- Museum number
- Object: A’a
God figure known as A’a, carved in anthropomorphic form with 30 small figures over surface of the body and making up the facial features. A lidded cavity in back.
- Production date
- 17thC (before 1821 (see curatorial comments))
Height: 116.80 centimetres
Width: 36 centimetres
Depth: 36 centimetres
- Curator's comments
This figure has a hollowed body and head, covered at the back by a detachable carved panel. It has thirty small figures distributed over its surface forming facial and other features. Referred to by Williams (Williams, J.,1837, 'A narrative of missionary enterprises in the South Sea Islands,' London, J Snow: 43-4) as 'Aa, the national god of Rurutu', it contained at the time of presentation twenty-four 'smaller gods', now dispersed and unidentifiable. The carefully shaped excavation of the head and body indicates that it was most likely used originally as a reliquary for the skull and bones of a deified ancestor, wrapped and bound with feathered cords (Hooper, S.J.P., 2001a, 'Tribal image to divine image: reflections on Polynesian sculptures in the British Museum,' William Fagg Memorial Lecture [unpublished]).
It became the prize trophy of the London Missionary Society, being featured on the front of 'Missionary Sketches XXIV', January 1824, and on the frontispiece of volume II of William Ellis's 'Polynesian Researches' - on both occasions with a modest waist wrap, even though it had been emasculated (see above, p.66). Ellis, (Ellis, W., 1829, 'Polynesian researches,' 2 vols, London: Dawsons of Pall Mall: II: 220) referred to it as 'Taaroa, the supreme deity of Polynesia', but on what evidence is unclear. In indigenous use it was likely to have had more substantial wrappings and bindings.
Information from Pacific Art in Detail: John Williams, in his 'Missionary Enterprises' (1837) recorded that when the group from Rurutu presented the figure they identified it as A'a, which is the Rurutu creator god. When it was presented the cavity in the back of the figure was opened, revealing 24 small figures. The missionaries removed and destroyed these in 1822. The figure was sent to the London Missionary Society collection in London in 1822 and was later sold to the British Museum in 1911.
(details from J. Harding, 'A Polynesian God and the Missionaries', Tribal Arts, Winter 1994, pp.27-32.)
Eth.Doc. 812 includes a handwritten sheet of Polynesian text said to be a prayer to A'a and photocopies from Alain Babadzan, 'Naissance d'une tradition (Changement culturel et syncretisme religieux aux Iles Australes (Polynesie Francaise), pp.98-105.
They were deposited at the Museum of Mankind by Maurice Lenoir, A Rurutan who visited to pay homage to A'a in 1989. He left the loin cloth and hat he wore to do so - registered as Oc1989,01.1-2.
In November 2015, wood samples taken from inside the figure were tested by British Museum scientists and found to be Sandalwood. The wood was too deteriorated to be definitive about the species but it is likely to be Santalum insulare. This information was fed back to the island of Rurutu and the Council of Elders met to discuss it. The Elders chose not to accept the Sandalwood finding, preferring to uphold their own histories which state that A'a was carved from pua wood (Fagraea berteriana). At the same time wood samples from inside the figure's cavity were radiocarbon dated by the Socttish Universities Environmental Research Centre. The results suggest that A'a was carved at some point between 1591 and 1647.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1984-1985, New York, Museum of Modern Art
1998, London, BM, 'BP Ethnography Showcase: The Return of the Museum of Mankind'
2003, London, BM, Round Reading Room, 250th anniversary/Poems of the Underground display
2006 21 May-13 Aug, Norwich, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Pacific Encounters
2006-2007 28 Sept-7 Jan, London, BM, Power and Taboo
2008 16 Jun-14 Sep, Paris, Musée du quai Branly, Pacific Encounters
2014 23 May-3 Aug, Canberra, National Gallery of Australia, Atua: Sacred art from Polynesia
2014-2015 12 Oct-4 Jan, St Louis Art Museum, Atua: Sacred art from Polynesia
2016 17 Mar–30 May, London, British Museum, Containing the Divine: a sculpture of the Pacific god A'a
2018 18 Sept-9 Dec, London, Royal Academy of Arts, Oceania
2019 12 Mar-07 July, Paris, Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, 'Oceania'
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Presented by a group of people from Rurutu to representatives of the London Missionary Society stationed at Ra'iatea in August 1821. Given as a symbol of their conversion to Christianity.
- Africa, Oceania and the Americas
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
CDMS number: Oc1911C27.19 (old CDMS no.)
Miscellaneous number: Oc1890,Loan (originally loaned to BM in 1890 by LMS)