Art of Oceania
- Polynesia, an introduction
- Paikea at the American Museum of Natural History
- Moai, sacred ancestor figures of Rapa Nui
- Rapa Nui (Easter Island) Moai
- Voyage to the moai of Rapa Nui (Easter Island)
- Presentation of Fijian mats and tapa cloths to Queen Elizabeth II
- Rurutu figure known as A’a
- A welcome to a Maori meeting house
- Maori meeting house
- Hawaiian featherworks
- Feather cape
- Queen Liliʻuokalani’s accession photograph
- Necklace (Lei Niho Palaoa), Hawai'i
- Temple figure of war god Kūkaʻilimoku
- Fly Whisk (Tahiri), Austral Islands
- Michel Tuffery, Pisupo Lua Afe
- Gottfried Lindauer, Tamati Waka Nene
- Hiapo (tapa)
- Bark cloth from Wallis and Futuna
Rurutu figure known as A’a
Carved wooden figure known as A’a (two views), late 18th century C.E., hardwood, possibly pua, 117 cm high, Raiatea, Rurutu, Austral Islands, French Polynesia © The Trustees of the British Museum
A presentation to missionaries
In August 1821, a group of people from Rurutu in the Austral Islands, in the south-eastern Pacific Ocean, traveled north to the island of Ra'iatea in the Society Islands, to a London Missionary Society station. There they presented to the missionaries a number of carved figures that represented their gods, as a symbol of their acceptance of Christianity. The population of Rurutu had all converted together at one time in obedience to a decision made by their highest leaders. This figure was among those presented, and is described by one of the missionaries at the time, John Williams. It was taken into the London Missionary Society collections, brought to London in 1822 and subsequently sold to The British Museum in 1911.
There is debate about which of the Rurutu gods the figure represents. John Williams identifies it as A'a. The god is depicted in the process of creating other gods and men: his creations cover the surface of his body as thirty small figures.
Carved wooden figure known as A’a, late 18th century C.E., hardwood, possibly pua, 117 cm high, Raiatea, Rurutu, Austral Islands, French Polynesia © The Trustees of the British Museum
The figure itself is hollow, a removable panel on its back reveals a cavity which originally contained twenty-four small figures. These were removed and destroyed in 1882. Contemporary Rurutuans explain that the exterior figures correspond to the kinship groups that make up their society, and propose a number of theories about the relationship between the figure and Christianity. It is carved from hardwood, probably from pua (Fagraea).
Carved wooden figure known as A’a (view with open back), late 18th century C.E., hardwood, possibly pua, 117 cm high, Raiatea, Rurutu, Austral Islands, French Polynesia © The Trustees of the British Museum
“There is a Supreme God in the ethnological section”
Since it came to London the figure has attracted considerable attention, and is widely regarded as one of the finest pieces of Polynesian sculpture still in existence. It influenced the sculptor Henry Moore, and is also the subject of a poem by William Empson (1906-84), "Homage to the British Museum," quoted below:
There is a Supreme God in the ethnological section;
A hollow toad shape, faced with a blank shield.
He needs his belly to include the Pantheon,
Which is inserted through a hole behind.
At the navel, at the points formally stressed, at the organs of sense,
Lice glue themselves, doll, local deities,
His smooth wood creeps with all the creeds of the world.Attending there let us absorb the culture of nations
And dissolve into our judgement all their codes.
Then, being clogged with a natural hesitation
(People are continually asking one on the way out),
Let us stand here and admit that we have no road.
Being everything, let us admit that is to be something,
Or give ourselves the benefit of the doubt;
Let us offer our pinch of dust all to this God,
And grant his reign over the entire building.
J. Harding, “A Polynesian god and the missionaries,” Tribal Arts (Winter 1994), pp. 27-32.
A. Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1998).
W.B. Fagg, Tribal Image: Wooden Figure Sculpture of the World (London, The British Museum Press, 1970).
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© The Trustees of the British Museum
Want to join the conversation?
- Why were the "twenty-four small figures ... removed and destroyed in 1882"? It is shameful how ignorant and disrespectful some people are to art and culture. Hopefully, there is more care nowadays (at least in Western civilization) when one comes across a cultural artifact, instead of destroying or discarding them, or blowing up statues of Buddha, for example.(6 votes)
- If the twenty four small figures were destroyed because they were part of A'a, and the destruction was to rid the world of those gods (or godlets), then it was akin to the Taliban attempting to destroy the Buddhas. If, however, the twenty four small figures had been discovered to have become infested with termites or fungus or something with which the London Missionary Society could not cope in 1882, then their destruction may be credited with saving the main A'a himself (herself / itself). The essay does not say WHY they were destroyed, just THAT they were. It does us no credit to assume that it was out of an anti-cultural or anti-religious spirit.(3 votes)
- Why did the missionary people keep the old god even when they converted into Christianity. . . and make it better known. Did they just want to sell it to make money or what? That does not seem like a awesome idea, like if they where Christians why did they make the "god' better known(1 vote)
- Note that the item was received as a gift by the missionary staff members in 1822 and held in the museum of the London Missionary Society until 1911, at which time it was sold to the British Museum. Nothing in the essay indicates that A'a was stolen or taken from the people of Rurutu, or mistreated during the years when the London Missionary Society had custody of it (him/her). That the object was subsequently sold is also a value-free statement. It is possible that it was sold to fund some other activity (like building a hospital or paying pensions to retired missionaries.) The essay itself just doesn't give us enough information.(1 vote)
- Why did they make the facial appearance look like little blocks of what looks like copper, and wood...?(1 vote)