Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Fly Whisk (Tahiri)

early to mid-19th century
French Polynesia, Austral Islands
Austral Islanders
Wood, fiber, human hair
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:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 353
Artists of the Austral Islands created delicate fly whisks with handles adorned with stylized human figures that likely portray ancestors or other supernatural beings. This work depicts two highly stylized male figures who share a single teardrop-shaped body. The peg-like projections on the foreheads likely represent the ornamental topknots of hair formerly worn by Austral Islands 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.
[Julius Carlebach Gallery, New York, until 1958]; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1958, on permanent loan to The Museum of Primitive Art, 1958–1978

Aitken, Robert T. "Ethnology of Tubuai." Bernice P. Bishop Museum Bulletin vol. 70 (1930).

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. 17.

The 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: The American Federation of Arts, 1974, no. 107.

Hooper, Steven. "Double-Figure Fly Whisk Handles from the Austral Islands." Arts and Cultures vol. 2 (2001).

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. 180, pp. 299–300.

Kjellgren, Eric. How to Read Oceanic Art. How to Read 3. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014, p. 146.

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