Girls of Oceania: Part 1 – Polynesia

(Last Updated On April 16, 2021)

Some islands are conventionally associated with a continent. For example, Japan and Indonesia are islands in the Pacific, but they are considered to be part of Asia. There are many islands scattered throughout the Pacific that are not associated with any continent; they are known collectively as Oceania. Oceania consists of three sections: Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia. This post will be about Polynesia; Melanesia and Micronesia will be covered in Girls of Oceania Part 2.

Polynesian people originated in Taiwan. Over the course of many generations, they migrated south to Philippines and Indonesia, then east until they reached the island groups of Samoa and Tonga about 1000 BC. They remained in Samoa and Tonga for over a thousand years. Then, in a relatively short time, they spread throughout the eastern Pacific. Polynesia expanded to Hawaii in the north, New Zealand in the southwest, and Easter Island in the southeast. This is a huge area of ocean, millions of square miles, but it contains only about 118,000 square miles of land, of which 103,000 square miles are in New Zealand.

These remote islands developed a mystique during the era before air travel, when visiting an isolated island was like going to another planet, with little to no contact with the outside world. There is a romance in being so detached from the rest of the world. In the days of sailing ships when the male crews may have spent weeks without seeing a woman before stopping at a Polynesian island, the women of the islands were of particular interest. Polynesia became famous for women hula dancers, but young girls were also hula dancers.

The first example of a children’s hula, called “keiki hula” in Hawaiian, is this photo of Shirley Temple in her hula costume from the movie Curly Top. This was not an island movie, but hula dancing had become popular everywhere. Polynesian costume looks cute and feminine and therefore is appealing to girls who are not Polynesian. An image of non-Polynesian girls in grass skirts by Shannon Richardson was posted on Pigtails in Paint here.

Fox Studios – Publicity Photo for Curly Top (1935)

Hulas, including keiki hula, are more popular in Polynesia than elsewhere. The next two images show keiki hula shows in Hawaii, the first at the Kona Inn in the 1940s; the second at a shopping mall in the present century.

Anonymous – Keiki Hula at Kona Inn (1940s)

Na Kamalii Nani o Lahaina Hula School – Hula Show at the Mall (circa2016)

Hula girls have inspired several painters, including John Yato. Yato was born in Japan and his family moved to California when he was nine years old. He specializes in bright watercolors of various parts of the world, including the Pacific islands. The following two paintings by John Yato were inspired by Polynesian girls.

John Yato – Little Hulas (circa2010)

John Yato – Paradise Smile (circa2020)

Hawaiian girls are featured in cartoons as well as fine art. Lilo and Stitch, one of the best known Hawaiian-themed cartoons, was released by Disney in 2002. This story of a 6-year old Hawaiian girl who adopts a creature from outer space was a very successful movie. Sequels and a television series of Lilo and Stitch have been made.

Walt Disney Pictures – Lilo and Stitch (c2002)

Barbara Bradley was one of the 20th century’s outstanding illustrators. She made many illustrations of young girls, and I am surprised that she has not already been featured in Pigtails in Paint. Her typical style of drawing was more realistic, but she did a series of Hawaiian kids illustrations for the Dole pineapple company in a cartoon style in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Barbara’s children were models for the Hawaiian kids.

Barbara Bradley – Dole Hawaiian Kids (circa1970)

Barbara Bradley – Dole Hawaiian Kids Girl (circa1970)

In the limited amount of research done for this post I did not find any serious sculptures of young Polynesian girls, but there is a lot of kitsch; bobble head dolls, dashboard ornaments, and souvenir figurines. An example shown below is a solar powered bobble head of a girl playing the ukulele.

KC Hawaii – Keiki Ukulele Bobble Head Solar Doll (circa2020)

Up to this point, all of the images have been of Hawaiians, or at least of generic Polynesians that could be Hawaiian. New Zealand is by far the largest and most populous island group in Polynesia, but for some reason doesn’t have as much young girl art as Hawaii or French Polynesia. Perhaps New Zealand is too big for the feeling of being on a remote isolated little piece of land. The photograph below is from the studio of one of the great early woman photographers, Elizabeth Pullman. She had an intense interest in the Maori (New Zealand Polynesians) and photographed many of their important leaders. The photo below is an anonymous Maori woman and two girls.

Pullman and Son – Maori Woman and Two Children – (1871-1900)

French Polynesia, which includes the island of Tahiti, was the home of the painter Paul Gauguin for several years. Gauguin created many paintings of Tahitian women, but few paintings of young girls. Two of his paintings of Tahitian girls are shown below. Gauguin was probably influenced by photographer Charles Georges Spitz. Spitz lived in Tahiti, but the photograph posted here is from the Tuamotus Islands.

Paul Gauguin – Piti Teina (Two Sisters) (1892)

Paul Gauguin – Tahitian Woman And Two Children (1901)

Charles Georges Spitz – Tuamotus (circa1888)

Roger Parry was another French art photographer and he was also a war correspondent. Parry visited Tahiti in 1932–1933, and took at least four nude photographs of young Tahitian girls. Two are posted here, followed by a photo from Frederick O’Brien. O’Brien was not an artist; he was a bohemian wanderer and social activist who was in the Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia in 1913–1914. His picture of the kava drinker with two women and a girl became well known. It was published in O’Brien’s book White Shadows in the South Seas in 1919, and in National Geographic Magazine about eighty years later.

Roger Parry – Jeune Fille Nue (1932)

Roger Parry – Jeune Fille Nue aux Algues (1932)

Frederick O’Brien -Kivi, the Kava Drinker with the Hetairae of the Valley (1913-1914)

Only a few of the many islands of Polynesia can be covered in this post. Samoa will be the last group of islands considered here. Most of Samoa had been a German possession. It was formerly believed that various groups of people had certain distinctive characteristics. We Americans are commercial, therefore we have bobble head dolls from Hawaii. British are reserved, therefore we have formal studio portraits from New Zealand. French are artistic, therefore we have Gauguin’s paintings from Tahiti. Germans are scientific, therefore we have tomes detailing the ethnography, geology, botany, etc. of Samoa.

The two photos from Samoa are both from scholarly works. The first is from Die Frauenkleidung und ihre natürliche Entwicklung by Carl Heinrich Stratz. Stratz wrote that the picture is from a book by Selenka, but he does not say that Selenka was the photographer. This same image is found in several other early 20th century books. It is a good example of an ethnographic contrivance; an artistic picture disguised as ethnography to make it appear more serious and respectable. The second photograph is true ethnography with no contrivance. It uses a 14-year old girl to illustrate the physical characteristics of the Polynesian race. This image was taken from Naturgeschichte des Menschen, also by Stratz. The image is attributed to the Godefroy album. Godefroy was a German trading company that operated in the Pacific. This picture also appears in many other books, and in spite of the stiff pose has an innocent appeal.

Selenka – Mädchen aus Samoa im Blumenschmuck (circa1900)

Godefroy Album – 14 Jähriges Mädchen aus Samoa (c1900)

10 thoughts on “Girls of Oceania: Part 1 – Polynesia

  1. Thank you, Moko, for this very interesting post. I will write a longer comment later. Let me just point out one thing. You wrote that “Gauguin created many paintings of Tahitian women, but few paintings of young girls.” The thing is that it is hard to say if Gaugin’s models were actually women or girls. Most of them were adolescents, probably at the age of the 14-year old girl shown in the last photograph. This is the reason why Gaugin and his art is being cancelled recently. The wall text at his paining “Tehamana Has Many Parents” at the “Gauguin Portraits” exhibition at the National Gallery in London in 2019 read that the artist “repeatedly entered into sexual relations with young girls, ‘marrying’ two of them and fathering children”. It is true Gauguin claimed his Tahitan wife Teha’amana was just thirteen years old at the time. Many of his models could have been indeed around her age (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/18/arts/design/gauguin-national-gallery-london.html). I have noticed that in one of his watercolor “Ève exotique” (“Exotic Eve”, 1890), in the collection of the Pola Museum of Art, Japan, the model is younger than the girls in most of his paintings, a fact which is worth noting (https://www.polamuseum.or.jp/english/collection/016-0054/).

    Another question is why the 14-year old girl from Samoa in the Godefroy Album has hairless pubes. As far as I know, pubic hair removal was not practiced in this world region.

    • Thanks for the comment. I noticed that many of the females in Gauguin’s paintings appear as if they could be either young women or adolescent girls. I chose two paintings for the post in which there is no doubt that they are girls. An art critic wrote that the baby in the second painting may be Gauguin’s illegitimate child, but offered no evidence for that opinion. I saw several photos of nude Samoan women in the books I used in researching this post. As you said, pubic hair removal was not practiced by any of the women whose photos I saw. My guess is that for the girl in the last image, her lack of pubic hair is natural. She may have been late in developing pubic hair. I agree that she looks old enough to have pubic hair.

    • I took another look at Naturgeschichte des Menschen, from which the photo of the 14-year old girl was taken. There is another photo of a nude Samoan girl without pubic hair. The other girl is 17 years old. Her photo is also from Godefroy. Did Godefroy shave their models? I don’t know.

      • As for the 17-year-old girl shown in Stratz’s Naturgeschichte des Menschen (p. 329, Fig. 266 of the 1904 edition), the photograph was in fact taken in 1876 by a Polish naturalist and ethnographer, Jan Stanisław Kubary (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Stanislaw_Kubary), as Theresia Winsauer discovered in her diploma thesis ( http://othes.univie.ac.at/46004/1/48283.pdf , page 57, Fig. 6 and 8). Winsauer describes this photograph in much detail: “This black-and-white photograph, taken in Samoa, shows a wooden wall as a background. There is a naked, young, indigenous woman in the center of the picture. To the left of her body there is a tape measure that extends from the floor to the top of the picture. The photographed woman stands in an upright position with her arms pressed against her body on a woven mat. She keeps her feet parallel to each other, her knees are fully extended. The shoulders, chin and head form a parallel line with the hips. The model wears a tight-fitting pearl necklace around the neck and the ears are adorned with earrings. She has a short haircut. The woman’s facial expression is serious, the corners of her mouth point downwards. She directs her stern gaze towards the photographer. Jan Stanisław Kubary, who was employed by the Godeffroy trading company, took this photograph in 1876. It came from Samoa to the collection of the Godeffroy Museum and was in the inventory catalog of Schmeltz and Krause. The photograph was given the inventory number 385 in the top left corner and the abbreviation C8C at the top of the picture. Three line indicators drawn in black pen at right angles to the wooden planks of the wall indicate that the photograph should still be cropped. Carl Heinrich Stratz used the same photograph, but cropped so that the meter was no longer within the picture, as can be seen in his work Die Rassenschönheit des Weibes, where it is labelled as the seventeen-year-old girl from Samoa. A similar photograph of a Samoan woman, which was originally taken according to the same photographic pattern, with a pictured meter rule, can be found in a cropped form in other Stratz’s works.” It is very plausible that the photograph of the 14-year-old girl came from the same source. It should be emphasized that the Godeffroy company had incredible power in the island. In the article “The uncontrollable afterlives of ethnography: Lessons from ‘salvage colonialism’ in the German overseas empire” by George Steinmetz (Ethnography, 2004, 5, 251-228) one can read that by 1880 the Godeffroy company controlled 90 percent of the 5000 acres under cultivation in Samoa.

        I have done also some research on the attitude toward pubic hair in Samoa. In his book “Melanesians and Polynesians; their life-histories described and compared” (1910) George Brown ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Brown_(missionary) ) noted: “The hair growing under the armpits is greatly disliked and is generally pulled out. That growing on the pubes in women is much admired, and in the case of the village virgin was oiled and combed.” (https://archive.org/details/cu31924029889197/page/n103/mode/2up). Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History by Victoria Sherrow confirms that “Samoan islanders removed the hair from their armpits but left women’s pubic hair intact” (https://books.google.com/books?id=9Z6vCGbf66YC&pg=PA18). On the other hand, Augustin Krämer ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustin_Kraemer ) in his study “Die Samoa Inseln” (1903) reports that “it is customary to remove the girls’ hair at their pelvis and arm pits” (https://books.google.com/books?id=GwQ2Ml6EP4kC&pg=PA68) and in another chapter repeats that “also the pubic hair of the girls was shaved off” (https://books.google.com/books?id=GwQ2Ml6EP4kC&pg=PA329).

        I think we cannot be sure if the girls’ pubic hair was removed following some custom, or Kubary decided to shave the girls’ pubes before photographing. Undoubtedly, women were often objectified and eroticized by the colonial photographers. Krämer noted straightforwardly that “Regarding the build of body and limb I have only little to add with specific reference to the feminine sex since these are especially clearly shown in the many illustrations. I have purposely introduced far more of them than of men because I learned long ago that a race is most clearly characterised in the youthful feminine sex.” (https://books.google.com/books?id=GwQ2Ml6EP4kC&pg=PA50). Moreover, in his book “Peripheral Desires: The German Discovery of Sex” Robert Deam Tobin mentioned that “photographs of the beautiful Samoan woman became one of the most sought-after exports of the island. One traveler reports that the photography of the native women was one of the only things he liked about the islands, providing interesting information on the production and distribution of these images: “Especially the images of Samoan nudes in platinum prints aroused my admiration… I was told it was difficult to convince really pretty girls to be photographed… The photographer was obligated, by the way, not to show the photographs to anyone residing on the island, but only to sell them to foreigners. In most photos there was an undeniable unforced and honest chasteness to be admired, in addition to beautiful forms and graceful positions.”” We should keep in mind that it was about the time when Samoans were transported to Europe to be shown in the human zoos. A vast majority of the Samoan people on display in European human zoos were women.

        • Thank you, Patricia for your research and interesting comment. I didn’t know there was so much interesting background information about that picture.

        • What were those “human zoos”?
          I know that sometime around 1904, an African pygmy man was put on display in the ape house in the Bronx Zoo here in New York City. I never heard of human zoos in Europe.

          • I agree, Jerrold, it is shocking. I must admit, although I am ashamed of it now, that when I was a child I went to the carnival freak shows. Sometimes there would be an actual dwarf or giant as advertised. More often there would be a painting of a half man half alligator, or half man half lobster outside the tent. I paid a quarter and went inside, and saw that the “alligator man” was a guy with a skin disease that made his skin scaley, but not like alligator skin. The lobster man had only two fingers on each hand, but his hands were not at all like the lobster claws painted on the sign outside the tent. My favorite was “Zambora the Gorilla Girl”. “Is it possible that Darwin could be right? Could men and apes be related!?” shouted the barker. Few people in Ohio in the 1960s believed in evolution, but the barker claimed that a scientist had proof, and could reverse the process and change a girl into a gorilla. The “mad scientist” was not a very good magician; the illusion of changing a girl into a gorilla was not that impressive. What made the show enjoyable was that at the end the man in a gorilla suit would angrily rip off the cage door and come out. The children in the audience would scream and run away. I know now that I should be ashamed of enjoying seeing other children frightened. I would not pay to see any freak show today.

            At the other end of the spectrum are ethnic shows like the keiki hula shows in this post. Here in Florida I would also put into this category the Seminole and Miccosukee pow wows in the Everglades, the Cuban festivals in Miami, and the Greek celebration in Tarpon Springs. Where do we draw the line between a show that honors an ethnicity and one that portrays it as a freak? I don’t know, but I agree with you that putting humans in a zoo is definitely shocking

          • The story of objectifying people of color as the ‘freak show’ attractions was quite long. Sarah Baartman, known also under the name ‘Hottentot Venus’, was put on show in Great Britain since 1810 for a couple of years. Human zoos known also as ethnological expositions (Völkerschau/Kolonialausstellung/Menschenzoo in German) became popular and widespread in the 19th century, until the first decade of 20th century (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_zoo). In the book “Moving Bodies, Displaying Nations. National Cultures, Race and Gender in World Expositions 19th to 21st Century” we can find proofs for the human displays in many of Europe’s largest cites, such as Paris, Hamburg, London, Milan as well as American cities (New York, Chicago). In “Peripheral Desires: The German Discovery of Sex” Robert Deam Tobin reports that “The exhibitions of Samoans tended to feature women as well. The troop that visited Berlin Zoo in 1896 consisted of 22 women and girls and only 4 men. In 1900, it was 17 women (one of whom gave birth to a child during the exhibition) and 8 men”. Posters for the Samoan exhibitions emphasized the beauty of the “naked, roe-eyed, and seductive” women. It demonstrated of not only ‘scientifically’ justified racism, but also sexism of the show organizers, showing how women from colonies were sexualized.

          • Moko, Jerrold – it was not only about putting humans in a zoo, but the overall climate of scientific racism around it. Sarah Baartman, whom I already mentioned, was portrayed nude in different poses in a French book “Illustrations of the Natural History of Mammals.” Her images are found between the representations of apes, as some human races were not regarded human beings…. The pseudo-scientific anthropometric photographs of Samoan girls and adolescents taken by Kubary, half a century later follow the same pattern of reasoning. The subjects are completely naked, taken from the front and from the back, leaning against the wall with an attached measuring tape. I should also mentioned that as Baartman had elongated labia minora, she was forced to be nude when put on display. Analogously, I think that a possibility that Kubary actually shaved his models to document if their genitals differ from those of standard European women cannot be excluded.

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