Massive Ceremonial Paddle, Austral Islands

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Lot 110
Massive Ceremonial Paddle, Austral Islands

Sold for US$ 19,000 inc. premium

African & Oceanic Art

11 May 2016, 10:00 PDT

Los Angeles

Massive Ceremonial Paddle, Austral Islands
Wood, lime
length 73in (185.5cm)

Private Collection, London

A Work of Art from a Master Carver
Rhys Richards
Paremata, New Zealand
February 2016

This is a magnificent large ceremonial 'paddle' from Ra-ivavae or Tubuai in the Austral Islands, south of Tahiti. It is carved all over meticulously by a master carver using only a burin with a blade made from the triangular-shaped tooth of a mako shark. The large size is unusual but conveys the same symmetry and grace that has made Austral Island paddles famous, highly sought-after, works of art.

The traditional motifs used by the carver merit individual attention. The front of the flat blade is covered in alternating squares of the double-cross or XX motif and the scalloped motif. These represent residual remnants of ancient male (or tiki) and female symbols. In 1892 the Swedish anthropologist Halmar Stolpe judged that long ago a human motif had lost its head entirely, and the arms and legs had shortened, until all that remained was the torso lying between the remnant XX. The outer edges of the blade are covered with a continuous rim of these single XX motifs.

The rear of the blade has a similar XX rim, but is divided by a raised vertical band into two almost identical panels. One panel is covered with the unique Austral Islands 'toothed suns,' where concentric circles are ringed with tiny equilateral triangular teeth known as 'niho'. The other panel has the same motifs but with a slightly different layout requiring more part rings to fill the space entirely. The rear of the blade has an outer rim of tiny scallop motifs.

The long shaft provides a graceful extension from the blade to the pommel. The shaft is also covered entirely with fine carving in circular panels round the shaft using again the double XX and the scalloped female motifs.

The pommel of the shaft flares into a circular frieze of eleven human figures, all decorated dancing girls all with tiny breasts, and all crouching with raised hands and knees spread. Their heads are exaggerated, each bearing two large flower rosettes above a face complete with tiny horizontal eyes, a nose and a mouth.

When viewed from directly above, it can be seen that the pommel has had its inner third hollowed out into a small crater. In the center of this crater is a 'toothed sun' motif, a filled circle joined to a circlet of triangular 'niho' teeth pointing outwards. Three broad circles enclose two more circlets of these tiny teeth. But unlike the precision and symmetry evident everywhere else on the blade and shaft, here the carver has placed uneven circles.

The outer parts of the top of the pommel are the reverse side of the heads of the eleven dancing girls. Each has two, quite coarsely carved, 'toothed suns,' except for two which have no suns at all, just tiny tiers of the triangular 'niho' teeth. Why are there only eleven, not twelve dancers, with only two undecorated, is unknown, but this is unlikely to be mere chance on such an other-wise meticulously carved 'paddle.'

Stolpe suggested that the dancing girls became stylized too, losing their heads or legs, until all that was left were crescents from their bent thighs. When stacked in tiers like draped curtains, they represent femininity, fecundity and youthful potential for rebirth. The placing of the male XX motifs along with the female scallop motifs on the same staff, would seem to convey fertility, descent, ancestry and continuity.

This looks like a paddle, but is it? Probably not. Probably the earliest forms were short, hand-held signs of chiefly status, possibly used as 'dance paddles.' By 1820 exquisitely carved 'dance paddles' were simply called 'paddles' by the first foreigners to visit the Austral Islands. During the next decade, in the 1830s, foreigners began buying and competing for these beautiful works of art, with some undiscriminating buyers preferring larger and still larger sizes. By 1842 the finest work had been replaced with larger 'export art' usually covered with carving far inferior to this superb piece. Therefore it seems reasonable to estimate that this fine paddle was carved by a master carver in about 1830 or a little earlier.

Recommended reading:

Richards, R. 2012 The Austral Islands: History, Art and Art History. Paremata Press. Wellington. New Zealand.

Richards, R. 2014 An Analysis of Motifs on Austral Island 'Paddles.' Bonham's catalogue. 15 May 2014. pp.40-41.

Stolpe, K.H. 1892 On the evolution of ornamental art.... (translated by Mrs. H. C. Marsh. Issued privately in Stockholm in 1927.)
Massive Ceremonial Paddle, Austral Islands
Massive Ceremonial Paddle, Austral Islands
Massive Ceremonial Paddle, Austral Islands
Massive Ceremonial Paddle, Austral Islands
Massive Ceremonial Paddle, Austral Islands
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