Fly Whisk (Tahiri [?]), early to mid–19th century
Probably Rurutu or Tupua'i, Austral Islands, French Polynesia
Wood, fiber, human hair; H. 32 in. (81.3 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.1487)
Artists in the Austral Islands created delicate fly whisks with handles adorned with stylized human figures, which likely portray deities, ancestors, or other supernatural beings. This work portrays two highly stylized male figures who share a single teardrop-shaped body. The peglike projections on the foreheads probably represent the ornamental topknots of hair formerly worn by Austral Island men.
Finely crafted fly whisks, such as this one, though functional also likely served as symbols of chiefly status. Tipped with brushlike bundles of fiber, they may have been employed, like ordinary fly whisks, to keep insects from alighting on food, humans, or objects. However, the brush in some examples includes pieces of shell, which rattle when in use and would have been painful if struck against the skin. Thus it is possible these objects served as ceremonial rattles, used to clear supernatural rather than physical impurities from sacred people, objects, or places.