Originally much taller, this housepost now has only the dynamic figurative element from its base. These figures were intended to impress visitors and radiate the prestige of the community. The post would have supported the ridge beam of an exquisitely carved meeting house (whare whakairo). Symbolically, the house represents a primal ancestor, with the poutokomanawa figure holding up its metaphorical backbone. The head is carved in exceptional scale to the body, reflecting the Polynesian belief in the head as the centre of personal power and the spiritual force, known as mana. The body demonstrates a mastery of figurative sculpture with a strongly arched back and flowing arms, atop powerful legs.
The figure has boldly incised surface design to the shoulders and buttocks, representing tattoo patterns (moko). The realistic face is a form of portraiture, as the tattoo patterns indicate an unnamed warrior chief whose hair is tightly bound in a topknot. Raharuhi Rukupo was a celebrated tohunga whakairo carver-priest of the period and leader of the Gisborne or Turanga school of carving. He was also an accomplished warrior in his youth and in later years was involved in the land wars of 1845–72.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008
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