Female Figure, early 19th century
Ha'apai Archipelago, Tonga
Whale ivory; H. 5 1/4 in. (13.3 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.1470)
The ivory figures of the Ha'apai Islands of Tonga probably represent female deities or prominent ancestors, for whom the figures served as vessels (vaka) in which the power of the divinity resided. Normally kept in shrines, many figures also have a hole in the back of the head or neck and were reportedly worn by high-ranking female chiefs as ornaments on important occasions. Created by artists in the Ha'apai Archipelago, some ivory figures were traded to neighboring Fiji, where this work was collected, where they also served as sacred images.
Artists created the rich patina of the figures by anointing them with coconut oil and smoking them over a fire fed with sugar cane or sweet tubers, imparting a golden hue to the surface that accentuates the natural grain of the ivory.