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by Entwistle on 17 April 2018

A rare and remarkable whalebone ivory figurine from the Tongan islands was one of the highlights of our recent participation at TEFAF Maastricht...

Entwistle recently exhibited this rare and important 19th  century ivory female figurine from the Tongan peoples of the Ha’apai Islands of Polynesia. It is one of the most sensitive interpretations of the female form in the art of the South Pacific – the subtlety with which the artist has captured the balance of volumes and sensuous contours in this idealized portrait of femininity is remarkable.

The figurine, made from sperm whale Ivory (Physeter microcephalus), can arguably be compared to an acclaimed sculpture of the female form from antiquity – between 28,000 and 25,000 BCE - known as ‘The Venus of Willendorf’, found on a site near Willendorf, a village in Lower Austria, and carved from oolitic limestone; with this figure, it shares the joyous, perhaps indulgent, contemplation of the most womanly of physical attributes as the uninhibited modelling of voluptuous modelling elevates the figure to a devotional exclamation.

The figurine, formerly in the collection of Jean-Claude Bellier, Paris, is the only known example still in private hands, with another seven figurines all in institutional collections, among them the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the British Museum, London and the Weltmuseum, Vienna. The only two twined figurines known to exist are at the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (CMAA).

With its rich ivory-amber patina, the figurine stands on two wide feet incised with the detail of toes and firmly planted on a semi-oval base. The powerful calves taper at the top to display the fold behind the knees. The wide hips and buttocks are emblematic of the fertility goddess, Hikule’o, an important deity connected with harvest and fertility with which these figures are often associated.

As the hips converge near the female sex, the graceful, slightly distended abdomen emerges with a most delicate umbilicus at its centre. The great naturalism of the small and youthful breasts are echoed in their curvature by the broad and softly squared shoulders above them. A small hole for suspension was drilled through the nape of the neck, suggesting the figure was worn as a pendant.

The delicately rounded head displays a countenance that tapers from the expansive forehead to the chin; its rudimentary features exhibit incised eyebrows that converge on a straight nasal element, which, in turn, flares to perforated nostrils. The suggestion of ocular features is rendered by subtle marks while a single horizontal incision marks the presence of the mouth, imparting a rather sombre air on the expression of the figurine. C-form auricular features face forward in attentiveness.

The figurine, measuring only 12.8 cm, was probably carved by a Tongan carver, or tufunga fonolei, more than 200 years ago. It was previously believed that before the arrival of the Christian missionaries, the islanders paid reverence to a range of gods and goddesses through small figures such as this; these figures are now thought to represent important female ancestors.

As the missionaries settled in the Tongan Islands in the early 1800s, these figurines were often destroyed or desecrated as such sculptures were seen as 'graven images.' Sometimes - for instance in the archipelago's main island, Tongatapu - new forms of worship developed combining Christian practice with older Tongan practices. In addition, a number of Tongan ivories were traded to the neighboring Fiji islands, where they were used during religious rites.


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