Creative sculptural expression for the Taíno peoples was intertwined with spirituality, ceremony, and political power. Spanish accounts describe how zemí figures were used as stands, reliquaries, or personal adornment. This particular zemí was likely used in ceremonies performed at prescribed times throughout the year involving a vegetal entheogen known as cohoba. A ground up hallucinogenic powder or paste would be placed on the top of the stand, and ceremonial participants would inhale the cohoba through snuff tubes. The effects of such ritual acts are visible in the zemí itself: the emaciated look of the figure may represent someone who had been fasting, and watering eyes would have accompanied the inhalation of such substances. The exceptional preservation of this zemí suggests that it was carefully housed and revered, perhaps passed down for centuries. Without evidence of burial, it is likely that the caretakers of this zemí eventually deposited this special figure in a cave; many of the surviving Taíno wooden sculptures have been recovered from cave contexts.
In 1954, Londoner Edna Dakeyne wrote to René d’Harnoncourt at The Museum of Primitive Art to offer the sculpture, which accompanies Edna in a 1938 portrait of her painted by English painter Carel Weight. A project in the UK documenting pre-Hispanic sculptural arts in various museum collections performed AMS radiocarbon dating on the Rockefeller zemí cohoba stand; data from the four dates and a Guaiacum growth model produced by the project yielded a range of the date of creation between A.D. 974–1020.
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Title:Zemí Cohoba Stand
Geography:Dominican Republic (?), Caribbean
Medium:Wood (Guaiacum sp.), shell
Dimensions:H. 27 x W. 8 5/8 x D. 9 1/8 in. (68.5 x 21.9 x 23.2cm)
Credit Line:The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Edna Dakeyne, London, mid-1930s–1955; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1955, on loan to The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1956–1978
Seattle Art Museum. "Primitive Art/Masterworks," January 5, 1975–February 16, 1975.
American Federation of Arts. "Primitive Art/Masterworks," January 5, 1975–May 15, 1977.
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. "Primitive Art/Masterworks," March 23, 1975–May 4, 1975.
Dallas Museum of Art. "Primitive Art/Masterworks," June 8, 1975–July 20, 1975.
Art Institute of Chicago. "Primitive Art/Masterworks," August 25, 1975–October 10, 1975.
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. "Primitive Art/Masterworks," November 9, 1975–December 21, 1975.
Toledo Museum of Art. "Primitive Art/Masterworks," April 11, 1976–May 25, 1976.
Walker Art Center. "Primitive Art/Masterworks," June 27, 1976–August 8, 1976.
Denver Art Museum. "Primitive Art/Masterworks," September 10, 1976–November 7, 1976.
de Young Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. "Primitive Art/Masterworks," March 12, 1977–May 15, 1977.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Nelson Rockefeller Vision: In Pursuit of 'The Best' in the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas," October 7, 2013–October 9, 2014.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Arte del mar: Artistic Exchange in the Caribbean," December 16, 2019–June 27, 2021.
Museum of Primitive Art. Masterpieces in the Museum of Primitive Art: Africa, Oceania, North America, Mexico, Central to South America, Peru. Handbook series. New York, NY: Museum of Primitive Art, 1965, no. 73.
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. 537.
American Federation of Arts. Primitive Art Masterworks: an exhibition jointly organized by the Museum of Primitive Art and the American Federation of Arts, New York. New York: American Federation of Arts, 1974, no. 23.
Newton, Douglas. Masterpieces of Primitive Art: The Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978, p. 159.
Newton, Douglas, Julie Jones, and Kate Ezra. The Pacific Islands, Africa, and the Americas: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987, pp. 132–3, no. 97.
Paz, Octavio. Art millénaire des Amériques de la découverte a l'admiration, 1492–1992. Paris: Arthaud, 1992, p. 39, fig. 15.
Kerchache, Jacques, and Christian Duverger. "L'art Taíno-- les grandes Antilles precolombiennes." Connaissance des Arts (Special Issue) vol. 50 (1994), pp. 25, 26.
"Chefs-d'oeuvre des Grandes Antilles précolombiennes." In L'Art des Sculpteurs Taíno. Paris, 1994, pp. 114–117.
Avec les Indiens Taínos: Chlidren's guide no. 5. Paris: Musée du Petit Palais, 1994, cover.
Ostapkowicz, Joanna, Alex Wiedenhoeft, Christopher Bronk Ramsey, Erika Ribechini, Samuel Wilson, Fiona Brock, and Tom Higham. "'Treasures...of black wood, brilliantly polished': Five examples of Taíno sculpture from the tenth–sixteenth century Caribbean." Antiquity vol. 85 (2011), p. 945, fig. 2.
LaGamma, Alisa. "The Nelson Rockefeller Vision: In Pursuit of the Best in the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 72 (2014), p. 6.
Doyle, James. "Arte del Mar: Art of the Early Caribbean." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 77, no. 3 (Winter 2020), cover; pp. 22–23, figs. 22, 23.
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