Sacred Gods from Polynesia come to the National Gallery

ANCIENT Polynesia, According to the Senior Curator, Pacific Art at the National Gallery of Australia, Michael Gunn, remains one of the great mysteries of human migration.

Groups of people sailing on double-hulled canoes eventually made their way out from the edges of the Western Pacific and found islands in the middle of the ocean, thousands of kilometres away.

Warrior Chief Te Rauparaha

Warrior Chief Te Rauparaha, fixed in his canoe Maori Aotearoa New Zealand, southern Polynesia c 1835 wood 43.5 x 50 x 32.5 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Polynesian people reached Tonga and Samoa in Western Polynesia 3000 years ago bringing with them their atua–their gods–and their art traditions, part of their cultural knowledge developed over thousands of years.

During a later period of long-distance sailing around 1200 years ago, the navigators found the islands we know today as the Cook Islands, the Society Islands including Tahiti, and the Marquesas Islands. From the Marquesas, in the 14th century, they found found Hawaii to the north, Aotearoa New Zealand to the south, and Rapa Nui Easter Island to the east.

Head of a Rarotongan

Head of a Rarotongan Atua Rarotonga, Cook Islands, central Polynesia probably 18th century or earlier wood 72.5 cm Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge University

Now its new exhibition” Atua: sacred gods from Polynesia,” the NGA has negotiated loans from more than 30 museum collections around the world. The British Museum is lending unique Hawaiian god figures and the Kunstkamera in St Petersburg is lending their precious Easter Island bird man. The Vatican Ethnological Museum is lending their great god Tu from Mangareva. Museums in Zurich, Geneva, and Paris are all lending their prized Polynesian pieces.

The exhibition explores the relationship between atua and art, between spirits and sculpture, between gods and priests, between women and men. It looks at some of the most unique works of art in the Polynesian world and tries to make sense of an enduring mystery surrounding religious objects and their association with belief in gods.

Gunn says that in developing this exhibition the NGA has worked with Polynesian colleagues in Tahiti, the Cook Islands and Hawaii, helping us to understand the Polynesian viewpoint on atua and on the many subtle aspects of the relationships between atua and art objects.

“Atua: Sacred gods from Polynesia,” at the National Gallery of Australia, daily until August 3.

The book “Atua: sacred gods from Polynesia” will be available at the NGA Shop for $39.95 and selected bookstores nationally for $49.95.

Fisherman's god

Fisherman’s god, or ‘Oramatua’ Rarotonga, Cook Islands, central Polynesia late 18th – early 19th century wood, black paint 33 x 15.5 x 14 cm British Museum, London © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

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