Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Handle for a Fly Whisk (Tahiri)

18th century
Tahiti, Society Islands
Maohi (Tahitian)
Ivory, coconut husk fiber
H. 1 5/8 x W. 1 3/8 x D. 11 3/4 in. (4.1 x 3.5 x 29.8 cm)
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Purchase, Nelson A. Rockefeller Gift, 1965
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 353
This elaborately carved ivory flywhisk 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 neighbouring islands under his rule in 1791, taking the name of Pomare I. This handle was among a group of objects sent by his son and successor - Pomare II - a recent Christian convert, to the missionary Thomas Haweis in 1818. Constructed entirely of cut sections of whale ivory which are bound at three points with finely plaited sections of coconut fiber cord, it is missing several plaited sections of coconut husk fiber which would have attached to its lower end to extend below in a tail or 'whisk'. It is commonly assumed that flywhisks were used to chase away flies from the food presented to chiefs on ritual occasions, a misconception reinforced, and then perpetuated, by early missionary observers who were resident on Tahiti from 1797 onward. Certainly flywhisks were important ritual regalia reserved for a chiefly elite but this focus on their likely practical function eclipses important cosmological aspects which were an equally crucial component of their construction.

Balanced on a wide collar at one end, a distinctive backward-arching figure infers a hollow space or canopy from which the central ivory stem extends in a series of openwork sections. The carving on each section is diverse, varying from angular sections with minimal intervention to more complex sections incorporating highly stylized figures that support each corner -- those with outstretched arms and legs give way to a series of simple incisions which indicate facial features on highly abstracted figures. Most striking is the largely uncarved tip which remains smooth, the final series of carved detail segueing into the creamy surface of the ivory.

Coveted for its rarity, whale teeth (known as ivories) were particularly potent. Whales were deemed to be the ata (shadow) or embodiment of Ta’aroa, the original creator god from whom all others derived. The bones and teeth of whales were therefore not merely symbolic or ornamental, they were relics infused with the essence and potency of Ta’aroa. Strong and lasting, they were his iho (or essence) made permanent. The bones of one were deemed to be the bones of all and in this way, the flywhisk handle worked metonymically to index the entire chiefly lineage and all its predecessors. Serial canopies painstakingly hollowed out along the length of the handle were therefore intended as a highly abstracted, visual expression of fundamental genealogical principles.


Nuku, Maia. "The family idols of Pomare" in K. Jacobs, C. Knowles and C. Wingfield (eds.), Trophies, Relics and Curios: Missionary Heritage from Africa and the Pacific. Leiden: Sidestone Press, 2015.

Published references

Nuku, Maia. "The family idols of Pomare" in K. Jacobs, C. Knowles and C. Wingfield (eds.), Trophies, Relics and Curios: Missionary Heritage from Africa and the Pacific. Leiden: Sidestone Press, 2015.

Nuku, Maia. "Unwrapping gods: illuminating gods, comets and missionaries in late 18th century Polynesia" in A. Craciun and S. Schaffer (eds.), The Material Cultures of Enlightenment Arts and Sciences. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
King Pomare II of Tahiti, until 1818; Rev. Thomas Haweis; [Maggs Bros., Ltd., London, until ca. 1958]; [Brooks Art Originals, Ltd., New Canaan, Conn., until 1965]; The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1965–1978

Wilson, William. A Missionary Voyage to the Southern Pacific Ocean, Performed in the Years 1796, 1797, 1798, in the Ship Duff, commanded by Captain James Wilson.. London: T. Gillet, 1799.

Wardwell, Allen. The Sculpture of Polynesia. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1967, no. 28, p. 32.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Art of Oceania, Africa, and the Americas from the Museum of Primitive Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1969, no. 18.

Barrow, Terence. Art and Life in Polynesia. Rutland, VT: C.E. Tuttle, 1972.

Oliver, Douglas L. Ancient Tahitian Society. Vol. 3 vols.. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1974.

Pelrine, Diane. Affinities of Form: Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas from the Raymond and Laura Wielgus Collection. Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1996.

Kjellgren, Eric. Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York and New Haven: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007, no. 179, pp. 297–298.

Kjellgren, Eric. "The Pacific Resurfaces: New Galleries for Oceanic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art." Tribal Art (Winter 2007–2008), p. 103, fig. 10.

Related Objects

Handle for a Fly Whisk (Tahiri)

Artist: Date: 18th century
Accession Number: 1978.412.875
Date: 18th century Medium: Ivory, coconut husk fiber Accession: 1978.412.875 On view in:Gallery 353