Maori standing figure
In the early 1990s I travelled as a young Maori museum worker to the Field Museum in Chicago, where I encountered a large number of Maori taonga (treasures). I had ambivalence and conflicting emotions, as encountering these ancestral treasures in a distant land evoked a great sense of awe and respect for their artistic beauty and mana (power), yet sadness knowing that they had been separated and disconnected from their descendants and landscape. Working on the restoration of the Ruatepupuke carved meeting house in Chicago, I personally experienced how the spirit was uplifted when its descendants reconnected and readorned Ruatepupuke.
I first came across this treasure, often described as a ‘free-standing’ figure, when I participated at the opening of the Pacific Encounters exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre in 2006. He represents an important ancestor in the Maori world. I often think about who created these treasures, for whom, and what role and purpose they fulfilled in their time. Although the journey of this taonga has taken him to distant places, one thing is certain: he has a whakapapa (genealogy), he would have been named, and he would have been an important ancestor for his people back in Aotearoa, or New Zealand.
My inspiration when seeing taonga like this is to know that they don’t remain hidden and unknown. Maori identity is being revitalised and these treasures are becoming vital symbols in this dynamic process. Reconnecting a hidden treasure such as this with his people can only enhance his mana – as he stands beside and communicates with other ancestors in the Sainsbury Centre gallery.
Facts & figures
Free-standing male figure. Polynesia, New Zealand, North Island, East Coast: Maori. Late 18th/early 19th century. . Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection. UEA 178.
Silver or silver alloy. h. 23.0 cm. Acquired 1962.
Other collection highlights
Sketch for a Portrait of Lisa, Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon’s first portrait of a woman and is also unusual in being painted from life, a practice that he soon abandoned in favour of painting from photographs
Mayan eccentric flint
A remarkable example of a Mayan knapped flint that reveals eight separate faces in profile, thought to have come from present-day Guatemala