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.
Edna Dakeyne, London, mid-1930s–1955; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1955, on loan to The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1956–1978
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Art of Oceania, Africa, and the Americas from the Museum of Primitive Art. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1969, no. 537.
The American Federation of Arts. Primitive Art Masterworks: an exhibition jointly organized by the Museum of Primitive Art and the American Federation of Arts, New York. New York: The American Federation of Arts, 1974, no. 23.
Newton, Douglas. Masterpieces of Primitive Art: The Nelson A. Rockefeller Collection. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978, p. 159.
Newton, Douglas, Julie Jones, and Kate Ezra. The Pacific Islands, Africa, and the Americas. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987, no. 97, pp. 132–3.
Paz, Octavio. Art millénaire des Amériques de la découverte a l'admiration, 1492–1992. Paris: Arthaud, 1992, p. 39, fig. 15.
Ostapkowicz, Joanna, Alex Wiedenhoeft, Christopher Bronk Ramsey, Erika Ribechini, Samuel Wilson, Fiona Brock, and Tom Higham. "'Treasures...of black wood, brilliantly polished': Five examples of Taíno sculpture from the tenth–sixteenth century Caribbean." Antiquity vol. 85 (2011), p. 945, fig. 2.
LaGamma, Alisa. "The Nelson Rockefeller Vision: In Pursuit of the Best in the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin Vol. 72 (2014), p. 6.