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|This ko’oka or wood bowl originates from Te ‘Enana (Land of the People)—the Marquesan Islands in Polynesia. Accessioned into the museum’s collections in 1939, it dates to the early 20th century, a time when an art market began to emerge around Marquesan woodcarving and craft. While it is likely that this ko’oka was purchased by the donor as tourist art, or with the intention of donating it to a museum, bowls such as this one were not historically produced for sale. Before European explorers and traders took an interest in trading these works, they were primarily used in the home or to adorn ceremonial sites on the islands.|
Generally, the motifs that decorate the surfaces of ko’oka contain spiritual meaning, and were often intended to represent Marquesan ancestral deities as anthropomorphic tiki figures. Tiki are often coupled with elaborate geometric patterns, such as those depicted on this carved ko’oka. While the appearance of a woodcarving is significant, in Marquesan culture, the act of carving is also rich with mana—supernatural power—and is carried out by tahuka—Marquesans with a specialized craft or knowledge (Kjellgren and Ivory 2005, 4-5). During his work on Marquesan body art and woodcarving, anthropologist Alfred Gell noted that “The graphic act was a ritual performance that brought into being a prospective spirit through the utterance of a ‘legitimate” (stylistically coherent) graphic gesture.” (Deter-World and Diaz Granados 2013, 27)
The spirituality of the carving ko’oka also translates to Marquesan body art, a medium with which woodcarving shares a history of designs, motifs, and ritualized making. Marquesans approach these mediums with the idea that the processes of creative practice were just as, if not more important than the final product. This is exemplified in tattooing, during which there is value in “the spilling of blood, a highly tapu (sacred) substance” (Kjellgren and Ivory 2005, 26). Additionally, while “an individual’s body might already be fully tattooed, the tattooing process did not stop but continued indefinitely…it was the process, and not the clarity of the overall design, that was of paramount importance.” (27). While scholars have gone back and forth about which medium inspired the other, these mediums are more likely different expressions of shared artistic conventions (13).
The production of woodcarvings in the past century has been highly contingent upon the political and economic climates surrounding the Marquesas. Towards the end of the 19th century, after inter-tribal warfare, disease and alcoholism severely reduced the population of islanders, the Marquesans were presented with opportunities to refuel their cultural practices through new trade relationships with the U.S. and Europe (Ivory 2002, 395). At this time, the low-relief decoration of ko'oka began to cover the entire surface of objects, as new metal tools became more available and as Marquesans sought to appeal to a growing tourism industry along nearby islands (Kjellgren and Ivory 2005, 4). By the 1960s, the market for woodcarvings and Marquesan craft was flourishing. This market and a cultural resilience throughout the islands has allowed this tradition to continue today, through public arts projects, vocational schools, arts festivals and artist collectives (Ivory 2002, 400).
Researcher: Alex Karpa (Columbia Museum Anthropology MA Program, 2016)
Kjellgren, Eric and Carol S. Ivory. Adorning the World: Art of the Marquesas Islands. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005.
Ivory, Carol S. “Marquesan art in the millennium,” In Pacific Art: Persistence, Change and Meaning, ed. Anita Herle (Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 2002).
Deter-Wolf, Aaron and Carol Diaz-Granados, Drawing with Great Needles: Ancient Tattoo Traditions of North America. (University of Texas Press, 2013).
• ADORNING THE WORLD: ART OF THE MARQUESAS ISLANDS. THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART, NEW YORK, NY. May 2005 - January 2006