They are in a sense our ambassadors who highlight Polynesian culture throughout the world. These creations and works of art are located in the biggest museums in the world and are a source of permanent wonder and curiosity. In a series of articles, we will take you on a journey of discovery, beginning with A’a, an extraordinarily mysterious sculpture.
A’a is unquestionably the most famous carved Oceanic wood sculpture of all time. This masterpiece measuring 117 centimeters high (almost 4 ft) was carved sometime in the late 18th Century on the Austral Island of Rurutu in French Polynesia.
There is debate about which of the Rurutu gods this figure represents. This deity embodies the process of creating other gods and men. Thirty small figures he created cover the surface of his body. The figure itself is hollow. A removable panel on its back reveals a cavity that originally contained twenty-four small figures, which were removed and destroyed in 1882.
In his 1837 book, Missionary Enterprises, Evangelist Reverend John Williams gave the first written account of A’a. In August 1821, Williams and his colleague Lancelot Threlkeld (both were members of the London Missionary Society or LMS) were resident European missionaries in the chapel on Ra’iatea when A’a was handed over to the LMS. On August 9, 1821 Reverend John Williams gave the following account of that day, “After an absence of little more than a month, we had the pleasure of seeing the boat return [to Ra‘iatea], laden with the trophies of victory, the gods of the heathen taken in this bloodless war, and won by the power of the Prince of Peace… A meeting was held in our large chapel to communicate the delightful intelligence to our people, and to return thanks to God for the success with which he had graciously crowned our first effort to extend the knowledge of his name… In the course of the evening, the rejected idols were publicly exhibited from the pulpit. One in particular, A’a, the national god of Rurutu, excited considerable interest; for, in addition to his being bedecked with little gods outside, a door was discovered at his back; on opening which, he was found to be full of small gods; and no less than twenty-four were taken out, one after another, and exhibited to public view. He is said to be the ancestor by whom their island was peopled, and who after death was deified.”
A snippet of history
The Missionary Society was founded in London in 1795. The following year in 1796, the Society started sending missionaries to the South Pacific. In 1818, the Missionary Society changed its name to The London Missionary Society and declared: “our goals are not to promote any particular denomination of Protestantism, but rather to propagate the Christian gospel among the heathen, to bring “light” to “darkness” and to save those poor souls.” One of the accomplishments of these Missionaries’ early work was the public destruction of the Polynesian Idols. In a letter dated February 19, 1816 by Tahitian Chief Pomare II (who reigned from 1803-1824. He converted to Christianity in 1815), he writes: “If you think proper, you may burn them all in the fire; or, if you like, send them to your country, for the inspection of the people of Europe, that they may satisfy their curiosity, and know Tahiti’s foolish Gods!”
Triumph over idolatry
The missionaries realized that if preserved, Pomare’s idols would be undeniable proof of their triumph over idolatry. They jumped on this extraordinary opportunity and sent the idols to England, where along with Pomare II’s letter, they were featured prominently in the third issue of Missionary Sketches that appeared in October, 1818. As reported in this church pamphlet, the appearance of these idols in London prompted the London Missionary Society to encourage their display for purposes of “instructive contemplation.”
By 1821, a series of missionary stations had been established throughout the Society Islands. Each was manned by one or two missionaries with their wives and children. They were supported in their work by local deacons and recently converted teachers, whose role proved critical in the eventual Christian conversion of islander populations throughout many parts of the Pacific. They erected chapels, established schools, and distributed printed material, mainly from a printing press set up on Moorea in 1817. The costs of the missions were offset by local contributions of refined coconut oil, arrowroot and other products shipped back to England to be sold on behalf of the London Missionary Society. These offerings were strongly endorsed by missionaries and converts alike as an integral part of the local religious practice.
From anonymity to celebrity
In 1822, A’a was sent back to the London Missionary Society collection in London. The missionaries used the figure as a visual aid while they traveled around the country talking about their work and soliciting funds to further missionary work. A’a was evidence of what “pagan” people did without western religion, just as their cultures and art were regarded as “primitive” by western standards.
In 1890, the London Missionary Society Museum lent a significant amount of its holdings (including A’a) to the British Museum. The cost of maintaining the London Missionary Society Museum put a great strain on their finances. Around 1910, the British Museum authorized Messrs Brucciani & Co. to make casts of A’a from molds. Then in 1911, A’a was sold to the British Museum, where it has remained ever since. In 1912, the Bishop Museum in Hawaii ordered a cast, then so did the Dominion Museum in Wellington New Zealand. After that, several other casts were sold to Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Harvard University and Auckland, New Zealand. Subsequently, Roland Penrose, an English artist, historian and poet best known for his exhibitions and books over the work of Picasso, purchased a cast.
In the 1950s, Picasso saw this cast in Penrose’s studio and fell in love with it. He immediately wanted one and ordered a cast of A’a. A photograph of Picasso in his studio La Californie in Cannes, France, taken by Edward Quinn circa 1960, shows the cast. Moreover, Henry Moore, the greatest English sculptor of the twentieth century, ordered a plaster cast in the early 1970s that he cast in bronze. Moore placed the bronze A’a in the hall of his house, where it could be viewed from the long sitting room. Moore felt A’a was so powerful that it was difficult to find an appropriate place in his house to put it. My dear friend, Hermione Waterfield, commissioned a cast from the Cast Department at the British Museum. She very generously donated A’a to the people of Rurutu for the hospitality they so kindly offered her when she visited the island in 1983. She personally told me that the “two dozen small bodies on A’a had to be cast separately, which was extremely difficult and time consuming”
Laurance Alexander Rudzinoff
Air Tahiti Nui Brand Ambassador, Cultural Attaché, Writer and International Art Dealer specializing in twentieth century masters, Laurance Rudzinoff views the incredible ancient Polynesian artifacts as Ambassadors from our Islands. After all, they promote good will and interest in our islands, which is an important part of an ambassador’s duties. Starting with this edition and for each of the next issues, Laurance Rudzinoff will teach us about a different Polynesian Ambassador on display around the world.