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Nuku Hiva - Reclaiming Marquesan Identity

July 22, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

In the Marquesas, one name heard a lot in terms of spearheading the movement for cultural regeneration in the islands is that of the Bishop, George Teikihuupoko, aka “Toti”, originally from Ua Pou. The cultural association “Motu Haka” (island gathering) was set up in 1979 to defend Marquesan identity, which at that time was being subsumed by Tahitian. Children were even taught in Tahitian. The first Marquesas arts festival was held in Ua Pou in 1987, and then a couple of years later the Pae Pae Piki Vehine was rebuilt on the seafront at Taiohae. A pae pae is a traditional platform for people to gather, and I really enjoyed visiting this one and looking at the sculptures and tiki that had been made by craftsman of the island. My favourite though was the Easter Island tiki, made by a local there, primarily because I would have liked to sail via there and Pitcairn from the Galapagos, and the statue really did transport me. We had decided against that route because anchoring and sailing conditions sounded like a complete nightmare, but Jonathan and his daughter Jemima from ESCAPADE travelled there, and their blog makes for fascinating reading. 

I was also drawn to the lizard-faced sentinel, gazing out to see, and appreciated the satire in a headless pot-bellied figure, apparently a rif on a French Marianne dispensing justice, her tremendous girth representing how fat Tahiti has grown living off the rest of French Polynesia - off with her head!

As well as reclaiming the Marquesan language as spoken, the movement also sought to preserve the language of Marquesan tattoos, or the art of patutiki (to strike or beat in images) of the tupuna ‘enana (Marquesan ancestors). I learned about this thanks to SHAWNIGAN, leafing through their Marquesan dictionary of tattoo art, Hamani ha’a tuhuku the patutiki, painstakingly put together by Teiki Huukena tuhuka patutiki, or master tattoo artist. According to the book, the art of tattooing went very quickly into decline in 19C and 20C and many of the keys to understanding the motifs, often documenting family stories and ancestry, were lost.

He was able to recapture the spirit, if not exactly replicate, the ancient practices, primarily thanks to research documented by researchers and curious individuals in the past. In 1804 a Russian expedition, Tilesius and Langsdorff, meticulously kept record of the designs they encountered. Then in the late 19C, an enthusiastic German, one Karl von den Steinen, devoted himself to learning what he could, struck by the high mortality rate at that time and wishing to preserve the knowledge held.  at a time when many islanders were dying quickly. Then, in the 1920s, funded by the Bishop Museum in Hawaii,  a Mrs Handy was able to supplement the work of ethnologists documenting the last remaining designs on islanders, dying out, by having access and able to document patterns particular to women. “Each one of the compositions was unique and specifically designed for the person in question, even in relation to the essential elements specific to their group, position and iconographic language”.

In Robert Louis Stevenson’s time there was a sad about a white person getting a Marquesan tattoo. He tells the tale of a red-headed (and blooded!) Scot who fell in love with a local beauty, who laughed at his advances, declaring she could never make love to a man naked of tattoos. So he went off and had his entire face covered - a highly painful procedure, mark of courage locally - and when he returned to court her she laughed even louder, saying he looked ridiculous! However the notion of white people getting tattoos then in general, was not ridiculous. Apparently the tattoo artists considered it an honour, seeing it was so rare, to see their designs displayed on a different background colour. While some in other parts of Polynesia today may consider it a sign of disrespectful cultural appropriation for white people to adopt their traditional tattoos, Teiki takes the view that, if done respecting the significance of the motifs (in the Marquesas there is gender separation in the motifs - a woman can’t have a stingray, for example), the personal selection of appropriate patutiki will do nothing but honour the spirit of the Marquesas ancestors, whoever you are. And so I love the fact that, with this in mind, Josie, Christian and Nina had tattoos done, and Josie made a time lapse video of the whole procedure, which is fascinating. Keep an eye out on  afamilyafloat.com.

The end result is beautiful, speaking volumes about their own personal stories translated into Marquesan designs. Sometimes travelling, and connecting with other cultures, is a case, quite literally, of spreading the word. 



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