Posted on: Sunday, November 30, 2003
Artistry of the Marquesas Islands
By David C. Farmer
Special to The Advertiser
The Mission Houses Museum has depicted the history of the missionaries who first came to Hawai'i since the 1920s.
Three of the original buildings, built in 1831, remain on site in downtown Honolulu's capitol district.
Hale La'au, the state's oldest frame structure, was built in 1821 and served as a home to missionary families. Americans and Hawaiians made Hawaiian a written language in order to produce books and other printed items in the printing house Ka Hale Pa'i.
Under the leadership of executive director Kimberlee Kihleng, the museum has expanded its mission with innovative exhibitions and programs focusing on the people of Hawai'i, the Marquesas and Micronesia.
"The Marquesas: Two Centuries of Cultural Traditions," the exhibition that has been extended to Dec. 15, is devoted solely to the art, culture and history of the Marquesan people.
Many of the pieces will be part of a larger Marquesas exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in May 2005.
This exhibition features historical and cultural artifacts, tapa cloth, wood, ivory, human bone and coconut carvings, musical instruments, jewelry, clubs and photographs that effectively communicate this culture that finds many parallels in Hawaiian history and culture.
The museum has done an outstanding job in bringing to vivid life all these dimensions of the history and culture of the Marquesas: pre-contact and early history, 19th-century history, late 19th-century history to the present, and historical and contemporary visual arts and performing arts.
The exhibition displays a number of important historic objects from the Mission Houses Museum collection for the first time. Other featured pieces are from the Bishop Museum and the private collections of local art collectors, as well as Marquesan scholars and researchers.
The exhibition also commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Protestant mission to the Marquesas in 1853 by Native Hawaiian missionaries James Hunnewell Kekela the first ordained Native Hawaiian preacher who ministered in the Marquesas from 1853 to 1899 and Samuel Kauwealoha.
Among Kekela's personal items on display is a gold pocket watch that Abraham Lincoln gave him in 1864, in recognition of his bravery in rescuing an American sailor from being burned alive.
Many archaeologists agree that the first migration into to Hawai'i was in two waves, probably from the Marquesas in the sixth century and from the Society Islands eight hundred years later.
The Marquesas lie in the middle of the Pacific, between 400 and 600 miles south of the equator and approximately 1,000 miles northeast of Tahiti. With a combined area of some 807 square miles, they are among the largest island groups of French Polynesia.
The post-contact impact of the Western world, as in Hawai'i, was in many ways devastating for the Marquesas. From an estimated native population of 100,000 when Capt. James Cook arrived in 1774, that number had shrunk to a mere 5,246 by the first census in 1887.
Because of the impact of Western diseases, the situation continued to deteriorate until, by 1923, only an estimated 2,000 Marquesans remained, victims of French political and religious colonialization.
Before 1840, missionary influence was minimal, but eventually both Protestant and Roman Catholic missionary groups discouraged traditions of singing and dancing, the use of Marquesan musical instruments, wearing of native dress, kava-drinking, the use of turmeric, and of course, tattooing, which was viewed as a heathen practice.
This effectively nullified the power of the priestly and artisan classes and drove yet another nail in the Marquesan cultural coffin.
One hundred years of sustained Western contact had resulted in the almost complete destruction of the Marquesans and their culture.
The 1970s, as in Hawai'i, witnessed a rebirth and renewal of cultural awareness and practices.
The arts have been central to traditional life in the Marquesas, especially oratory, music and dance, and carving in stone, human bone and wood.
Traditional arts visual and performing have survived in the face of rampant disease, internal warfare, social disruption and the prohibition of traditional customs.
Paul Gauguin who spent the last two years of his life, died and was buried on Hiva Oa noted that, in Marquesan art, "there is the face, always the face."
The human body is central: as a canvas for tattoos, as a material in bones, as the main subject of statues, and as the main source of designs for carving and tattoos.
The arts of traditional tattoo, tapa making and carving in bone, wood and coconut now once again flourish.
Nontraditional items and materials, including masks and Tahitian-style slit drums, have entered the vocabulary.
The performing arts have also experienced a renaissance. Voice, drums (pahu), conch-shell trumpets (pktona), mouth bows, nose and mouth flutes all support the traditional dance in a similar celebration of the human body.
David C. Farmer wrote The Advertiser's Sunday art column from 1975 to 1976. He holds a BFA in painting and drawing and a master's in Asian and Pacific art history.