Polynesian objects from early European exploration, £19.99
Height: 32.500 cm
Gift of Sir A.W. Franks
Africa, Oceania, Americas
From Rarotonga, Cook Islands,
Possibly late 18th or early 19th century AD
For success and safety in fishing
The Cook Islands are situated in the middle of the South Pacific. The wood carvers of the island of Rarotonga, one of the Cook Islands, have a distinctive style. The British Museum has other examples of their figurative sculpture, such as a very large god staff and a figure (see related objects).
This short, squat figure is a typical example of the so-called 'fisherman's god'. The missionary John Williams observed these figures in use during his stay in Rarotonga, noting in his book Missionary Enterprises (1837) that they were to be seen mounted at the front of every fishing canoe. Offerings of food and flowers were made to the god before a fishing expedition. Fish are an important part of the diet of the Cook Islanders, and fishermen are highly skilled.
The head is characteristically large with big eyes and mouth. In this instance the edges of the large ears are notched. Typically, the belly protrudes and the buttocks are large. Almost all of these figures have a long penis, although some missionaries removed them. The feet are slightly turned inwards so they fit into the bow of the canoe. Many of these figures were undecorated, but here the figure is painted with designs in black pigment, probably representing tattooing.
The manufacture of these figures declined with the introduction of Christianity to the Cook Islands in the early nineteenth century. Some missionaries actively discouraged their use.
T. Barrow, The art of Tahiti and the neig (London, Thames and Hudson, 1979)
S. Hooper (ed.), Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Coll (Yale University Press in association with the University of East Anglia, Norwich, 1997)
P.H. Buck, Arts and crafts of the Cook Is (Honolulu, B.P. Bishop Museum, 1944, Bulletin no. 179; New York, Kraus Reprint, 1971)
D. Idiens, Cook Islands art (Princes Risborough, Shire Publications Ltd., 1990)