Remote and sparsely populated, the small islands of Polynesia in the Pacific are known for their larger-than-life statuary figures known as tiki. Tiki figures from the islands of the Marquesas, Tahiti, Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Islands are art objects that feature humanoid forms but are in fact embodiment of gods and deified ancestors – atuas in the Polynesian language. These enigmatic objects were once carved by the Polynesians for healing the sick and to procure success in all manner of undertakings.
There is good evidence to indicate that the tiki concept came to Polynesia from faraway South America, either directly to the Marquesas Islands by Polynesian navigators who also made the return journey across the vast Pacific Ocean, or by the Incas who sailed to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) by raft .
Among tiki figures, those from the Marquesan islands are among the most iconic objects of Oceanic art. The best examples – those carved in the 18th and 19th centuries – project a fearsome and regal presence that makes them look monumental, even in figures that are merely a few centimetres tall. Pictured below are some particularly fine examples of Marquesan tiki art, including a figure that was once owned by Picasso.
Masterpieces of Marquesan Art
This little tiki ornament is carved from the bones of enemies and stands at just 3.8 cm tall. Such figures were worn around the neck or in the hair, or used as decorative accents to larger objects such as shell trumpets or drums.
This pair of large standing tiki figures are carved with typically large heads, big circular eyes, broad nose but otherwise flat facial features. The head is surmounted by a crown disc. Figures of this scale in the Marquesas islands are more commonly found in stone. This pair was probably used in meae, or temples. Collected in the 19th century, it was once part of the collection of the distinguished sculptor and collector, Jacob Epstein. It was sold by Sotheby’s, New York, in November 2008.
A distinctive cubist geometry marks this powerful tiki figure which was collected in the early 1830s by the American missionaries, Richard and Clarissa Armstrong. It was recently exhibited by American art dealer, Michael Hamson in Paris, the first time the piece was marketed in 186 years.
Long before Picasso revolutionized modern art, he had collected African and Oceanic tribal art, drawn to the “modern” abstract qualities of these tribal works which played no small role in informing his artistic sensibility.
In an article about Picasso, the French poet and art critique Andre Salmon described the impressions he had of 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 …”
This tiki was purchased before 1911 possibly at the Paris flea market or through Picasso’s poet friend Guillaume Apollinaire. Nobody knows for sure. What we do know is, he kept this tiki with him his entire life. Today, this object remains is still kept in the Picasso family.
 Polynesian people reached Tonga and Samoa in Western Polynesia 3000 years ago bringing with them their atua – their gods – and their art traditions, part of their cultural knowledge developed over thousands of years. During a later period of long-distance sailing around 1200 years ago, the navigators headed further east into unknown territory. They found the islands we know today as the Cook Islands, the Society Islands including Tahiti, and the Marquesas Islands. From the Marquesas Islands, the great Polynesian navigators of the mid-fourteenth century found Hawaii to the north, Aotearoa New Zealand to the south and Rapa Nui Easter Island to the east.