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.