Date: early to mid-19th century
Geography: French Polynesia, Austral Islands
Culture: Austral Islanders
Medium: Wood, fiber, human hair
Dimensions: W. 5 1/8 x L. 32 in. (13 x 81.3 cm)
Credit Line: The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Accession Number: 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.
As well as being symbols of chiefly status, it is likely that such finely crafted fly whisks also served an important ritual function. Tipped with brushlike bundles of fiber, these artefacts were literally fanned or 'whisked' in bold gestural movements to attract the presence of gods. Several examples retain cut sections of polished pearlshell which rattled and caught the light in a bid to call ancestral gods across from the spiritual realm.