The island of Ua Huka, in the Marquesas Archipelago, is renowned for its woodcarvings. This traditional art form is continually reinvented and reborn on the island through the hands of master craftmen.
One Master Craftsman Per Family
To learn more, one must wait till evening around the kaikai (meal, in Marquesian), when Maurice has switched his chisel to a guitar.
“The designs are in my head,” he says.
It would be impossible to deny his exquisite esthetic sense. One only has to gaze around the room at the wooden sculptures (bowls, tiki, weapons and more) and also stones (for pestles) which are piled high in a merry disorder in the living room cupboards; it’s a veritable private museum where Maurice jealously guards his prize-winning creations. Delphine, his wife, affirms that he never sells a sculpture he considers worthy without making a copy for his personal gallery. This couple, in a way, represent Ua Huka islanders: a renowned artist and sculptor family concerned with the preservation of their natural and cultural heritage and active in the community.
In Hokatu, a peaceful little coastal village snuggled in a coconut grove, one third of the 150 inhabitants are involved in creative activities. Each home has a workshop, each family its male and female artisans. The villagers sculpt and carve designs into coconuts, string seeds, beat tapa as in days of old, into a bark cloth before decorating it with Marquesian motifs in black ink – all 100% natural! In short, now more than ever, their handiwork is present in their daily lives. Even though the hour is late Maurice and Delphine are not stingy with their stories, their incredible hospitality in the easygoing island style of mave mai (“welcome“ in Marquesian), is to the letter.
At home in his workshop, deep in sawdust, Maurice Rootuchine uses a chisel to draw his tiki‘s face in a block of wood. Working five to six hours a day for nearly a week, he gives life to his humanoid tiki sculpture, a Polynesian art form which in past times was intended to represent divinity. Maurice has built a solid reputation for his work over the years, and is renowned in his native village, Hokatu, on the island of Ua Huka, as well as beyond.
His elders taught him the basics when he was very young, but his talent comes naturally.
Between two strikes of his mallet, in his own words: “I have this in my blood. I have always known it. As a child I naturally assimilated the methods from the old folks.”
He uses what nature has to offer, which the same wood that was used by his ancestors, primarily tou (a type of Oceanian walnut, Cordia subcordata) and miro (Oceanian rosewood, Thespesia populnea), noble woods which were selected for their exceptional qualities in terms of hardness, resistance, color and veining. Sometimes he uses softer woods like mahogany or black wood.
The Big Cataclysm
Everything began in the distant past in the depths of the history of Man. The Polynesians who migrated to the Marquesas Islands (around 700AD) developed the art of sculpture to a high form, which was reserved for the tuhuna, master artisans who were taught through a long initiation process and occupied a special place in this hierarchical society. Filled with mana (“spirit-power”), each sculpted object, often decorated with superb geometrical motifs, fulfilled a utilitarian and religious purpose. Weapons were the prizes of warriors, such as the famous “head bashers”, fans and sticks were reserved for chiefs as symbols of their power, or tiki which incarnated gods or divinities.
The arrival and settling of Europeans in the Marquesas towards the mid-19th century was an unprecedented shock. Diseases heretofore unknown were introduced and the population was decimated (from a population of 100,000 down to 2000 in just 100 years). New products also caused devastation, such as alcohol and modern weapons, which stimulated tribal warfare. The entire social system suffered a collapse, ancient rites and religion were banned by the missionaries, and objects that had represented their ancestral society were voided of their meaning and power.
Renaissance of the Arts
Eventually, the production of artifacts took a new bent and the few master artisans who survived the holocaust began working to supply the demand of the westerners who were enchanted by these unique and finely crafted objects. At the turn of the 20th century, the fine art of sculpting was still an unassuming activity, practiced by a handful of people in spare time after the daily chores (fishing and farming). These people played a major role in the passing on of knowledge and they are the fathers and grandfathers of the current sculptors.
Maurice remembers old Ioane Teikitohe, from Nuku Hiva, another Marquesan island, who used an adze to carve in wood and stone. In 1965 there was a rebirth when the first association of sculptors was founded in Hane. The network expanded and Ua Huka began to forge its reputation. After several years in Tahiti working for the Experimental Center of the Pacific, Maurice and Delphine returned home, like many others in the 1980’s, and felt the desire to achieve a more durable purpose with their craft heritage than had their fathers, who considered it just a pastime.
A Beacon of Economic activity
Nowadays, sculpture has become a beacon of economic activity in Ua Huka, which like other islands survived until the mid 1980’s on the exploitation of copra, and only had a few wood sculptors. Of the current 500 inhabitants, forty or so people sculpt and carve wood, and each family boasts at least one sculptor. Having become a lucrative activity, it attracts the young and less young from different walks of life, many of whom receive an apprenticeship from an elder, though some in Ua Huka can go through a formal training in the Center for Young Adolescents, to learn the techniques.
Gone is the time when sculptures changed hands at the pier with passing travelers. Now the sculptors work as part of an association and sell their pieces to outlets in Tahiti. Delphine travels two or three times a year to the capital to represent her village in exhibitions and fairs.
Marquesian sculptures also find a market with sailboats visiting the islands, tourists traveling by plane and especially the passengers aboard the Aranui, a mixed use cargo ship that tours the bays of the Marquesas 16 times per year, combining cruising with delivering supplies and merchandise to the islands. Thus, the village of Hokatu has its own Arts Center–where artisans can consign their work–managed by the association “Hanakatahe” of Hokatu, which counts around twenty members.
Though not everyone can make a living exclusively from sculpture, at least it “adds some frills”, as Maurice tells us, as a financial plus to their traditional subsistence activities.
“Here, we farm, fish, hunt, cultivate lemons, and we carve. Sculpture, it’s the Art of living,” he says.