Melanesian Art: Reflections of the Creativity of the Pacific Ocean Dwellers

Melanesia is a fusion of two words ‘Mela’ which means ‘black’ and ‘nesia’ which means ‘islands’. Melanesia means ‘black islands’. It refers to the arts done by the black people in islands such as New Guinea, the dominant island, New Britain, Solomon’s island, New Caledonia, New Ireland and Fiji all in the Pacific Ocean. Their arts dates back to either 2000 BC or 3000 BC yet their arts have seen only a few changes in this modern age.

Among the Melanesians, political powers were vested in the hands of groups of elderly men and in some areas women. These elders usually referred to as ‘Big men’ handled the affairs of the people in a communal fashion. Such elders are renowned for their political, historical, economic and warrior skills. Power and position were earned through the acquisition of knowledge that allows one to advance in the society. This knowledge is imparted through the commemoration of several festivals and initiation rites during which various art forms are used.

The people believed in life after death. They also believed that all activities of this life are controlled by ancestral spirits. This includes agricultural activities like yam productions, fishing, hunting and trading of artifacts. Elaborate ancestral rites are performed to honour, praise and seek help from the ancestors. They were believed to facilitate the transition of the soul from the world of the living to the realm of the dead.

The Melanesians engaged in many art forms such as sculpture, painting, pottery, architecture, and basketry.

Male and female ancestral figures were sculpted and used in the mortuary and memorial rites of the dead in wood, clay, and stone. Sometimes ancestors’ skulls were over modelled with clay in a likeness of the deceased. The head of the carved figure may be made bigger to contain the skull of the deceased. These were used in the ancestral cults. Also, Ceremonial chairs, sacred flutes, and masks fashioned from soft wood, vegetable fibers and rattan were produced and worn by dancers during the ancestral cult (Tatanua masks) and initiation rites (Hevehe masks). Special yam masks were worn during the yam cult to petition the ancestors for a bumper harvest. Large carved slit-gongs were used as instruments for communication to the people and as voices of ancestral spirits in the initiation rites of young men.

Canoe prows shaped like crocodiles with images of humans, birds and serpents were carved with spells invoked on them to ensure successful fishing and trading of Kula (white conus-shell arm ornaments). Bisj poles which were extremely long poles were carved from the trunk of the mangrove tree and used in head-hunting ceremonies.

The people constructed massive men’s ceremonial houses that served as meeting houses for the local youth during initiation rites. Men’s discussions of community issues were carried out there. Communal meeting houses where the affairs of the community and among individuals are deliberated and settled were constructed.

Masks were painted in various colours and they had symbolic meanings. For example, the Tatanua masks used in the funeral rites of the deceased were painted with black, white, yellow and red. These colours symbolize warfare, magic spells, and violence. The interiors and exteriors of the ceremonial houses were lavishly painted with ancestral figures and animal forms which had spiritual charms. Body painting in the form of tattooing played a major part of their culture.

The Melanesians engaged in the production of a special type of pottery called Lapita which were elaborately decorated with incised and geometric patterns. These ceramic vessels were used in domestic chores such as storage of items and in keeping relics of ancestors during the ancestral


Polynesian Art: Why Is It Part of Genius Creations?

Polynesia consists of various islands in the Pacific Ocean such as Hawaii, Easter islands, Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, Marquesas Island and New Zealand. Polynesia is a fusion of two words ‘poly’ which means ‘many’ and ‘nesia’ which means ‘islands’. Polynesia means ‘many islands’.

The Polynesians were skillful navigators (sailing masters). The Polynesian societies were ruled by kings, chiefs, and ritual specialists.

The Polynesians were noted for specialization in various fields of work such as priesthood, sculpting, canoe making and building construction. Training in the form of apprenticeship was offered to trainees on the mastery ways of handling tools and materials. They were also instructed on the body of beliefs and ideologies that were linked to any of the artistic creations. This accounts for the high technical and aesthetic standards that are the hallmark of artworks in Polynesia. That is why their works are branded by art historians as genius creations.

Owing to the social hierarchy that existed in Polynesia, art was associated with rank and power. Initiation rites were organized for the youth to enter into adulthood. The Polynesians believed in ancestors and therefore practiced ancestral veneration and the performance of extravagant funeral ceremonies.

The Polynesians produced various forms of art such as painting, sculpture, textiles, architecture, feather work and pottery. Body painting in the form of tattooing was a prestigious art in Polynesia. It was an important art form for the Marquesan warriors because it was believed to offer spiritual protection of the individual. Nobles and warriors accumulated various patterns to help increase their status, mana or spiritual power and personal beauty. For full protection, the tattoo-covered the entire body. The interiors and exteriors of both the ceremonial and communal meeting houses especially the rafters are painted in symbolic patterns in various colours serving both aesthetic and spiritual purposes.

Images of deities usually referred to as fishermen gods and ancestors were carved in wood with multiple figures attached to their bodies. The ancestral figures probably represented clan and district ancestors who were revered and honored because of their protective and procreative powers. They played a central role in human fertility.

The Polynesians are famed for the production of a decorated bark cloth called Tapa. It was produced from the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree by the Polynesian women. Its production processes were complex and time-consuming.

It was used extensively for clothing and bedding. Large sheets of the tapa are used were and still are produced for exchange. It is used for wrapping objects and it is believed to bestow sanctity or holiness on the object. Some were also used for ceremonial or ritual purposes. These ones were dyed, painted, stenciled and sometimes perfumed. Bodies of high ranking deceased chiefs were traditionally wrapped in the tapa cloth. During funeral and marriage ceremonies, tapa exchanges form an integral part.

Meeting houses and ceremonial houses were constructed by the Polynesians. There were carved relief panels along the walls of the buildings that depicted specific ancestors.

Intricately painted shapes cover the rafters. They also built temples for their war gods and other deities.

Elegant feather cloaks were created for mainly men of high rank. Most of the cloaks were produced in Hawaii. Every aspect of the cloak reflected the status of the wearer. The materials used were extremely precious particularly the red and yellow feathers from the mamo birds.

The cloak linked its owner to the gods. Aside offering spiritual protection of the gods to the wearer, their dense fibre base and feather matting provided physical protection.

The Western part of Polynesia produced the Lapita pottery (ceramic vessels) for domestic, religious and spiritual uses in the temples, homes, and ceremonial houses.

The rich artistic culture of the Polynesians educates us that artists must strive to attain a high key of professionalism in their artistic productions in any area of expertise they choose as their specialty. The handling and usage of tools and materials for artistic productions must be handled in dexterity as was done by the Polynesians. This would help in the advancement of art in the society.