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by Dr. Larry LeDoux
Faculty Editor

 

Feldman, who has only recently returned to HPU after a semester abroad lecturing at Cambridge University in England, began by placing the study of art styles in an archaeological context as one indicator of population distribution patterns across the Pacific. Similarities in art styles can reinforce or challenge evidence suggested by other indicators: artifacts, legends, genetics, and language patterns.

Language patterns, Feldman said, suggest a common Southeast Asian origin for Pacific peoples, most of whom belong to the Austronesian language family. Polynesia, included in the traditional triangle from New Zealand to Hawai‘i to Easter Island, is characterized by the similarity of its languages, called Eastern Austronesian. Micronesia and Melanesia and parts of northern and eastern New Guinea belong to a Western Austronesian language group.

Archaeology, legend, and language patterns all lead to our traditional understandings of Pacific migration, with very early population movements from Indonesia to Samoa and Tonga (about 1100 B.C.) and later migration (about 200 A.D.) from these islands to the Marquesas, from which populations moved to Easter Island, Hawai‘i, the Society Islands (Tahiti), and New Zealand. Later migrations from Tahiti (from about 1200 to 1400) brought new populations to all of the Hawaiian island except Kauai where, Feldman pointed out, Europeans found an art tradition that was unchanged compared to the art of the other Sandwich Islands.

Feldman indicated that geometric styles weren’t reliable indicators because their simplicity makes them too easy to develop independently. Instead, he indicated that we should look at such stylistic elements as the position of the figure—standing or squatting—and the position of the arms. Easter Island and some Indonesian figures, for example, have arms connected to the body and hands held on or across the stomach. This contrasts to the open stance of Hawaiian and Tongan figures with their arms held separate from the body.

Feldman pointed out numerous other similarities across several cultures:arms raised and hands “holding “ chins, mother of pearl eyes, feather work, and overall shapes. Interpreting the significance of these patterns is difficult, Feldman admitted. Migration was not a one-way movement but involved the establishment of trade routes and trading partners, so that goods such as art objects moved back and forth across the Pacific. But the existence of distinctive styles gives historians and anthropologists one more tool with which to trace details of the Pacific diaspora.

Eva Makk, matriarch of a family of internationally known artists who have lived in Honolulu for nearly 40 years, said that she was “impressed with both the quality of the scholarship and the elegance of some of the art work” Feldman presented. Makk, who trained at conservatories in Paris and Rome, and whose work is in museums on three continents, spent her childhood in Africa and five years as a young adult painting the Indians of the Amazon rainforest for the Brazilian government. “Primal peo-ples,” she continued, “tend to create objects that are ceremonial or utilitarian. Many of these very useful items were obviously also created with an eye for beauty.”

 
 

 

 

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