Carved wooden figure known as A'a
From Rurutu, Austral Islands, French Polynesia,
Late 18th century AD
'There is a Supreme God in the ethnological section'
In August 1821, a group of people from Rurutu in the Austral Islands, in the south-eastern Pacific Ocean, travelled 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. 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 sp).
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 above.
J. Harding, 'A Polynesian god and the missionaries', Tribal Arts (Winter 1994), pp. 27-32
A. Gell, Art and agency: an anthropolog (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1998)
W.B. Fagg, The tribal image: wooden figur (London, The British Museum Press, 1970)