Statues, everywhere! In the bush? A statue. On the side of the street? A statue. Next to this statue? Another statue! It’s the Marquesan’s love of carving things into rock to blame. For making this the perfect place to hold the worlds biggest tiki (some would say, the world’s ugliest tiki): Tiki Tuhiva
Revival of the Tiki
Carving has always been a big deal in Te Henua ‘Enana (Marquesas Islands), until about 1842 when the French took control of Nuku Hiva, the largest Island. The French quickly introduced missionaries, who (eye-roll) banned cultural practices. They completely banned the act of carving and tattooing whisle the destroyed most existing tikis on the island. These bans, and the following epidemics of introduced diseases almost killed the all traditional knowledge of the art.
In the 1880s, tourists started visiting the islands and carving got back into fashion. Kind of. Souvenirs were carved, so tourists had trinkets they could take back to Europe. Carving for the sake of carving was still not common for almost 100 years. The revival of proper, traditional statues has only really gained momentum in that last few decades as a result of regular cultural festivals which has sparked pride in the traditional culture.
A tiki is not just a Polynesian figure in a tacky cocktail bar. In Te Henua ‘Enana, Tiki was the god who laid with a pile of sand to create man. In these islands, and several other Polynesian societies, Tiki was the father of all mankind. Tiki was also the god of carvers and tattooists, two things forbidden by Christian missionaries.
Tiki loans his name to the art form of carving faces and figures into stone or wood throughout Polynesia. He kind of looks human, so tikis have become a canvas for depicting other humans, such as ancestors and chiefs. Just like real people, every tiki has it’s own personality and are often used to look after the home.
Standing at 12 meters tall, the female figure is based on Marquesan carving design. The male is eight meters tall and exhibits the local tattoo style. Made mostly of iron and concrete, the outer layer is keetu the main volcanic rock used by local carvers o the island.
Tiki Tuhiva stands upon Tu Hiva hill, in Taiohae town centre. Tu Hiva was site of the fortress when the island was claimed by an American. The US never recognised the claim, but that didn’t stop one guy from building a whole fort and waging war against the British. Surrounding the main statue is a collection of smaller statues, and tables made of stone bricks where you can sit down and relax.
It started to rain when I visited, quite heavily. Luckily, Tiki Tuhiva was big enough to find some shelter during the downfall. I made my way between the legs and discovered that the artists did not leave out any detail. Why was it necessary to sculpt a giant vulva? It’s not common in any other local artwork, they even gave the male statue a loincloth. It just seemed a bit odd to include this detail.
Another unusual feature is the naval. The female figure has a hole in her bellybutton. The hole is large enough to insert a rolled-up piece of paper; it’s a local tradition is to write a letter and deliver it into the Tiki Tuhiva’s bellybutton. It’s quite high up, so you need to make the effort to see if the gods are listening to your prayers.
Experience Tiki Tuhiva
Being the regional capital, Taiohae is a relatively easy place to get to. There are regular flights to Nuku Hiva from Tahiti and Taiohae is on the route of the Aranui. There are lots of tikis and other carvings in Taiohae, but try and find some in the bush as well, there are lots of archaeological sites and smaller villages with tikis hidden away. Hiva Oa in the southern Marquesas Islands (Te Fenua ‘Enata) is also packed full of tikis, and is home to Takaii, the worlds’ biggest tiki before Tiki Tuhiva was built. There is no public transport, so organise any car transport you need with your hosts.
A great way to experience the tiki is at the Marquesas Art and Culture Festival. The biennial festival hosted by a different island every two years. The festivals alternate between the large islands and the and small islands. In 2021, the festival will be held on the small island, Fatu Hiva.