From London to Tahiti, the mystery of the statue of the god A’a


The statue of the god A'a from the island of Rurutu, on display at the Museum of Tahiti, on February 28, 2023.

The face is enigmatic, severe, petrified by ancient times where something sacred still sleeps. The eyes, the nose, the mouth, the ears are represented by small characters in relief and a little coarse, which stand out mysteriously on the polished wood, whose warm golden shade shines softly. It is the statue of the god A’a. “The most beautiful statue of primitive art in the world, enthuses the anthropologist Bruno Saura, she is fascinating. » Pablo Picasso had discovered it in 1950 at the home of a friend, the English art critic Roland Penrose, who had a copy, and was so struck that he in turn demanded one, which he treasured. in his studio in Cannes.

The statue measures a little over a meter high, it is covered with thirty small effigies in relief on the body, the limbs, the head, and above all it is hollow, it is a reliquary, with a door in the back . Two of the figurines are upside down – under the chest, a mother giving birth, on the belly, her baby. The statue, with a mutilated sex, dates back to the end of the 16the century or at the very beginning of the XVIIe ; it was sculpted in Rurutu, a small island in the Austral Islands nearly 600 kilometers southwest of Tahiti, in the heart of French Polynesia.

The Museum of Tahiti and the Islands reopened on March 4, after five years of work and a major overhaul – entrusted to the museographer Adrien Gardère, who designed the spaces of the Louvre-Lens -, with some prestigious pieces, including A’a, on loan from the British Museum. The statue had been presented at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1867, but, for the first time in two centuries, she returned to Polynesia, for at least three years.

new religion

Its history is most curious. At the beginning of the XIXe, Western ships cross these islands and leave behind bacteria that decimate the native populations. The approximately 6,000 inhabitants of Rurutu were reduced to only 200 in 1820 and began to believe that the gods were punishing them, or worse, that they were perhaps ineffective. Some of them set sail for Tubuai, a “neighboring” island to the south (216 km); twenty-five others, led by Chief Au’ura, set sail to the north, and drifted as far as Maupiti, in the Leeward Islands, more than 650 kilometers away.

They discover Christianity there, in its Protestant version, and, as a very warlike people, are seduced by its peaceful character and the simplicity of its prohibitions, compared to the many tapu traditional (the word “taboo” comes from Polynesian). On the nearby island of Raiatea, they were briefly instructed in religion by missionaries and, four months later, embarked on the brig Hope (“hope”) with Polynesian evangelists from the Society Islands to spread the word.

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