Issue 15.2, May 2000

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Essay Excerpt

On a Sunday in July 1995, during my fieldwork in the Society Islands of French Polynesia, I spent an afternoon with royalty: that is, with Joinville Pomare, the direct descendant of the last reigning queen of Tahiti, the contemporary claimant to the Polynesian throne (should that throne be re-established), and the leader of the second most influential pro-independence political party in the territory, aptly named the Pomare Party. We were at a house in Mahina Valley onTahiti island, on land the Pomare Party had reclaimed from the French colonial government. Along with Pomare and me were gathered about eight of Pomare's friends and supporters and an American art historian, Stephen Eisenman, who was in the islands finalizing research for a book he was writing on the artist Gauguin (1997). 

As several of us sat around the kitchen table talking, Eisenman asked how Polynesians felt about Gauguin. 'That one!" Pomare exclaimed, "He took eight-year-old girls to his bed!" Pomare shook his head, "Oh, his paintings are beautiful, but the man—." Clement Pito, a cultural activist and member of Pomare's political party, picked up the critique: "Eiaha!" he said in dismay, "Gauguin took our language and put it in his painting!" I asked Pito what he meant. He responded by talking about a particular painting of Polynesian social life by Gauguin. In 1897, when Gauguin completed this painting, he inscribed its French-language title in the painting's upper left-hand corner: "D'ou venons nous? Que sommes nous? Ou allons nous?" [Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?]. (p. 171).

From: Elliston, Deborah. "Geographies of Gender and Politics: The Place of Difference in Polynesian Nationalism." Cultural Anthropology 15(2000): 171–216.