British Museum collections, £12.99
Height: 21.000 cm
Width: 6.000 cm
Depth: 7.500 cm
AOA Oc TAH.63
Figure with Tongan dress
Society Islands, French
Late 18th century AD
Although the four major eastern Polynesian gods were male, there were also female atua (gods or spirits).
This standing figure from the Society Islands is female and incorporates valuable and rare materials, such as feathered basketry and European nails, which suggests that it may represent an important female atua.
The fibre, feathered basketry and shell garments are from the western Polynesian islands of Tonga, many hundreds of miles away. When Captain Cook's ships arrived in the Society Islands on his second and third voyages (1772-1775 and 1776-1780 respectively), the Tongan feathered basketry they were carrying on board was much sought after by the islanders. It is thought the garments on the figure might have come from this source. One small feather remains on its cap.
In the islands of the eastern Pacific, images like this one not only represented a god but could also, when called upon, embody their power and presence. They were, therefore, highly important and were handled with specific ritual procedures.
Dr S. Hooper, Pacific Encounters: Art and Di (London, The British Museum Press, 2006)