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Ivory figurine


Height: 12.000 cm


Africa, Oceania, Americas

    Ivory figurine

    From Tonga, Polynesia
    Probably 18th or early 19th century AD

    Tongan figures are typically small to medium in size, and are very similar to each other. The female figures carved in ivory or wood are generally standing, with wide shoulders, large breasts, prominent buttocks, and arms that hang by their sides. Some are freestanding, carved in one piece with a circular base.

    Tongans also produced tiny figures carved from walrus or sperm whale ivory. They are believed to represent goddesses, possibly, for example, Hikuleo who represented the Afterworld. They are perforated at the back of their necks and were worn as pendants or charms by female chiefs, or suspended inside a god house.

    There is no known original museum documentation for this figure. We know that it would probably have been in The British Museum's collections by the mid-nineteenth century. It was initially wrongly recorded as being from Tahiti. The artefacts allocated this 'TAH' prefix are from a variety of mostly early sources, and include material from Captain Cook's voyages. Similar ivory figures were collected on Cook's voyages, but there is no means of proving that this was one of them.

    A. L. Kaeppler, 'Art, aesthetics, and social structure' in Tongan culture and history: pa (Canberra, Australian National University, 1990.)

    A. Wardwell, The sculpture of Polynesia (The Art Institute of Chicago, 1967)

    P.H. Buck (Te Rangi Hiroa), 'Material representatives of Tongan and Samoan gods', Journal of the Polynesian So-1, 44 (1935)

    K. St Cartmail, The art of Tonga (Australia and the United Kingdom, G+B Arts International, 1997)


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