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Wood Carving

Welcome to the holiday edition of Arts & Culture cards in Conquest of Paradise. Today, we look at a cultural attribute that is widespread throughout Polynesia: Wood Carving. From the exuberantly carved wood structure of Maori meeting houses, to the small "tiki" carvings now made for tourists on Easter Island, intricate wood designs are hallmarks of Polynesian culture.

Ornamental wood carving was used throughout the Pacific Islands on domestic objects (such as canoes, spears and utensils) as well as in temples and religious statues. Polynesian carvings are incredibly complex, and not just decorative in nature. They record important history and serve as genealogical reminders. Carvings generally indicated stories of religion or social rank, and contained abstract or stylized human figures. Polynesian cultures view the head as being highly sacred, and sculptures often had oversized heads in proportion to the body, with angular facial features.

Classic woodcarving is characterized by boldly rendered three-dimensional forms whose surfaces are engraved with intricate designs. A masterful carving is said to "speak" to the viewer, while a lesser example remains silent. To read a carving requires a thorough knowledge of island culture and symbols.

What makes many of the design types so compelling is the way in which forms are combined: a lizard figure may have human and bird attributes, making it a sort of composite figure. Some human figures have a bird head and wings. Playfulness of form and "visual punning" are characteristics of the art.

For example, on Mangareva, images in human form were collectively known as tiki. They were created by specialist carvers, known as taura rakau , who worked under the patronage of the gods Motu-ariki and Te Agiagi. When their services were needed, carvers underwent a ritual initiation, which brought them under the influence of their patron deities. A semi-professional class of craftspeople, carvers were paid in food and other goods for their work. The initiation of the carving process itself was sometimes the direct result of divine inspiration. An image would be carved after a new god had spoken through the mouth of a priest.

Wooden images on Mangareva were originally fairly abundant, representing a variety of gods and deified ancestors. However, following the adoption of Christianity by the Mangarevans, virtually all of these figures were burned in 1835 at the behest of Christian missionaries. Today, only roughly a dozen examples survive, making them among the rarest of Polynesian sculptures. These examples, ironically, were saved by the missionaries themselves and sent back to Europe as evidence of their success in bringing Christianity to the Mangarevans.

In game terms, ownership of the Wood Carving card gains the owner one Victory Point. His people have brought beauty and meaning to their world, and have established an art that will endure through the ages.


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