Fly Whisk (Tahiri), Austral Islands

Fly Whisk (Tahiri), Austral Islands, early to mid-19th century, wood, fiber, and human hair, 13 x 81.3 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979.206.1487). Speakers: Dr. Maia Nuku, Evelyn A. J. Hall and John A. Friede Associate Curator for Oceanic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Dr. Steven Zucker

Ignore the Western name—spinning this object opened a channel of communication between ancestral and human realms.

Additional resources:

This work at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Oceania on The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”Tahiri,”]

More Smarthistory images…

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:00] We’re in the Oceanic Galleries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at a fly whisk.

Dr. Maia Nuku: [0:11] These have been classed as fly whisks in museums, but in fact, this is not something that would be used to swat flies. It has far too many sacred components, these elements of human hair, very intricately plaited and then used to make these bindings along with the coconut cord fiber.

Dr. Zucker: [0:33] This is using both human hair and the red fiber, which is from the coconut. They’re intertwined, and that’s an important spiritual indicator.

Dr. Nuku: [0:36] These are used as a means to encourage the presence of divinity during ritual practice on a sacred precinct, in an island group called the Austral Islands, which is roughly 700 kilometers south of Tahiti. They’re composed of this single figure at the top, which is usually described as being Janus-headed.

Dr. Zucker: [0:56] That’s a little misleading, because the god Janus is a Greco-Roman two-faced god. What we’re seeing here is this beautiful abstract form that is, in fact, doubled. But if this was spun, you would see a multiplication of that figure.

Dr. Nuku: [1:12] The way that its feet are placed, you can see, is a sculptural cue to indicate that this is a single figure that may have been turning.

Dr. Zucker: [1:20] I see it. In fact, I see more than four feet. I think I see eight feet.

Dr. Nuku: [0:00] That’s right.

Dr. Zucker: [1:26] The discs just below it, it’s almost as if you’re seeing those feet having been spun.

Dr. Nuku: [1:40] The term “tahiri” refers to the word “to spin,” or turn, or twist. In fact, these would have been spun or whisked in this rapid motion, encouraging that idea of a vortex to create a channel down which a god or divine principle could arrive.

Dr. Zucker: [1:46] I love that idea of the vortex, a whirlpool that literally draws the gods down into our world.

Dr. Nuku: [1:52] There are two basic realms within the cosmological framework for Polynesia. One is the “Ao,” which is the world of light and life. That is a realm in which humans reside. “Po” is the complementary realm that sits across this very potent threshold. That is a place of darkness where ancestors and spirits are believed to reside.

[2:18] What these are doing are creating a channel of communication with the gods who reside in that realm. You’re wanting to draw them down into the world of light and life so that you can engage with them and contract with them.

Dr. Zucker: [2:33] Would it be going too far to see the intertwining of the dark hair and the light coconut fiber as the mixing of these two realms?

Dr. Nuku: [2:35] While they’re being spun, yes. This binding is going to be flipping between these different realms.

Dr. Zucker: [0:00] This idea of the gods descending into the world of light, into the world that we know, is so beautifully encapsulated by each of those discs below the figure. Then there’s a double disc just below that, and just above the binding.

Dr. Nuku: [2:53] That’s really intriguing, because we can’t actually see what is indicated in those tiny notches. But we know from other examples of these fly whisks that you often have a series of pigs, “pua’a.” Pigs are a vital component of any ritual exchange between humans and their gods. Nothing would happen on the ritual precinct without the sacrifice of pigs.

[3:22] You see this pronounced navel and this slightly distended belly. People have thought that that’s a reference to ‘opo nui, who were the priests that lived within the precincts of the marae, and who were said to have had full bellies because of the access to the sacrificed pigs and other sacrificial foods that would have been offered up to the gods.

[3:43] But in fact, the seat of knowledge is very much centered in the stomach. It’s not in the head. The men that could recite and memorize the esoteric language and sequence of words that would encourage and enable the gods to be present is actually embedded in the stomach.

Dr. Zucker: [3:56] The belly could so easily be obscured by the arms, but instead, it’s framed by the shins, by the forearms, and it is the forward-most form.

Dr. Nuku: [4:15] Even that extended snout or proboscis is pointing down to it, the hands are clasped, very abstracted arm and forearm, and then this beautiful flaring of the legs, so that everything is pointing to that navel.

Dr. Zucker: [4:17] The figure is human-like, but it is so abstracted.

Dr. Nuku: [4:21] You could see this incredibly economical way that they’ve reduced the facial features to this very heavy brow. This nose is notched and creates this crest that joins the two heads together.

Dr. Zucker: [4:34] I love the way that the chin is undercut so that there’s this beautiful negative space.

Dr. Nuku: [4:43] I think that’s a very vital part of the whole design of this work. In the same way that the red and the black of the binding and the central shaft are alternating, then the positive and negative space are doing precisely that.

Dr. Zucker: [4:51] It’s such a good reminder that we should not look at objects from Oceania in a simplified way.

Dr. Nuku: [5:01] One of the vital things is to try and recover how they were used, why they were used. We can really tell a lot from how it’s constructed and the important materials that are incorporated into it.

[0:00] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Maia Nuku and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Fly Whisk (Tahiri), Austral Islands," in Smarthistory, January 16, 2017, accessed May 20, 2024,