This dark wood sculpture portrays a standing deity figure. Finely carved and polished though, it comes with several damages, supposedly as a result of careless attempts to move it. On the left side of the sculpture’s head, a panel of the same wood can be found pegged in to cover a flaw. The left ear is pierced with a circular hole at the upper part. One crack, amongst the many others, runs down from neck to chest. Moreover, its forearms were broken off and some toes went missing as well.
This wood carving was made roughly from the late 18th century to the early 19th century in Mangareva, French Polynesia, by its islanders. Nevertheless, little evidence has been obtained to identify the role of the figure in its indigenous religious culture, apart from that in 1826, a British explorer, Edward Belcher, found an idol placed in a local temple which was likewise neatly carved and polished. There once appeared assumptions that the deity referred to Ringo, a Polynesian god of agriculture, cultivated plants and war, especially in Māori mythology.
It seems impressive that this sculpture has survived the iconoclasm of the Christianity conversion period on Mangareva in the middle 1830s. It was first acquired, probably in the 1820s, by the London Missionary Society during its exploratory operation in the Society Islands. Established in 1795, the society commissioned missionaries to convert the local population, while collecting objects during their travels. It was until 1910 that having been sent back to London, those pieces were displayed in the society’s own museum on Bloomfield Street. After then the collections were acquired by other institutions following the museum’s closure and thus this wooden sculpture ended up in the British Museum.
Not only seen by the contemporary public as exotic, for a majority of Europeans in the 18th century, but it also referred to an uncivilized, alien culture from far Oceania, of which this statue was just a miniature. By means of a mission, the western explorers aimed to introduce a ‘superior’ culture to those primitive lands. However, such attempts posed a major threat to the native civilization. Accompanying the conversion were destructions of artworks regarded as crucial to the indigenous ritual practices. Consequently, a cultural invasion took place in the following centuries.
The phenomena of encroachments on minority cultures remain grave in the current days. Traditions and languages are dreadfully conserved and hence faced with extinction as the native society is dominated by influential foreign cultures. Furthermore, the imbalance has been compounded by the accelerating globalization. Fortunately, amongst the vanished others, Māori culture managed to survive to the present day. The Mangareva statue is not only a relic of a former era, but also a reminder of the invasion, domination, and extinction, to which we all ought to stay vigilant.
In this seminar, we used a worksheet containing four questions intended to prompt analysis of an object dating from 1700-1900.
- Describe the work including content and material;
- Where is it? Can you find reasons why it is where it is, for example in relation to collection histories?
- Historical context of the work;
- What relevance might this work have today? Can you suggest a contemporary object that might have a similar social function?
18thC (late) - 19thC (early)
Dark, polished wood
Museum no. Oc,LMS.99
- Wooden figure of a deity. (n.d.). [image] Available at: https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?assetId=34017001&objectId=502701&partId=1 (Accessed 6 Nov. 2018).