This large figure probably represents Kūkaʻilimoku, one of the manifestations of Kū, the Hawaiian god of war. It was made for and erected by King Kamehameha I, unifier of the Hawaiian Islands at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Kamehameha built a number of temples to his god, Kūkaʻilimoku (“Kū, the snatcher of land”), in the Kona district of Hawaiʻi, seeking the god’s support in his further military ambitions. The figure is likely to have been a subsidiary image in the most sacred part of one of these temples: not so much a representation of the god as a vehicle for the god to enter.
The figure is characteristic of the god Kū, especially by his disrespectful open mouth. His hair, incorporating stylised pigs heads, suggests an additional identification with the god Lono. The pigs’ heads are possibly symbolic of wealth.
The figure is carved from a single piece of breadfruit wood. During the reign of Kamehameha, metal tools could be obtained from Europeans and were used to create figures like this and also to build temples.
The figure is one of only three large temple figures from Hawaiʻi surviving. It was donated to the British Museum in 1839 by W. Howard. It may have been taken to England by King Liholiho (Kamehameha II) in 1824, as a gift to King George IV. The figure still holds deep significance for many Hawaiians today. In 2010, the Bishop Museum in Honolulu brought together the three remaining sculptures of Kū, reuniting them for the first time in more than 170 years.
© Trustees of the British Museum
Maggie M. Cao, “What is the Place of Empire in the History of American Art?,” Bully Pulpit, Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art 6, no. 1 (Spring 2020)
Stacy L. Kamehiro, “Empire and US Art History from an Oceanic Visual Studies Perspective,” Bully Pulpit, Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art 6, no. 1 (Spring 2020)