Handle for a Fly Whisk (Tahiri), 18th century or earlier
Maohi (Tahitian) people, Tahiti, French Polynesia
Whale ivory, fiber; H. 11 3/4 in. (27.9 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1965 (1978.412.875)
Comparable to the crown jewels of European monarchies, this ivory fly whisk handle was once owned by the Tahitian royal family. In the late eighteenth century, it likely belonged to the chief Tu-nui-e-a-i-te-atua, who united Tahiti and neighboring islands under his rule in 1791, taking the name of Pomare I. The handle was among a group of objects sent by his successor, Pomare II, a recent Christian convert, to the missionary Thomas Haweis in 1818.
Fly whisks in Tahiti were functional objects, used to prevent insects from alighting on people or food. However, finely crafted examples such as this also served as marks of social status. The present work is constructed entirely of openwork sections of whale ivory, an extremely valuable material that was typically restricted to individuals of chiefly rank. The base is adorned with a stylized human figure (ti'i), while the whisk, which would have consisted of feathers or fiber, was formerly attached to the upper end.