Fly Whisk (Tahiri)

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)

Classification: Wood-Implements

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.