Atua: Sacred gods

from Polynesia

Dates + venue

23 May – 3 August 2014

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The book Atua: sacred gods from Polynesia will be available at the NGA Shop for $39.95 and selected bookstores nationally for $49.95.


Ancient Polynesia remains one of the great mysteries of human migration. Groups of people sailing on double-hulled canoes eventually made their way out from the edges of the Western Pacific and found islands in the middle of the ocean, thousands of kilometres away.

How did they do it? Were these feats of navigation and survival pure chance, when few of the intrepid voyagers reached an island and unknown numbers died in the attempt? Or was there something more?

Female figure (moai papa) Rapa Nui (Easter Island), eastern Polynesia probably early 19th century (detail). Otago Museum, Dunedin, New Zealand

Polynesian people reached Tonga and Samoa in Western Polynesia 3000 years ago bringing with them their atua–their gods–and their art traditions, part of their cultural knowledge developed over thousands of years.

During a later period of long-distance sailing around 1200 years ago, the navigators headed further east into unknown territory. They found the islands we know today as the Cook Islands, the Society Islands including Tahiti, and the Marquesas Islands.

From the Marquesas Islands, the great Polynesian navigators of the mid-fourteenth century found Hawaii to the north, Aotearoa New Zealand to the south, and Rapa Nui Easter Island to the east.

Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia Stone figure 19th century, Musée du quai Branly, Paris © 2013. Musée du quai Branly photograph: Hughes Dubois/Scala, Florence

Oral traditions tell us that upon landing on an island, the chief's first action was to establish a sacred enclosure so that he could provide a home for his atua, which he brought with him. These sacred enclosures eventually became the structures known as marae, heiau, or ahu, and were the point of interaction between the people, priests and the atua, often through the medium of an art object. Artists created unique objects, often figure sculpture, to house these atua, to provide them with a home and a focus.

Even on small atolls 40 or more sacred enclosures have been found. Some were for family shrines, others for larger family groupings, and at least one on each island for the national shrine–for the king or chief. Atua were part of life on every level of society, and most atua were represented by an artwork.

In hierarchical Polynesian society the aristocracy (the ariki) could trace their ancestry back to the moment when one of their ancestors made love with a god. This divine essence gave aristocrats the authority to command the ordinary people. This authority was also essential to survive the long ocean journeys of up to 100 days.

For aristocrats to maintain their semi-divine status, they needed the atua and their presence, located in art objects that became the focus of their power.

Banner image: Maori Frontal base-board [paepae] from the facade of a chief's storehouse 19th century, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1981 More detail

On many islands, where the people had divided into two or more opposed groups, warfare became part of life. Sometimes the cause for a war would go back many generations–perhaps a dispute between two brothers that had occurred hundreds of years earlier.

To gain the advantage over an enemy, leaders would try to invoke the help of atua, and eventually this led to human sacrifice. This did not occur on every island, but on the larger islands this was the accepted ritual.

When war broke out, often the key objective of a raiding party would be to seize the atua of the enemy and carry it away in triumph. Without their atua, the people would lose the will to fight and would be defeated. One of the key objectives in life was to gain the help or influence of an atua, and people would go to any lengths to achieve this.

Some societies thought that Western explorers or traders visiting in ships were atua. Women in their hundreds would swim out to the ships so that they could make love with an atua–to the astonishment of the sailors. The women would climb up the anchor chains, crawl through gun ports and climb the rigging, with the beleaguered captain hard put to regain control of his ship and his men.

After that initial period of interaction with Westerners, missionaries began to arrive in ships with the aim of abolishing idolatry as they saw it–Polynesian people making sacrifices in front of art objects in sacred enclosures. The missionaries could see the link between idolatry and human sacrifice, and they coerced the kings or leaders to break with their religious practices and destroy their religious objects.

As the people began to convert to Christianity their art objects were burnt or smashed. Very few survived the iconoclasm that began in the late eighteenth century and continued through into the early twentieth century. Some of the missionaries, especially those belonging to the London Missionary Society, returned home with these 'idols' to display and raise funds for their missionary work; eventually giving them to museums.

For its new exhibition Atua: sacred gods from Polynesia, the National Gallery of Australia has negotiated loans from more than 30 museum collections around the world. The British Museum is lending unique Hawaiian god figures and the Kunstkamera in St Petersburg is lending their precious Easter Island bird man. The Vatican Ethnological Museum is lending their great god Tu from Mangareva. Museums in Zurich, Geneva, and Paris are all lending their prized Polynesian pieces.

The exhibition explores the relationship between atua and art, between spirits and sculpture, between gods and priests, between women and men. It looks at some of the most unique works of art in the Polynesian world and tries to make sense of an enduring mystery surrounding religious objects and their association with belief in gods.

Religious belief is never an easy topic to work with, for each viewer brings a perspective shaped over a lifetime of experience and cultural background. The Western belief system does not generally acknowledge the existence of spirits in wood or in stone art objects, even though we may quite happily talk about an object having a remarkable presence.

In this exhibition 'presence' is something the viewer may experience. It may be the thrill of standing in the presence of a real god from a remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean–a battered god, a god that has lost his arms, yet a god that can stand up today, on his four legs, looking past you into the night with his unseeing eyes, imparting a sense of stillness and peace.

The presence found in an Easter Island moai kavakava, gaunt, haunted, with glittering eyes staring into another world, a figure with an aku-aku inside him–either a wild spirit or an ancestor, something that kept him alive for more than 600 years.

Tiki figures–from the Marquesas Islands, from Tahiti, from Hawaii and from Aotearoa New Zealand–are a type of art object that we think we all know about, until we realise that we are familiar with the word 'tiki', but the art object is still a mystery. There is good evidence to indicate that the tiki concept came to Polynesia from South America, either directly to the Marquesas Islands by Polynesian navigators, who also made the return journey, or by Inca who sailed to Rapa Nui Easter Island by raft.

Tahiti French Polynesia Double-headed figure early 19th century, The British Museum, London © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

In developing this exhibition we have been fortunate to work with our Polynesian colleagues in Tahiti, the Cook Islands and Hawaii, helping us to understand the Polynesian viewpoint on atua and on the many subtle aspects of the relationships between atua and art objects. Without their help we would not have been able to achieve an awareness that has enabled us to work with the presence in these objects.


Michael Gunn
Senior Curator, Pacific Art