Here the composition is dominated by the large, upper figure, or tiki, which is depicted looking over its shoulder, its backside facing outwards in a pose that Ivory suggests 'may represent an insult or a challenge to a competitor.' (Kjellgren & Ivory, Adorning the World: Art of the Marquesas Islands, 2005, p. 98). Stilt steps with the main figure looking backwards are rare, and certain features of the present example make it rarer still, if not unique. Generally tapuvae of this type depict the upper face emerging from between stylized, upraised 'arms', which support the curved footrest. Here, the arms have been replaced by two tiki figures, who are posed upside down, with their feet disappearing into the footrest. A hand emerges surreally from the top of the heads of these two inverted caryatids. This extraordinarily inventive composition 'rests' on the head of a second, outward facing figure, who stands in a characteristic pose, with his legs tensed and hands resting on his stomach. See Oldman, The Oldman Collection of Polynesian Artifacts, 1943, pl. 111, nos. 242 & 243, for two stilt-steps of similar form to the present lot.
Stilt steps were bound to plain poles known as totoko, with the entire stilt known as vaeake. Handy notes that their use was strictly forbidden to women, and that 'contests between champions of tribes constituted the central feature of one of the great memorial feasts for the dead [...]' (Handy, The Native Culture in the Marquesas, 1923, p. 297). Langsdorff relates that 'one of the favourite amusements among [Marquesans] is running on stilts [...] At their great public festivals they run [...] for wagers, in which each tries to cross the other, and throw him down; if this is accomplished, the person thrown becomes the laughing-stock of the whole company. We were the more astonished at the dexterity shewn by them as they run on the dancing-place, which, being paved with smooth stones, must greatly increase the difficulty.' (Langsdorff, Voyages and Travels, 1813, pp. 168-169).
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