Masterpieces from Oceania

Tapa Cloth Figure: Acquired AD 1899, Easter Island, Polynesia. PM 99-12-70/53543
Tapa Cloth Figure, side view
Tapa Cloth Figure, side view
Tapa Cloth Figure, reverse view
Maori Figure with Moko, Before AD 1841. PM 99-12-70/53494
Uhikana, Chief's Headband Ornament, Before AD 1841, Polynesia. PM 99-12-70/53588
Hawaiian Feather Cape, Before AD 1819, Hawaiian Islands. PM 11-65-70/84100
Hawaiian Crested Helmet, Before 1841 AD, Oahu or Maui, Hawaiian Islands. PM 99-12-70/53559
Fisherman's God, Before 1843 AD, Cook Islands, Polynesia. PM 99-12-70/53517
Fisherman's God, side view
Fisherman's God, reverse view
Rarotonga Staffgod, Before 1849 AD, Cook Islands, Polynesia. PM 69-20-70/1390
Ceremonial Paddle, Acquired before 1888 AD, Polynesia, PM 88-52-70/51540
Ceremonial Paddle. detail
Trobriand Islands Shield, New Guinea, Acquired 1896. PM 96-25-70/49449
Admiralty Islands Figure (Male), Acquired 1918, Melanesia. PM 18-20-70/D1255
Male Admiralty Islands Figure, detail
Admiralty Islands Figure (Female), Acquired 1918, Melanesia. PM 18-20-70/D1256
Female Admiralty Islands Figure, detail
Malanggan Mask, 1895 or earlier, New Ireland, Melanesia. PM 95-44-70/47844

Tapa Cloth Figure

This Tapa cloth figure is distinguished from Easter Island’s more common wooden figures by its unusual construction.  In crafting this rare figure, bundles of bulrushes tied with fiber bands were covered in Tapa, beaten bark cloth, which was then painted in tattoo patterns.  Out of three existing figures of this kind that have been recovered, the Peabody Museum is fortunate to keep two in its collection.  W.H.

Maori Figure with Moko

This masterfully-finished Maori figure combines characteristics of Maori design with Polynesian character and proportions.  This particular figure’s beautifully rendered facial carvings (moko) distinguish it from other similar figures that were typically used on house posts and as roof ornaments.  W.H.

Uhikana Chief's Headband Ornament

This Uhikana heaband's delicate craftsmanship represents its wearer’s high social or religious standing.  Despite being created during a historical period of early European contact with the Marquesas, it still remains possible that this intricate work was accomplished without the assistance of metal tools.  W.H.

Hawaiian Feather Cape

Creating these intricate, vibrantly colorful feather capes required the efforts of professional bird hunters and craftsmen.  As symbols of rank and nobility, these capes were produced and worn exclusively by men and used only rare red and yellow feathers.  W.H.

Hawaiian Crested Helmets

This striking example of Hawaii’s second form of status regalia has a rare crest and spokes design that distinguishes it from other more typical helmets collected by Captain Cook during his 1778 visit to Hawaii.  The helmet’s lush color and delicate feather work speak to the high rank of its wearer.  Unfortunately, the faded yellow feathers hint at the difficulty of preserving these easily damaged, perishable objects.  W.H.

Fisherman's God

This carved statue, identified as a central Polynesian fishing god, is one of the museum’s early acquisitions about which little is substantively known.  It has been suggested that this piece was placed at the bow of fishing canoes and propitiated at the beginning of fishing expeditions.  While this is only one hypothesis, fishing was considered a sacred task in central Polynesia, where fish provided the primary source of protein.  The figure’s exaggerated head and phallus are typical in Polynesian design from this period.  But this figure’s facial features, legs, feet, and surface decorations are unique.  W.H.

Rarotonga Staffgod

This central Polynesian staffgod depicting Tangaroa (the creator and original deity of the sea and fishing) was carved from the sacred wood of the pua tree by special carvers whose supernatural power (manu) manifests itself in their unquestionable skill and artistry.  The staffgod itself also possessed a great deal of manu or soul, which originally resided in its now lost middle section of tapa, red feathers, and polished shells. The concept of manu reinforced a system of social ranking that was determined by genealogical connections to Tangaroa and further strengthened by the belief that objects, like this staffgod, and high ranking individuals with great manu were too powerful and potentially dangerous to interact with weaker beings.  This particular staffgod had been recognized as a fine example of this distinctive form.  C.F.

Ceremonial Paddle

“The Austral Island paddle is to be admired for the perfection of the carving, the elegance of the proportions, and the formal beauty of the leaf-shaped blade.” —Carol F. Jopling

Before European contact, paddles of this nature bore social significance as symbols of status and kinship in Polynesia’s Austral Islands.  But, by the mid-nineteenth century paddles, probably this one in included, were carved specifically for trade with sailors and travelers.  Executed with a shark’s tooth instrument, this paddle derived its unique design from a limited number of design motifs that abstract the human from and represent deities.  C.J.

Trobriand Island Shield

“The shield offered protection against spears, but the imagery no doubt provided an additional safeguard.” —Carol F. Jopling

Acting as a window into a society where sacred war magic was handed down from generation to generation, this rare painted shield remains an object of compelling interest. While the exact meaning of the shield’s imagery continues to elicit debate, its bold design speaks to the outstanding skill and high standing of the warrior who originally carried it.  C.J.

Doorpost Figures

These two visually intriguing figures offer a unique interpretation of the human form.  They share a well-developed style of balance and proportion that suggests that the native culture of the Admiralty archipelago had a fully developed artistic tradition.  Unfortunately, figures of this kind were collected without attention to their cultural relevance or artistic meaning, making deeper attempts at interpretation impossible.  E.W.

Malanggan Mask

This rare white-faced malanggan ceremonial mask is from the southwest coast of northern New Ireland. Masks of this type, depicting both human and animal forms, were publicly displayed during formal memorial rites. Carved of lightweight wood and decorated with paint and plant pith, this particular mask has unusually simple features and closed eyes that together may suggest a female identity.  M.A.