- "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."
One of the primary decorative arts of Polynesia is ornamental carving. No matter the material, be it shell, bone, wood, or stone, the Polynesians turned what they had at hand into exceptional ornaments. Carving was not reserved for ceremonial and religious implements; even simple daily tools from stools to spoons and house beams were carved, often in meticulous detail.
Though carving was common across all of Polynesia, local styles and preferred carving materials varied significantly. For example, Hawaii boasted a ready supply of timber, and wood carving reached significant technical skill and detail, whereas the residents of tree-less Easter Island carved the island’s volcanic stones into the awesome and justifiably famous Moai.
Tiki statues, stylized human figures, were among the most common carvings made. The figures were to represent heroes or ancestors, and were believed to be imparted with the divine power of Mana, with wide eyes representing awareness and bared teeth demonstrating power and defiance. Only after World War II did “tiki” acquire its meaning as a lowbrow art form.
In addition to ornamental carvings of objects, the Polynesians left a variety of petroglyphs on the rocks of their islands. These petroglyphs and the enigmatic proto-script of the Rongo-Rongo tablets are still today a subject of intense discussion and occasional conspiracy theory.