- Arts & Crafts
- Flowers & Shells
The manual dexterity of the craftsmen is extremely prolific, as the many exhibitions that are organised all year in each archipelago show.
The art of plaiting is found in various forms such as hats, bags baskets, mats etc. The women from the Austral Islands are noted as experts of this discipline that uses vegetal fibres from the screw pine, the coconut or the reed or a’eho.
The taste for observing and loving nature is revived in the sumptuous tifaifai or bed covers with hand-sewn vegetal or ethnic motifs. The enthusiasm of the women for this typical element of the decoration of fares or Polynesian homes is evidence of real creativity and has given rise to the organisation of an annual show of tifaifai. Artistic expression also finds an outlet in woodwork, the prerogative of the men.
They sculpt, according to their inspiration, and according to ancestral, diagrammatic or symbolic patterns in precious wood: tou or local palisander, miro or rosewood. The Marquesans excel in this domain and produce superb pieces of work, spears, puzzles and umete which are fruit bowls in which special meals can be served.
Certain craftsmen sometimes resort to volcanic rock, corals and even bones to fashion a thousand decorations and useful items such as penu or pestles. Finally the revival of mother of pearl really shows the iridescent effects of the polished insides of shells. Their ever-changing, fascinating shades have made them choice decorative items to beautify dance costumes or make sparkling jewels.
French Polynesia benefits from optimum climatic conditions and so is a real Garden of Eden where exuberance and abundance go hand in hand. In this country that is gorged with sunshine, farmers grow a huge variety of fruits, spices and vegetables with evocative names reminding us of faraway places. These exotic treasures are much appreciated by consumers because they combine aromatic qualities with nutritional benefits, giving great pleasure to the body and the taste buds.
The legendary breadfruit plant or uru, the coconut, the dozens of varieties of bananas of which one is the incomparable orange plantain banana or fe’i, the various root vegetables such as the taro, the tarua, the ufi or even the ‘umara make up the basis of island cuisine. Papayas, mangos, pineapples, watermelon, grapefruit, limes with a pod of vanilla are used to prepare tasty desserts.
Fish from the lagoon or from the ocean, ranging from perch, the dolphinfish (mahi mahi) through to the parrot fish in the Tuamotu islands in particular, are also on the menu for typical Polynesian dishes. They are often eaten raw, sometimes marinated in lime juice and coconut milk as in the famous recipe for raw fish à la Tahitienne‘ that is found all over the globe.
All these tropical foods are found in traditional ahima’a or Polynesian ovens where fruits, vegetables, suckling pigs, Tahitian chicken fafa (local spinach) and other delicacies such as po’e or local fruit pastilles cook through. Everything is sprinkled with fresh coconut oil and deliciously creamy. Numerous tourist services also let you discover the flavours of the islands on picnics organised on beaches or on a motu (islet), and tasted while dangling your feet in water. These outings are an opportunity to taste freshly caught fish, such as the tasty ume, the Long Nose Emperor fish of the lagoons and the little jacks.
Modern food in Tahiti is a heady mix of French inspired cuisine with fabulous Polynesian ingredients, Chinese inspired dishes and fresh local fish dishes
Tahitian dance is not just for the tourists – it is a fundamental part of Tahitian life and a vibrant way of expressing Polynesian culture. The dances are authentic and play an important role in spreading the Tahitian culture abroad. The Tamure dance, the famous hip wiggling movement, is recognised world-wide and is synonymous with long haired, beautiful Tahitian woman being serenaded by buffed, muscle bound Tahitian men.
Most hotels will offer you a dance show that is performed by local islands groups, proud to showcase their culture and talent.
Each July, as part of the Heiva cultural festival, a dance competition takes place and groups from throughout the islands perform to a strict set of rules, vying to win the coveted title, amongst others, of Best Group. Behind these performances are months of rehearsals and a meticulously choreographed tale of a Polynesian legend.
If you are in Tahiti in July you can buy tickets to this unique and vibrant event. The atmosphere is more like a sporting event with locals whistling and cheering on their favourite performers. Not to be missed!
In pre-European Polynesia, dances ‘were many and varied’ (W. Ellis, 1831) but little else is known about them. All we know is that both men and women danced, together or separately. Certain dances were performed standing up, others sitting down. Musicians used to accompany the dances with a limited number of instruments, essentially the pahu (drum with two skins) the vivo, a nasal flute.
Associated, as was tattooing, with nudity and therefore with immodesty, dancing was forbidden by missionaries. It was not until the 1950s that this ancestral art found its place again among Polynesian customs, and was reborn thanks to oral transmission and the writing of travellers.
In Tahitian dancing today there are, four types of dance:
The other archipelagos were greatly influenced by Tahitian dancing, but they have preserved certain of their own dances such as the bird dance in the Marquesas, kapa in the Tuamotus and pe’i in the Gambiers.
Today’s orchestras use percussion and stringed instruments. Among the percussion is the to’ere; the fa’alete; the pahuwith two skins and beaten with a stick and the pahu tupa’i rima, with one skin, that is played with the hands. The stringed instruments consist of the ukulele and the guitar.
Other instruments that had long disappeared have progressively made a come-back, those such as the ihara, a split bamboo drum and the vivo, a nasal flute. Finally, all sorts of sounds are obtained by clacking stones, from shells, by using penu (piion) or coconuts.
As soon as you step in to the arrivals hall at Tahiti Faa’a International Airport, your senses are in overload with the wondrous aromas of flowers. The Tiare is Tahiti’s national flower and is omnipresent throughout French Polynesia. Both men and women tuck a Tiare behind their ear to signify their relationship status and crowns of flowers are regularly worn by local women going about their daily tasks.
Traditionally flower leis are given as gifts upon arrival and shell necklaces upon departure. It is quite a spectacle to see a local being farewelled at the airport, his or her neck completely hidden beneath hundreds of shell necklaces, a simple yet powerful display of affection.
No matter where you find yourself in The Islands of Tahiti you will hear the hypnotic sounds of traditional Polynesian music. Ukuleles and percussion instruments feature heavily in this style of music and you will often stumble upon an impromptu Ukulele jam session on a street corner! Modern music is also being combined with the more traditional sounds, to create a unique and funky blend.
We know that ancient chants were often sacred and sung by Priests within the enclosures of the Marae or during specific ceremonies.
Other chants were secular and accompanied the events of everyday life. There are sound reminiscences of collective activities such as beating tapa (bark cloth). In the Marquesas Islands, the chants in religious ceremonies were often only understood by the priests, and were accompanied by drums and handclaps.
During festivals the chants progressively accompanied the beat initiated by the pahu drums. The rupture with the cultural past is most profound in the domain of music. Perhaps because no one bothered to write it down or else because the European influence was imposed very early on without violence.
The European influence started with sailors and their profane songs and music. It continued with the missionaries who brought their canticles and hymns. The himene is a cross between the religious hymns imported by the first Protestant missionaries and polyphonic Tahitian chants that were sung before the arrival of Europeans.
The main forms of himene are himene tarava, himene ru’au and ute. The first two are rooted in English Protestant liturgy and in the pre-European period. Both types of musical expression generally praise a legendary god, a famous chief, or protective animals and use very poetic lyrics. Each island, each district has its specific interpretations.
Religion permeates everyday life in The Islands of Tahiti and churches are jammed on Sunday mornings. There are a surprising number of churches compared to inhabitants throughout the islands. Today you will mainly see Catholic and Protestant churches with a smattering of other religions such as Seventh Day Adventist and Jehovah’s Witness.
Most shops are closed on Sundays and life takes on a quiet calm.
One of the most memorable experiences in The Islands of Tahiti is a visit to a Sunday church service, where the congregations dress in vibrant coloured dresses and floral shirts; the women wearing hand woven hats made from dried Pandanus leaves. The ukuleles and drums are in abundance in the church and the hymns are sung in the local Tahitian language with a unique reverence and distinctly Polynesian flare.
In French Polynesia a tattoo is not just a fashion statement – it is a symbol of one’s identity. Since the early 80s tattooing has enjoyed a strong revival and can be seen to proudly adorn the bodies of both men and women, eager to showcase their Polynesian culture.
The origin of the name
Two Polynesian words have been adopted by many other languages: tapu, the origin of tabou in French and taboo in English and, of course, tatau. The words tatouage in French, and tattoo and tattow in Old English, are therefore derived from that Tahitian word used for the practice of inscribing indelible marks on the skin.
There are a multitude of legends concerning the origins of the tatau. They all have one point in common: they are always a gift from a god to Man. On the island of Tahiti, one of these legends tells how the first tatau were done on the sons of the god Ta’aroa, the supreme creator god of everything in the Polynesian firmament. The sons taught it to men, who, finding it extremely decorative, made extensive use of it. The two sons of Ta’aroa, Matamata and Tū Ra’i Pō, therefore became the patron divinities of tattooing.
The origins of tattooing are quite vague, no doubt going back to the beginning of the Māori civilization. Tattooing was probably already in existence among the successive waves of peoples who had migrated from South East Asia, first to the eastern Polynesian islands, then the western islands, beginning in the second century BC. The practice seems to have existed in all the islands known jointly as the “Polynesian triangle”, an area bounded by today’s French Polynesia, New Zealand, Hawaii, Samoa, Easter Island and the Cook Islands. Tattooing was widely practised and found in particular forms throughout French Polynesia, with the exception of the south of the archipelago of the Austral Islands and the east of the Tuamotu archipelago. It was in the Marquesas Islands that the art of tattooing reached its peak of development in terms of its great richness and the complexity of its motifs.
Role in traditional society
In pre-European Polynesian society, tattooing constituted a valuable social marker. It could indicate one’s exact place in a territory, tribe and family and one’s level on the social scale. It could also mark the accomplishment of important social rituals such as the passage from childhood to puberty, marriage, etc. In addition it could represent remarkable events in the life of the person concerned: acts of bravery in war, prowess as a hunter or fisherman, etc. And it could be simply decorative. Its use was very widespread. “Tattooing is not compulsory, but it would not have been considered acceptable for a Tahitian to have no tattoos at all”, explained anthropologist Anne Lavondes, writing about tattooing in the Society Islands.
Different types of tattoo
One can distinguish three types of tattoo: those intended for gods, priests and ari’i, which are hereditary and therefore reserved for their descendants; those of the hui ari’I type, reserved for chiefs (men and women); those of the hui to’a,hui ra’atira and ‘īato’ai, manahune types, for war leaders, warriors, dancers, rowers, etc.
One of the fundamental aspects of tattooing was its sacred nature. Believed to be inherited from the gods, tattooing carried with it supernatural power. Certain motifs were considered to protect Man from the loss of his mana, the prestige and divine essence responsible for his health, or of his equilibrium and fertility and from harmful influences.
And for the afterlife
Tattooing also went far beyond the life of this world. Being indelible, and therefore eternal, “this inalterable work inscribed on their skin would later bear witness to their origins, rank and heroism when they were called to appear before their ancestors: the gods of the mythical country of Hawaiki“, explained Karl Von Den Steinen, a German ethnologist who undertook a detailed analysis in 1897-8 of the various forms of artistic expression of the peoples of the Marquesas Islands, including tattooing.
Specific to each archipelago
The different populations each developed their own specific designs and particular motifs. In the language of the Marquesas, tattooing is called patu tiki, which means “stamping with images”, a revealing expression. In this archipelago, the body could be entirely covered with tattoos, including the face. On the other hand, in the Leeward Islands the face was apparently never tattooed. Unfortunately, much of the meaning of the motifs and designs has been lost.
The tools of traditional tattooing
The tools of traditional tattooing comprised a small serrated comb, made of bone, tortoiseshell or mother-of-pearl, fixed to a wooden handle. The teeth were soaked in ink based on charcoal from the ti’a’iri, or candlenut (Aleurites Moluccana), diluted in oil or water. The teeth were placed on the skin while the tattooist struck the handle with another piece of wood, causing the skin to break and the ink to penetrate. With these traditional tools, producing a tattoo could be extremely painful and took days, weeks, months or even years. This reinforced the role of the tattoo as a rite of passage.
Being responsible for this delicate operation, the priest tattooist known as tahu’a tatau, in the Society Islands and tuhuka patu tiki in the Marquesas Islands, was paid handsomely and enjoyed great respect in traditional society. This status was often passed down from father to son.
As soon as they settled permanently in the Polynesian Islands at the end of the eighteenth century, both Catholic and Protestant missionaries fought against the practice of tattooing. Pōmare II, the second “king” of the dynasty of the same name, converted to Catholicism in 1812 and in 1819 drew up a code of rules which including the banning of tattoos. It is described as a practice which must be “completely abolished” as it “belonged to ancient and bad customs”. Moreover, as Polynesians now had to be fully clothed in the newly Christianised society, the very raison d’être of tattooing was largely disappearing. Consequently, the great majority of motifs as well as the technique itself of tattooing were lost forever.
At the beginning of the eighties, the tatau once more occupied a major role in Polynesian society as this secular practice was re-appropriated and renewed. Of course, its sacred nature and role as a social marker, fundamental to traditional society, were considerably dimmed. Tattooing became the bearer of a determined reclaiming of the Polynesian identity, to which was obviously added an aesthetic dimension. Now many young Polynesians get themselves tattooed.
Having explored and researched to try to rediscover the original meaning of the motifs – a meaning which has been completely lost for many of them – the Polynesian tattooists are now developing their art in three main directions: the reproduction of traditional motifs, the creation of strictly decorative motifs (such as dolphins or manta rays) and recently some of them have been creating motifs which are completely new yet directly inspired from tradition.
Tattooists are now at work in nearly all the main inhabited islands of French Polynesia. Their reputation and the beauty of the Polynesian tatau are such that they attract visitors from elsewhere. Some Polynesian tattooists practise their art in many major cities of the world such as Paris, London or New York. Polynesian tattooing has gained an international reputation both because of its traditional roots and its very fashionable ethnic aesthetic.