Fijian Ancestor figure

Contributed by Birmingham Museums

Carved Ancestor Figure, Matakau, from Viti Levu, Fiji. Copyright Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery

Painted marks around the mouth and pubic area represent tattoos - a process exclusively used by women in Fiji.Ancestor figures were physical representations of the dead, which could be occupied by their spirits from time to time. They lived in the spirit house set aside for the dead in Fijian villages. This female figure comes from the central highlands of the island of Viti Levu. Tattooing is an important mark of puberty and social status for women in traditional Fijian society; and her tattooed face and pubic region indicate that she was married. Fewer than 20 such figures are known to exist today.

The figure was collected by Walter and Herbert Chamberlain, brothers of the famous politician Joseph, in the 1870s when they bought the island of Naitauba as a cotton plantation. She was bequeathed to the museum by Herbert's son Norman after his death in the Cambrai offensive of 1917. His horrific death had a great impact on his cousin Neville, whose desire to avoid the dreadful consequences of war became so significant in 1939.

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