French Polynesian Artwork – CMA, Indigenous Contemporary Art, and Pape’ete’s Urban Environment

A wooden ‘U’u from the Marquesas Islands is an iconic example of how Polynesian artists conceive ideas visually. This article explores the connections between the CMA and the visual Indigenous contemporary art they create, and Pape’ete’s urban environment.

Although the CMA is based in Pape’ete, it reaches out across French Polynesia. The artworks it produces convey messages about French Polynesia that are at once subtly and powerfully political.


The woven designs on tapa cloth are a powerful medium for expressing the beliefs, values and traditions of French Polynesian Artwork culture. The beaten bark of certain trees is soaked and stretched to create the fabric, which can be decorated with geometric patterns and repeated motifs such as fish and plants. These designs are believed to hold special meaning and are passed down from generation to generation. Tapa can be decorated by rubbing, stamping, stencilling, smoking (Fiji: masi kuvui, “smoked barkcloth”) or dyeing. It is most often painted black and rust-brown, although other colors are known.

Tapa cloth can be used for clothing or as room dividers. A whole village can work on a single sheet, which is usually 15 or 30 m long. A family is considered poor if they do not have a piece of tapa to donate at important life events, like marriages and funerals.

Gauguin left France in 1891 to search for a mythical paradise and a ‘pure’ culture on which to base his art. In Tahiti, he met Teha’amana, a native woman who became his muse. The painting Merahi metua no Teha’amana, which translates as Teha’amana has many parents/ancestors, is a portrait of her.

The beach is a favorite subject for many artists in the Pacific Islands, where it is warm and sunny year-round. This collection includes a number of beautiful prints that depict this idyllic setting. They make for great wall art, and are also a good choice for gifts.


In the far-flung islands of French Polynesia, the name of the Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), looms large. There’s the ‘Paul Gauguin’ luxury cruise liner and a main street in the capital city of Papeete named after him, souvenir shops stocking bags, table mats and flowerpots featuring his paintings, and copies of them hang in hotels and government offices.

Gauguin devoted much of his artistic oeuvre to celebrating Polynesian beauty, particularly that of women. In his diptych “Merahi metua no Teha’amana”, he criticises reductionist representations of women by portraying her from the middle of her belly up to her head in naive pink and yellow colours. She wears a floral head wreath and has a deep stare that defies the cliches of a woman’s emaciated body.

On the island of Fakarava, Gauguin used to dive with wooden goggles and admire the luminous corals and the “undersea light like a second sky”. He was fascinated by the sea’s magical world, and this fascination is evident in his two Oceania cut-out wall-hangings that depict dancing colourful fish, jellyfish, birds and leaves. Through this evocation of a paradise, he aims to return the Polynesians’ lost mythology.


Sculpture is a three-dimensional art form that allows artists to portray the structure and volume of objects, people, animals and other things. It can be abstract, expressing the artist’s vision of an aspect of reality, or it may be a representation of a real-world object, person or event. Sculpture uses different types of materials to create its forms.

During the Polynesian period of Gauguin’s life, he used sculpture to depict various Polynesian figures and events. Among these was a carved figure of Taaroa, the god of the sea and the ocean itself, which is now in the Orsay Museum in Paris. Another was the statuette of Oviri, a sinister Polynesian god associated with death and mourning.

Since its establishment in Pape’ete, the CMA has become a leading centre of contemporary creativity and has also developed projects outside of the city (in the Marquesas, Mangareva and Ua Huka). The Centre’s Director, Viri Taimana, and his teachers Tokainiua Devatine and Hirirau Vaitoare develop projects that require extensive collaboration between students and sculptor teachers.

Sculpture is a powerful tool for promoting the culture and sense of identity of the Polynesian people. Its natural beauty, spiritual rituals and traditions, and cultural legacy are all conveyed through the various arts that are created by its citizens. Moreover, Polynesian art is also a draw for tourists and provides an important source of employment in the country.


When Europeans first discovered the islands of the South Pacific in the 18th and 19th centuries, their new artistic styles captivated local artists. They often incorporated these new materials and practices into existing island art forms. The resulting objects express Polynesian concepts of community, prestige, and lineage.

Tapa cloth making is an ancient practice that continues today, particularly in Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. The bark of certain trees is beaten and stretched to make cloth for clothing, household décor, and ceremonial uses. The patterns painted on the cloth have symbolic meaning and are passed down through generations.

Long before Coco Chanel invented her little black dress, Polynesian women were constructing sexy pareos—skirt-like wraparound skirts of pounded coconut fiber or hibiscus bark, traditionally dyed with koka (a dark brown pigment from the root of a tree) or tongo (deeper brown, made from mangrove). Today’s designers have fashioned these versatile garments into wraparound tunics and dresses that are as stylish as they are comfortable.

Wood carving is another important island craft, especially on the Marquesas Islands where carved figural sculptures like these stilt step and club demonstrate a unique Polynesian approach to form. This example, carved by Raharuhi Rukupo of the Rongowhakaata Tribe, illustrates how the artist has conceived of these features through an elegantly curving, sinuous design.