The presence of this figure is undeniable. With eyes open he appears to watch people around him with a calm, priestly stillness. His face is almost perfect, for his moko (face tattoo) is incised clearly and finely over most of his features, and his lips are tattooed.
His face is naturalistic and carved in a very different style to his body. The finely chiselled moko is that of a specific person, most likely an ancestor. Part of the moko on the figure’s right cheek has been deliberately left unfinished. Blade marks are visible on the back of his remaining ear, and these have been softened by rubbing, probably the result of people caressing the figure over a number of years. His mouth has been carved with such sensitivity that the figure appears about to speak—truly the work of an exceptional carver.
This figure has been attributed to the nineteenth-century master sculptor Raharuhi Rukupo, who worked in the Manutuke district about 10 kilometres south-west of Turanga. The carving style is from the region around Turanga (today Gisborne), and the Ngāti Kaipoho people were the most noted carvers in that region from the early to mid-nineteenth century.
Originally this figure supported a house post that once rose from the back of his head. He would have stood in the centre of a whare nui (meeting house), which symbolised a significant ancestor of the people who owned the house.
Michael Gunn, Senior Curator, Pacific Arts
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014