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Figurehead (pakoko or tete) from a fishing canoe

Artist Culture
New Zealand (Aotearoa)
18th to early 19th century
Made in
New Zealand, Oceania
Sculpture, tools & equipment
Current Location
Not on view
15 3/8 x 8 7/16 x 16 1/8 in. (39 x 21.5 x 41 cm)
Credit Line
Bequest of Morton D. May
Public Domain
Object Number
Maori sculptors in northern New Zealand carved this remarkable head. It was originally created as the primary element at the front of a fishing canoe (waka tete). The highly geometricized head is that of a tiki, a stylized image used by Maori carvers to represent the life force of particular ancestors. Each side of the face is constructed around a pair of lines that radiate from just above the nose to the upper edges of the head. Further down the face, a series of arcs form the nose, then lips and tongue, and finally the chin. The projecting tongue symbolizes a warrior’s defiance.
c.1880s - still in 1978
A. H. W. Williams (d.1939), England; J. L. H. Williams, England, by gift or inheritance [1]

In auction "Important Tribal Art," Christie's, London, June 13, 1978, lot no. 239 [2]

by 1980 - 1981
HRN Primitives (Ronnie Nasser), New York, NY, USA [3]

1981 - 1983
Morton D. May (1914-1983), St. Louis, MO, USA, acquired from HRN Primitives, by exchange [4]

1983 -
Saint Louis Art Museum, bequest of Morton D. May [5]

[1] According to a 1978 auction catalog, A. H. W. Williams brought the piece from New Zealand to England between 1880 and 1890. J. L. H. Williams, the son of A. H. W. Williams, offered the piece at auction in 1978 ["Important Tribal Art," Christie's, London, June 13, 1978, lot no. 239, p. 21]. A price list provided by Christie’s confirms 1558:1983 was sold at the auction.

[2] See Note [1].

[3] Ronnie Nasser of HRN Primitives refers to the canoe prow in a letter to Morton D. May dated December 3, 1980. In a letter dated December 9, 1980 to Lee A. Parsons, curator at the Saint Louis Art Museum, May states Nasser offered the canoe prow as a trade [letters in May Archives, Saint Louis Art Museum].

[4] An invoice dated January 8, 1981 from HRN Primitives to Morton D. May documents May’s acquisition of this object, listed as “Canoe Prow in Form of Human Head…” May traded two German paintings for 1558:1983, breastplate 1557:1983, and coconut grater 1559:1983 [May Archives, Saint Louis Art Museum].

[5] Last Will and Testament of M. D. May dated June 11, 1982 [copy, May Archives, Saint Louis Art Museum]. Minutes of the Acquisitions and Loans Committee of the Board of Trustees, Saint Louis Art Museum, September 20, 1983.
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