Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Masterpieces of Old Polynesia - Superb Maori Figure - Private Collection

Polynesian Resource Center

Roger Neich believed this intricately detailed figure more than likely decorated the side of a gourd or hue and localised the carving to the Rougowkakaata tribal style, around where present-day Gisborne now stands. It emerges from a vertical curved panel which is why Neich plumbed for a gourd decoration, a seated tiki figure with finely carved facial moko, the eyes inset with black lip oyster shell. It stands only 14cm or 5 1/2 inches tall, and perhaps it is this diminutive size that allowed the carver to abandon standard representations of male figures and create such an unusual figure. Unfortunately Sotheby's who sold the work in their New York Salerooms in May of 2007 for 57,000 USD only published an frontal image though Neich must have seen other photographs. It came from the Saul and Marsha Stanoff Collection, and once again the taste of Jewish collectors proves to be superb.

The image however is in high resolution which fails to reveal red ochre though I feel quite strongly it will be there, as it just seems too good a carving not to serve a purpose beyond mere decoration for a gourd. However, having said that I do not want to sound dismissive of its functional use as the gourd would have been carved as well and was no doubt superb. There is a reference in the catalogue to the Te Hau ki Turanga meeting house in Te Papa Museum; the National Museum of New Zealand which is from the same region, and in which I spent a happy hour in only last week. The implication is that this carving dates from the same period, but I am not so sure. Te Hau ki Turanga is one of the oldest surviving Maori meeting houses and was carved by Raharuri Rukupo in the early 1840s. However, I wonder if this carving is not earlier, there is something about the finish that suggests so. The spirals on the nose always give a good indication of a Maori carvers skill, and these are very fine. It is true the patina resembles that of many good early 19th century taiaha, but still in my mind there is a question mark as to its age.

Polynesian Resource Center

Originally Maori carved with bone or greenstone chisels, then when Cook arrived trade developed for iron nails which Maori quickly discovered made fair sort of chisels for fine work, which eventually were replaced with fine English carbon steel chisels, but these probably did not reach some areas till quite late. Some craftsmen are of course conservative and continued to use stone or bone chisels. The body of the piece is deep and rounded, highly three dimensional, the shoulders and upper arms strong and plastic. If we compare each side of the face separately the moko or facial carving is very individualistic from one side to the other. It is tempting to imagine that the carver had an image of a moko which he took from life. As a guess I would suggest this carving is ancestral rather than representing a God.



Polynesian Resource Center

Finally this carving is unique and it is a pity that it not come down to us intact, but then old surviving gourds are rare.

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