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Art of the Marquesas

I have written here about the Marquesas before, in relation to Gauguin and Jacques Brel. Now I read an article by Souren Melikian (How Marquesan art became a puzzle, May 28) for the International Herald Tribune, after a recent trip to New York. It's a review of a new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called Adorning the World: Art of the Marquesas Islands (open until January 15, 2006):

No one has asked what drove 19th-century Westerners to scrutinize distant cultures, gather their artifacts destined for rituals that are no longer understood, and ensconce them in museum displays irrelevant to their original purpose. The exhibition of artifacts from the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia, put together at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Eric Kjellgren and Carol Ivory, is remarkable in its understated elegance. This show is a masterpiece of exhibition design, devised by a staff designer, Daniel Kershaw. But as they peer at works ranging from stone statues to warriors' clubs and food vessels, many visitors will wonder what is the sense of it all.

The very title of the show, "Adorning the World," is revealing. It reflects the perception of strangers of a world where, the organizers are careful to stress, religious concepts dictated figural representation and all motifs were loaded with a meaning. Regrettably, we are unable to decipher them. The job was not seriously attempted in the past, and now it is too late. If there ever was a chance for outsiders to do so, colonization ruined it by blurring, not to say erasing, the identity of its inhabitants. In the exhibition book, Kjellgren discreetly touches on the decimation of the Marquesan population that followed contacts with European travelers. Estimates of the numbers "distributed among the six regularly inhabited islands" prior to such contacts range from 40,000 to 100,000. By the 1860s, they had dropped to around 10,000, and by the mid-1920s they were down to 2,000.
Good stuff. It is worth remembering that, by the time Gauguin had made it to Tahiti (as Melikian points out, Robert Louis Stevenson also visited the Marquesas in 1888, around the same time), he was enamored of a culture that had already mostly evaporated. Also worth your reading time is the review by Holland Cotter, Tikis and Tattoos: A Remote Archipelago Exudes a Potent Presence (New York Times, May 13).

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