Height: 22.625 in; Width: 5.38 in; Length of Foot: 7.75 in.
Native arts acquisition funds, 1948.795
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2009. All Rights Reserved.
About the Artist
This wooden leg was carved by an artist from the Marquesas [mar-KAY-zas] Islands, a group of volcanic islands in French Polynesia, located in the Pacific Ocean. The Marquesas are the farthest group of islands from any continent. In terms of the arts, they are well-known for their tattoo art, as well as for their carvings in wood, bone, and shell. The process of tattooing in the Marquesas was treated as a ritual and the tattoo artist was a highly skilled artisan. Even today, many Marquesans beautify their bodies, proclaim their identities, and preserve their memories and experiences with tattoos.
What Inspired It
We’re not sure why this particular object was created. It’s possible that it served as the leg for a specially constructed raised bed, made only for certain priests to lie on following the performance of important sacrifices. Tattoos were believed to protect a person’s body from harm and this belief applied to objects as well. Tattooing the bed’s leg may have served to protect these priests’ tapu, or sacred, state by preventing contact with the earth. This leg may also have been a model placed outside of a tattoo shop, advertising the services of the artist inside.
In the past, tattooing was a major art form in the Marquesas Islands and it inevitably influenced other art forms. The tattooing style of the Marquesas was the most elaborate in all of Polynesia. Tattoo images were marks of beauty as well as a reflection of knowledge and cultural beliefs. They also signaled a person’s social status—a higher ranking individual would have more tattoos than an individual of a lesser rank. All-over tattooing was a development unique to this area. Both males and females were tattooed, although only men covered their bodies from head to toe. Designs were also different for women and men.
Tattoo images have been carved all around the circumference of the wooden leg. The carving is particularly detailed on the foot.
The large crack down the front of the leg happened before the leg came into the Denver Art Museum’s possession. It is evidence of curing of the wood as it aged.
The peg, or wooden block at the top of the leg tells us that it may have been attached to something else.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- The process of tattooing in the Marquesas was treated as a ritual. Even today, many Marquesans beautify their bodies, proclaim their identities, and preserve their memories and experiences with tattoos. Discuss this tradition with your students. How is tattooing viewed today? Is it as sacred as it is for the Marquesans?
- Compare the wood of the Leg to other wooden sculptures like Nkisi Nkondi and Eleven-Headed Bodhisattva of Compassion. How do the woods compare? Have students research the climate of the world the artworks came from and hypothesize why woods from various regions aged differently.