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Tiki Pop

America imagines a Polynesian paradise

Affiche de l'exposition "Tiki Pop, l'Amérique rêve son paradis polynésien" - Click to enlarge, open in a new window

from tuesday 24 june to sunday 28 september 2014


  • Sven Kirsten, author and specialist in pop culture

around the exhibition

Bande-annonce de l'exposition

About the exhibition


"Tiki Pop" is the extension of a myth in American popular culture, that of the paradise of the South Seas, presented through a selection of 400 objects, essentially from private American collections.


The exhibition shows how an Oceanic divinity – largely reinvented for the occasion – became the symbol of this culture in the 1960s. An accumulation of incredible modern idols, unique pop accessories and elements of interior design will be presented alongside some of their "authentic insular counterparts".

The America of the 1950s represented ultimate success – that of the heroes of the Second World War and the leaders of post war industry whose products were exported on a massive scale across the whole world, ensuring material wealth.

In all respects, the middle class American lacked for nothing. Food, home, family, money: they had everything. And they were stressed. A strict work ethic which enabled them to "live well" also led to the need to unwind, to abandon their responsibilities and the expectations of society, if only for one evening. In quest of an outlet, the Americans took refuge in the antithesis of the modern world: the fantasy of a carefree life in the islands of the South Seas. 

The fantasy of a return to paradise in which the Tiki incarnated the secret desires of mankind, a return to primitive life where everything was simple and love was free of all constraint.

Beginning with the origins of the style, the exhibition retraces the development of this dream: the discovery of the Pacific islands by explorers, the expansion of the dream by writers and artists, the development of the culture of entertainment and escapism of the 20th century.

By assembling a profusion of popular culture objects collected by "urban archaeologists" over the last 20 years, the exhibition aims to show the diversity and inventiveness of the phenomenon, and to explain by what paths and detours the ancestral and mythical god Tiki became the American divinity of leisure.

The exhibition in images

Exhibition overview

Polynesian pop pré-tiki

In the 1950s, the stereotyped images of the dream of the South Seas was solidly anchored in the conscience of the Americans. With the hula girl as its principal icon, numerous other symbols crystallised the idea of the "paradise islands": the palm tree, the native hut, the canoe, the Hawaiian guitar, the pineapple... These images and many others contributed to evoke a world of exotic leisure diametrically opposite to the societal obligations of ordinary Americans. 

In the mid-1950s, another extremely impressive protagonist entered onto this already richly decorated stage: the Tiki. Joining the wahini, the beachcomber and the trader in the scenario of Polynesian pop culture, the figure of the primitive idol became the new focus of the spectacle.

No single person was responsible for this event, and it is impossible to determine the precise reason for the coming of the Tiki. It appears to have emerged from the collective unconsciousness due to a combination of circumstances.

The following sections of the exhibition examine the social and historical factors that played a role in the arrival of the Tiki fashion. Above all, they showed the incredible diversity of the phenomenon and the extent of its influence on American popular culture in the second half of the 20th century.

the evolution of the tiki - grandeur and decadence

Several factors contributed to the formation of the Tiki style: Hawaii and Polynesia became models of leisure for the well-off American middle class, the key to escapism far from the tensions of active life; the successful popular diversions such as South Pacific and Kon Tiki; the fashion for "primitive art" in elegant interiors, and the financial and social impetus born from the accession of Hawaii to the status of 50th American state. 

Tiki could have remained confined to the territory of themed restaurants and private cocktail bars, but a broader stage awaited it. In the 1960s, it became a decorative style in itself: the spectacular elements previously reserved only for bars and restaurants entered residential buildings, motels and bowling halls – initially in California, then on the west coast as far as Seattle, and finally throughout the United States as far as Florida. Tiki sculptures glared at the inhabitants of apartments as they relaxed around the swimming pool, and indicated placed to relax with flaming torches on motels and neon signs on bowling halls.  

In a period when new forms of expression were still seeing the light of day, the phenomenon came to an abrupt end as a result of a major shift in sensitivities in the late 1960s: the children of the generation who had lived through the Second World War no longer had to struggle to ensure their financial security. These university-educated people re-examined the choices their parents had made, discovering colonialism, racism, sexism and unhealthy dietary habits. 

Supplanted by marijuana and hallucinogenic drugs, cocktails were no longer the substance of choice for elitist escapism. Tiki appeared to be a ridiculous figure in bad taste that had been promoted by an old-fashioned establishment. By the early 1980s, the majority of Tiki constructions had been demolished or transformed into bland neutrality.

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