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The History and Development of Oceanian Sculpture

Updated on April 5, 2014
Asmat sculpture, Indonesia.
Asmat sculpture, Indonesia. | Source

The sculpture of Oceania is that of the racially varied peoples of Australia and four regions of Pacific islands -Indonesia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. These peoples developed a wealth of sculptural styles that makes generalization difficult. Aesthetically the most important and, often, spectacular sculpture is that of Melanesia and Polynesia.


The widely diverse sculpture of isolated Melanesian groups should be seen in the context of several allied elements in Melanesian culture. One element was the belief in power residing in ancestors and especially in supernatural beings. Another element was prolonged socioreligious ceremonies, often taking years to complete, which gave loosely organized peoples a strong sense of the continuity of time. A third element was large, men's houses, which were ceremonial centers and repositories of sacred figures, masks, and drums.

The profusion of sculpture from the Sepik River area of north central New Guinea has the most distinctive of the many Melanesian styles. Ancestors were often honored at death by a carved and painted figure or mask. Sometimes their skulls were covered with modeled clay or paste and painted to resemble the ancestors as they had appeared at ceremonial occasions during their lifetime. Supernatural beings were represented by carved figures, frequently having a hallucinatory, surrealistic appearance.

Papua New Guinea Sculpture
Papua New Guinea Sculpture | Source

Masks or other decorative sculptures were attached to the high front gables of men's houses. Sepik River masks and figures generally conveyed a sense of the spiritual power residing in them through vigorous forms combined in original, dramatic ways. Their bizarre character was usually intensified by bright paint and feathers, leaves, seeds, and shells.

In the Papuan Gulf area of southern New Guinea, masks, sometimes 10 feet (3 meters) high, representing supernatural beings, were made anew for each ceremonial. These masks had a lower part carved in wood to resemble an open-snouted crocodile and an upper part consisting of a tall framework of palmwood covered with bark cloth.

On New Ireland, ceremonial, clan-owned sculpture in the form of single figures, horizontal or vertical compositions, or masks was in an open-work style. Carved-out, or negative, spaces worked with solid forms to produce an extraordinarily vital and noble open design.


No art could more completely express the culture to which it belonged than the art of Polynesia. It involved concepts of rank, based on descent from deified ancestors; mana, a spiritual power inherent to a greater or lesser degree in all animate and inanimate things; and taboo, which stipulated protocol to protect people from contact with sources of greater or lesser mana than their own. Polynesian sculptors, who were specialists in particular areas of their art, worked in wood, stone, and shell. They made figures and such implements as clubs, combs, and paddles, and decorative carving on houses and canoes. Many of the forms were intended to evoke the power of their remote ancestors.


Polynesian three-dimensional sculpture has self-sufficient forms, to which polychromy is unimportant. Its expressive significance depends on the shapes and their relationship, as seen in the figurative carvings of Samoa, the Cook Islands, Tahiti, and nearby islands. Figures are stylized but basically naturalistic.

In the stylized sculpture of the Marquesas Islands the proportions are heavy and rather remote from reality. The surfaces are often carved with complex, basically rectilinear designs, which are comparable to the allover tattooing designs common to the islands. Similarly, the elaborate, curvilinear surface designs on the figurative art of the Maori of New Zealand are related to the rich Maori tattooing patterns. The figures are relatively static but convey a fierce aggressiveness.

Hawaiian sculpture has one of the most significant of Polynesian styles. It is dramatic in its three-dimensional forms and in its association of negative spaces with solid, volumetric forms. Almost grotesque figures with strongly defined shapes suggest movement through their inherent, dynamic, sculptural force.

On Easter Island are huge, roughhewn stone figures, half figures, and busts, some more than 30 feet (9 meters) high. Presumably they were set up on a sanctuary wall to commemorate clan ancestors. The figures are rendered purely sculpturally with sharp-cut brows, deep-set eyes, straight-lipped mouths, and heavy, projecting jaws and chins, all suggesting a contained, moody, or introverted quality.

In contrast are small, well-polished wooden figures under 2 feet (60 cm) high. These emaciated, skeletized forms may be ancestor figures. They and other small figures of lizards, birds, and grotesques are carefully carved with elaborate descriptive detail.


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