The Pacific god A’a

What is it?

This divine sculpture was made on Rurutu, one of the Austral Islands in Polynesia. When it was given to British missionaries in 1821, its name was recorded as A’a. A’a was said to have been named after the ancestor who founded the island of Rurutu and who, after death, had been deified.

IMAGE: © Trustees of the British Museum TEXT: Julie Adams.

The sculpture is 117cm tall and covered in 30 small figures that represent various features, such as the eyes, nose, and mouth of A’a. The sculpture also has a large internal cavity accessed via a detachable panel on its back. Recent wood analysis has shown A’a was carved from sandalwood. As sandalwood is not endemic to Rurutu, it must have been traded in from a neighbouring island. The wood’s scent, which acts as an insect repellent, may have been factor in its selection.

Where was it found, and when?

In 1821, islanders from Rurutu made the decision to convert to Christianity, and arranged for A’a to be sailed approximately 350 miles north to the island of Ra’iatea, where British missionaries from the London Missionary Society had established a base. A’a was surrendered as evidence of the islanders’ conversion.

Missionaries had initially encouraged islanders to burn their gods as a means of demonstrating their commitment to Christianity. Subsequently, however, they realised the benefit of preserving them, as evidence of their own success. From Ra’iatea, A’a was sent to England and exhibited in the London Missionary Society’s museum until 1890, when it was transferred into the British Museum’s collections.

Why does it matter?

Due to the huge cultural upheaval wrought by European missionisation, few Polynesian god images survive today. Despite sharing some of the physical characteristics of other known carvings, A’a is unique. In order to try to better understand how, when, and why A’a was made, British Museum curators recently undertook a number of investigations. Wood samples were removed from inside A’a’s cavity to be radiocarbon dated. The tests show that A’a was probably made in the 16th century, significantly earlier than previously thought. These results reveal that the figure was already a treasured ancient artefact at the point it was given up to missionaries. This early date also has significant implications for our understandings of the art history of the Pacific region, suggesting that important pieces such as A’a were carefully preserved and could survive over many decades.

During the process of removing the wood samples, a small red feather was noticed, caught on a splinter inside the cavity. The feather was taken to the Natural History Museum, where it was identified as being from a Kuhl’s lorikeet (Vini kuhlii), now an endangered species. Red feathers were among the most valuable and sacred materials in Polynesia, and were associated with the divine. This reveals that whatever was stored inside A’a’s hollow interior was of the highest value to islanders. Curators believe that the figure would have originally been made to hold the bones of an important ancestor; the small red feather may have been part of their wrappings.

Since entering the collections of the British Museum the extraordinary life story of this figure has continued. It has inspired famous artists, such as Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore, while in the 1930s the poet William Empson made A’a the focus of his poem ‘Homage to the British Museum’.

For the current exhibition, a 3D scan of the figure was created which can be explored online at www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/containing_the_divine.aspx

SEE FOR YOURSELF
A’a is on show at the British Museum until 30 May 2016 in the
Asahi Shimbun Display Containing the Divine: a sculpture of the Pacific
god A’a. The allied book, A’a: a deity from Polynesia (£6) by J Adams,
S Hooper, and M Nuku, is available from the British Museum itself or from www.britishmuseumshoponline.org