The Asahi Shimbun Displays
Containing the divine
a sculpture of the Pacific god A’a
17 March – 30 May 2016
Standing casket figure of the god A’a. Rurutu, Austral Islands, French Polynesia, 16th–17th century.
Encounter a sculpture of the god A’a, learn about its influence on artists and poets, and find out about the latest scientific discoveries that are transforming our understanding of this enigmatic object.
This display will explore the relationship between divine power and people in Polynesia through the figure known as A’a – probably the most famous Polynesian sculpture in the world. In 1821, islanders from Rurutu – one of the Austral Islands in French Polynesia – sailed to Ra’iatea in the Society Islands to give A’a to the London Missionary Society (LMS) as a symbol of their conversion to Christianity. After A’a arrived in London in 1823 it was exhibited alongside other Polynesian objects at the LMS Museum. It entered the British Museum in 1890, before formally becoming part of the collection in 1911.
More about the exhibition
Since then, A’a has been a source of fascination and inspiration to artists, poets and others across the world. Henry Moore and Pablo Picasso both had their own casts made of the figure, poet William Empson wrote a poem about A’a and the Museum, and it continues to inspire people today. The show will also look at how Rurutuans view and interpret A’a today. The figure has not been forgotten, and a cast sits on display in the mayor’s office.
In preparation for the British Museum display, A’a has undergone scientific tests to try and understand why and how it was made. These tests have confirmed the theory that A’a was created to contain the divine – the figure would originally have been used to hold the skull and bones of an important ancestor. The research findings have also challenged ideas of when A’a was made, and what the sculpture is made from, and you can find out more in the display.
A’a was an important and sacred figure in Rurutu, and was one of the most highly prized pieces collected by the LMS. Today it is one of the most famous, intriguing and unique objects in the British Museum.