Polynesian objects from early European exploration, £19.99
Carved male figure
Maori, mid-19th century
From New Zealand, Polynesia
This male figure is from the base of a poutokomanawa, an internal central post which supports the ridge-pole of a Maori meeting house. It represents an important ancestor of the tribal group which owned that house. The figure has fairly naturalistic features. It is clearly male, and has the typical Maori male hair topknot and a fully tattooed face. The eyes are inlaid with haliotis shell. The collar bone is carved as a raised ridge. The large hands have just three fingers each. This is not unusual, varying numbers of fingers are to be found on Maori carvings, and may be due to regional differences in style, rather than having a symbolic meaning.
The style of carving - the solidly proportioned body and large hands - is typical of the prominent Ngati Kahungunu school of carvers from the central Hawkes Bay district, in the mid-nineteenth century. The majority of Maori carving from this period is more stylized than this figure. This naturalistic style may have been intended to emphasize the social or human side of the ancestor represented.
The Maori meeting house increased in size and height during the nineteenth century, due partly to European influence. Consequently poutokomanawa figures increased in size until the largest were around two metres high.
D.C. Starzecka (ed.), Maori art and culture, 2nd ed. (London, The British Museum Press, 1998)
N. Thomas, Oceanic art (London, Thames and Hudson, 1995)
J.C.H. King (ed.), Human image (London, The British Museum Press, 2000)