichy; “Grimacing back from every piece of furniture are strange wooden figures, which are among some of the most exquisite pieces of African and Polynesian sculpture. Long before Picasso shows you his own work, he allows you to admire these primitive wonder-works… Picasso resists above all being called the father of Cubism, which he only inspired.” Sometime before 1911, Pablo Picasso acquired this Marquesan tiki. Possibly at the Paris flea Market or through his poet friend Guillaume Apollinaire, nobody knows for sure. What we do know is, he kept this tiki with him his entire life. Today forty two years after his death, Picasso’s Marquesan tiki still remains in the Picasso family.
Many of these me’ae had one or more large tiki statues, which were generally positioned on the highest platform or at the rear or uphill side of the consecrated piece of land. Offerings included fruits and vegetables and sometimes even animal and human sacrifices, were placed on or near the statues to honor them. These tikis were dressed with sacred white tapa (barkcloth) and decorated with floral wreaths or shells. All wooden Marquesan tiki share the same similar characteristic style. Stone tiki (tiki ke’a) are usually thicker and squatting lower than the wooden ones (tiki akau). All tikis face forward, their knees are slightly bent and their arms are close to their body. The hands rest on the stomach, which was considered the center of emotions. Tikis can be either male or female, but rarely are the sexual organs displayed. On Marquesan tikis the head is always large and considered by far the most scared part of the body. The face has a broad, flat nose and the mouth is sculpted with a wide, stretched band which houses a slightly protruding tongue.
By far Pablo Picasso was the most famous artist of the 20th Century. Everybody visited his studio and everybody saw this tiki. All the artists, all the writers, all the poets, the artistic world and the non-artistic world. There to greet them was our Marquesan Ambassador. All through out Polynesia, figures with human forms were carved. These figures were called tiki or some variation of that name. By far these large wooden imposing figures were the purest form of all. They represented gods and deified ancestors. On the Marquesas Islands, some tikis were made from wood, others from stone and still others from human bone. These tikis varied in size from 2 inches to 100 inches (5cm. to 253 cm.) They were carved by skilled artists known as tuhuna ta’ai tiki. When sculpting a tiki the tuhuna first marked off the rough proportions and than worked his way upward from the base. He began with the legs and worked his way upward to finish with the head. In carving the facial features, the artist began with the mouth. The eyes, which are the most phenomenally powerful element of the face, were the last to be finished. During the carving process, these artists would perform special rituals, which would guarantee the effectiveness of these tikis. These Tikis served as a receptacle or vehicle for ancestral spirits summoned by the ritual specialist (tau’a) who communicated with the ancestral spirits. These tikis were considered Tapu or sacred, large freestanding tikis of stone and wood stood on scared ritual sites called me’ae.
The eyes are large and deep set, framed with a curved arch on top, which suggests the eyebrows. Quite often the ears stick out from the head. Sometimes the top of the head is flat, while other times it can form a high dome. Some scholars believe that the way the top of the head is finished, differentiates the different islands or even different valleys. Astonishingly, the bodies of Marquesan Tikis are frequently unadorned, though some are shown with ornaments or isolated tattoo motifs, as compared to the extensively tattooed artists who made these tikis.