Whale ivory figurines, from the Ha’apai Islands of Tonga have a sculptural power that belies their modest scale. Almost exclusively female, the images are referred to as known as ’otua fefine, a term used to describe prominent female ancestors who were venerated as divine beings.
This striking example was carved from the creamy core of the polished tooth of a sperm whale. The figure’s honey-colored patina was achieved by smoking the figure over smoldering sugary tubers from the ti plant (Cordyline fruticose) and then rubbing with oil. Not only did this accentuate the ivory’s natural grain (giving it a rich reddish color which was an important element of its aesthetic), the resulting shimmer of the surface conveyed something of the essence of divine, sacred light. The creator of this remarkable carving worked the material to spectacular effect, choosing to align the grain of the whale ivory at the center of the figure so that fine concentric circles emanate out from the figure’s knees and navel and embellish the lower part of her face. Carefully worked incisions create a series of raised ridges which delineate facial details including her eyebrows, a pair of closed eyes and neatly executed nose. The small, partially closed mouth adds to the overall impression of calm serenity and repose.
The figure is robust with a strong physique and rounded breasts, the triangular head prominent and well-defined with a strong chin that juts out dramatically over her neck and shoulders. Her strong arms and flattened palms frame her body, containing the forces of vital energy within her. The gently flexing stance is typical of the carving style of the Ha’apai Islands, at the center of the Tongan archipelago. The natural contour of the original whale tooth can be determined by the angle of the figure’s compact body as she tips gently to the left. A small whale ivory peg in the left hand arm is an original repair from several centuries ago. Wrapped in barkcloth (smeared with yellow turmeric or red ochre), the figures were secreted away with other sacred objects in specially constructed fiber god houses which acted as small shrines. When activated with ritual chants in ceremony, they served as dynamic channels – a vessel (or vaka) through which the spirits of the ancestral gods could pass. Many, like this one, have a suspension hole in the back of the head or neck, which would allow for a suspension cord of plaited coconut fiber so that they could be worn on ceremonial occasions by chiefly women as prestige ornaments, either as single pendants or as an element of a larger necklace.
Ivory figures were venerated as sacred objects in the Ha’apai Islands as well as in Fiji, where this example was collected in 1868. There are sixteen of these single whale ivory female figures extant in the world. Their stylistic features show strong affinities with wood figures from Ha’apai, but differ greatly from known examples of Fijian sculpture, indicating that they were almost certainly created in the Ha’apai group and subsequently traded to Fiji. Polynesian islanders did not hunt whales but waited for chance strandings on the reef where they would follow appropriate protocols before going out to harvest and distribute the individual ivories collected. Whale teeth continue to be highly valued and prestigious items today.
Maia Nuku, 2020 Evelyn A. J. Hall and John A. Friede Associate Curator for Oceanic Art
Published Kjellgren, Eric. Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, pp. 287-9, no. 172. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007
Kjellgren, Eric. How to Read Oceanic Art, pp. 146-9, no. 35. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014
Nuku, Maia. ATEA: Nature and Divinity in Polynesia. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Winter 2019, p. 12-3.
Exhibited Newton, Douglas. The Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection: Masterpieces of Primitive Art. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.
Further Reading Niech, Roger. ‘Tongan figures: from goddesses to missionary trophies to masterpieces’, The Journal of the Polynesian Society Vol. 116, No. 2 (JUNE 2007), pp. 213-268
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Title:Female figure (’otua fefine)
Date:Early 19th century
Geography:Tonga, Ha'apai Islands
Dimensions:H. 5 1/4 in. × W. 2 in. × D. 1 1/2 in. (13.3 × 5.1 × 3.8 cm)
Credit Line:The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Collected by Cyril G. Hawdon, Viti Levu, Fiji, in 1868; [John J. Klejman, New York, until 1957]; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1957, on loan to The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1957–1978
Museum of Primitive Art. "Masterpieces from the South Seas in the Collection of the MOPA," May 19, 1965–October 3, 1965.
Museum of Primitive Art. "The World of Primitive Art," July 12, 1966–September 11, 1966.
El Paso Museum of Art. "One World," March 12, 1968–May 12, 1968.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Art of Oceania, Africa and the Americas from The Museum of Primitive Art," May 10–August 17, 1969.
Museum of Primitive Art. "Sculpture of Oceania," March 31, 1971–September 12, 1971.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Sculpture of Oceania," April 4–September 5, 1972.
Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego. "Dimensions of Polynesia," October 7–November 25, 1973.
American Federation of Arts. "Primitive Art/Masterworks," January 5, 1975–May 15, 1977.
Seattle Art Museum. "Primitive Art/Masterworks," January 5, 1975–February 16, 1975.
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.
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. "The Art of the Pacific Islands," Sunday, July 1, 1979 - Sunday, October 14, 1979.
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.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Atea: Nature and Divinity in Polynesia," November 19, 2018–October 27, 2019.
Larsson, Karl Erik. Fijian Studies. Ethnologiska Studier, Vol. vol. 25. Göteborg: Etnografiska Museet, Statens Museer för Världskultur, Stockholm, 1960, p. 71.
Archey, Gilbert. "The Art Forms of Polynesia." Auckland Institute & Museum Bulletin vol. 4 (1965).
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. 58.
Wardwell, Allen. The Sculpture of Polynesia. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1967, p. 18, no. 12.
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. 24.
Barrow, Terence. Art and Life in Polynesia. Rutland, VT: C.E. Tuttle, 1972, p. 70.
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. 106.
Kaeppler, Adrienne L. Artificial Curiosities: Being an Exposition of Native Manufactures Collected on the Three Pacific Voyages of Captain James Cook on the Occasion of the European Discovery of the Hawaiian Islands by Captain Cook. Bernice P. Bishop Museum Special Publication, Vol. vol. 65. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1978.
Newton, Douglas. Masterpieces of Primitive Art: The Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978, p. 106.
Gathercole, P., Adrienne L. Kaeppler, and Douglas Newton. The Art of the Pacific Islands. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1979.
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, pp. 287–88, no. 172.
Kjellgren, Eric. "The Pacific Resurfaces: New Galleries for Oceanic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art." Tribal Art (Winter 2007–2008), p. 103, fig. 9.
Niech, Roger. "Tongan figures: from goddesses to missionary trophies to masterpieces." The Journal of the Polynesian Society vol. 116, no. 2 (June 2007), pp. 213–68.
Kjellgren, Eric. How to Read Oceanic Art. How to Read 3. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014, pp. 147–49, no. 35.
Nuku, Maia. "Atea: Nature and Divinity in Polynesia." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin vol. 76, no. 3 (Winter 2019), pp. 12–13, fig. 8.
Nuku, Maia. Oceania: The Shape of Time. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2023, pp. 166–167, pl. 106.
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