For every sculptural atua that escaped the iconoclasm of Polynesia’s missionary period, hundreds if not thousands were broken apart or set on fire, says Michael Gunn, senior curator for Pacific Art from the National Gallery of Australia and organizing curator of Atua: Sacred Gods from Polynesia.
Female figure, from the collection of the Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde in Munich, is one such atua.
According to the exhibition catalogue, the sculpture is one of very few works from Aitutaki in the Cook Islands to escape an 1820s destruction of idols instigated, in part, by the London Missionary Society. One of the group’s leaders, the Rev. John Williams, recalled years later that Female figure was one of 31 “gods and bundles of gods” that “were carried in triumph to the boat; and we came off to the vessel with the trophies of our bloodless conquest, ‘rejoicing as one that findesh great spoil.'”
Made from wood and paint, Female figure is good condition, with no evidence of damage stemming from this turbulent period. According to the catalogue:
She was most likely the image of an ancestor, for the painted markings may represent body tattoos. The sides of her body are carved in relief with a zigzag line and her body emphasises geometric relationships, with its squared shoulders and raised rectangular breasts. The arms emerge from the sides to rest their three-fingered hands just below the breasts and well above the navel, unlike almost all other Polynesian figures on which the hands are placed on either side of the navel. In profile, the figure is pear shaped, with the bulk of the torso expressed lower down, perhaps indicating that the woman depicted was in middle age.