Liam Kokaʻua, Ngāti Makea Ārera, Rarotonga.
I had my doubts this was a pre-colonial taonga because of the rough style it is carved. But holding it up close and feeling it, especially the dark tapa, made me rethink my evaluation.
I chose this taonga because it is a prime example of the Rarotongan carving style, and representative of the many of its larger brothers and sisters currently sitting in European and American museums. Most importantly, this atua rākau is a depiction of our supreme creator Tangaroa, his image emits a huge spiritual power within my genetic memory.
In the numerous atua rākau that exist, numerous descendants are depicted as springing forth from the head primogenitor (in this smaller carving the descendants are stylised as triangular notches). This, as well as the phallic symbol, make this clear to me it is Tangaroa. Also how these carved images were so highly revered by my ancestors in pre-colonial times, as they are often described in missionary accounts.
These atua rākau to me are survivors of prejudice both by the overzealous missionaries, as well as our own Cook Islands Māori people who have been taught to forsake these items in order to become accepted members of the new faith. There are numerous descriptions of the mass burnings of these atua rākau alongside the destruction of the marae and associated “god-houses” where they were kept. This was approved by the Rarotongan ariki to publicly demonstrate they have renounced “the old ways”. Therefore, this atua may have only just escaped being thrown into the flames alongside its counterparts. Maybe its relative small size enabled it to be more easily sent to England.
These atua rākau were always kept in numerous layers of tapa, often with ornate hand-painted designs. They were typically very long (up to 6 metres). This is one of the smallest known atua rākau in existence but it is only one of two which retains a tapa wrapping.
Carving. Human figure at top. Rarotonga/Cook Islands. Maker is not yet known. Made with carved wood and wrapped in tapa (barkcloth). Collection of Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 1950.128.