Exhibitions/ Art Object
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Deity Figure (Zemí)

Date:
ca.1000
Geography:
Dominican Republic (?), Caribbean
Culture:
Taíno
Medium:
Wood (Guaiacum sp.), shell
Dimensions:
H. 27 x W. 8 5/8 x D. 9 1/8 in. (68.5 x 21.9 x 23.2cm)
Classification:
Wood-Sculpture
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Accession Number:
1979.206.380
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 358
Prior to the arrival of the Spanish in the late fifteenth century, the Taíno peoples who inhabited the Greater Antilles created distinctive art forms. Among the most striking of these are crouching, emaciated male figures clutching their knees; they have wide open, staring eyes and bared teeth, often inlaid with shell as seen here. Such figures—called zemí, or "idols" by the Taíno—represented deities including ancestors and forces of nature. This figure is thought to represent Boinayel, the Rain Giver; the grooves running from his eyes symbolize the magical tears that brought rain. Zemís were used in ceremonies that included the taking of cohoba, a hallucinogenic snuff that was placed on the plate on top of the zemí's head and inhaled through tubes. Private sellers were always a source of acquisitions for the increasingly well-known and growing Rockefeller collection. In 1954, a Londoner by the name of Edna Dakeyne wrote to René d'Harnoncourt offering for purchase her "Awarak rain-god." Edna Dakeyne had bought the figure, a seated, grimacing male figure, in the mid-1930s. She apparently bought the figure in Ireland, and thought the work to be "every bit as important as any piece of early Greek or Egyptian sculpture." Now culturally known as Taíno and no longer Awarak, the figure accompanies Edna in a portrait from about 1938 by the English painter Carel Weight.
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