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Title male figure - ’Fisherman’s god’
Collection Artworld: Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts
Date 1750-1849 CE
Description This figure squats on both legs with arms by the sides, resting on the stomach. The hands and feet are defined by grooves. The figure has a large protruding stomach with a large, defined navel. The chest and back are flat and the sides of the torso have been cut away to form two recessed areas. The figure also has wide buttocks. The head is large in comparison with the rest of the body. Two small ears have been carved on either side of the head and have hollow centres. Behind each ear at the back of the head are two square-shaped holes. The figure has large eyes and a mouth which have been formed from carved ridges reminiscent of folds. A simple nose has also been carved. The figure is made from wood which is a mid-brown colour although some areas such as the thighs and stomach appear lighter than others. Many cracks cover the surface and one large crack runs down the back of the head behind the right ear. A chip is visible at the back of the left arm. The front of the feet are also missing. The vertical grain of the wood is visible forming small grooves which run down the entire object giving it a rough surface texture.
Description Source Hannah Thomas
Cultural Context Rarotongan
Id Number Current Accession 189
Location Creation Site New Zealand, Cook Islands, Rarotonga
Location Current Repository Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts
Subject sculpture in the round, figurine, human figurine, male figurine
Measurements Dimensions 407
Context Among the masterpieces of Polynesian sculpture, this rare image is one of only seven of its type known to have survived from the early nineteenth century. They are generally referred to as 'fisherman's gods', an attribution which derives from the missionary John Williams, who spent over a year on Rarotonga during the 1820's and who provides us with the only first-hand reference to the type in the literature. In his 'Missionary Enterprises' (1837: 116-17) he illustrates an example (almost certainly the London Missionary Society image in the Museum of Mankind, LMS 123)and states that this type of 'idol…was placed upon the fore part of every fishing canoe; and when the natives were going on a fishing excursion, prior to setting off, they invariably presented offerings to the god, and invoked him to grant them success.' Williams then goes on to pay a barbed compliment to Roarotongan piety with the exhortation, 'Surely professing Christians may learn a lesson from this practice. Here we see pagans of the lowest order imploring the blessing of their gods upon their ordinary occupations. Christians, go and do likewise.'
Although unconfirmed from other independent sources, this 'fishermen's god' attribution is quite plausible, since in many areas of Polynesia carved images were mounted on the bow and stern of important canoes. Such images were not in themselves regarded as gods, but when carved in an appropriate way and from an appropriate material they functioned as representations of gods and as a suitable medium through which the god could manifest itself. During ritual, such as formal invocations for fishing success, the god was invited by the priest to occupy its material image. Morsels of food or flowers were offered as tokens of respect, a procedure which constituted a kind of exchange in return for divine blessings on the fishing expedition. A number of gods were recognised in Polynesian societies, many of them ancestral, and frequent ritual supplication and offerings were considered necessary in order to obtain divine favour and ensure success.
The form of this image, with massive head and abdomen, flexed legs and straigh shoulder line, relates it to central Polynesian sculpture from the Society and Austral Islands, but its Rarotongan origin is clear from the distinctive eye and mouth form. It is unique among the known 'fishermen's gods' in that it has a fully carved nose, stylistically similar to that on the famous tall Rarotongan image in the Museum of Mankind (LMS 169). It is also a particularly powerful example of the way in which Polynesian sculptors were not constrained in their work by considerations of naturalism. Representative portraiture was not the intention, but rather the evocation and realisationin material form of particular qualities - in this case fecundity, potency, solidity and permanence - conveyed in the emphasis on the head, abdomen and genitals, and in the phallic form of the sculpture as a whole.
The condition of the image is good, although the feet are damaged and the large pendant phallus, present on three other examples, has unfortunately been sawn off. This is probably a result of having been collected originally by London Missionary Society missionaries, who retained as souvenirs these 'idols' which were not destroyed in the early fervour of conversion. Two of the seven surviving examples (one on the Museum of Mankind, the other in the Peabody Museum, Harvard) have designs painted in black on the head and body, probably representing tattoos. This image may once have been so decorated, but no traces remain.
Context Source Steven Hooper. In: Steven Hooper (ed.). 1997. Catalogue to the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection. University of East Anglia.
Rights Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, UEA, Norwich, 2002. All Rights reserved
Work Type male figure



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