British Museum blog

London, a world city in 20 objects: the Taíno sculpture

 Taino sculptureRebecca Allen, British Museum

This is a Taíno sculpture, probably dating from the fifteenth century. The Taíno were one of the pre-European, native peoples of the Caribbean, and this figure is from Jamaica. The sculpture stands at just over a metre tall, and is made of a very dense tropical hardwood called Guayacan, which has been polished with pebbles to give the surface a deep shine.

It depicts a male spirit-being in a drug-induced trance, and may have been used in religious rituals. In Taino culture this figure embodied the life force, or cemi, which takes many forms and which could do powerful things. The figure is beautifully carved; the sculptor has seen the form of the figure within the wood and carved through to it, meaning that the spirit is found within the wood itself.

 Taino sculpture

Taino sculpture

On the figure’s back a prominent spine has been carved, showing each individual vertebra very clearly, while on the face of the figure tear channels are shown. These are made more conspicuous by the use of gilding. The figure is in suspended animation, frozen in time, as tears stream down his face.

This object featured in the British Museum exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world, supported by BP. At first glance it may seem an odd choice for an exhibition which focused on Elizabethan and Jacobean London, but it has very strong visual and imaginative links with one Shakespeare play in particular: The Tempest.

In the play, a group of sailors are frozen in time by Prospero, a shaman-like figure with magical powers. Prospero commands Ariel, a spirit of the island who owes his freedom to Prospero, to tell him how the enchanted prisoners are faring. Ariel describes the enchantment and tells how one man in particular – Gonzalo – has been trapped in time while tears flow down his cheeks:

Him that you termed, sir, the good old lord Gonzalo:
His tears run down his beard, like winter’s drops
From eaves of reeds.
(The Tempest 5.1.17-19)

This description is evocative of the kind of magical transformation represented by this sculpture. The enchantment Ariel describes is matched in the face of this figure.

Another thematic link with The Tempest lies at the point where Ariel is freed by Prospero from being trapped in an enchanted tree: ‘it was mine art, / When I arrived and heard thee, that made gape / The pine and let thee out’ (1.2.340-2). This is reminiscent of the Taíno understanding that to carve wood is to free the form within it. Ariel, the spirit, has been freed from his imprisonment in the pine.

There are surprising and poetic links between the way Shakespeare imagined the nature of enchantment, and the understandings and insights of the Taíno people of the Caribbean.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 1 November 2012.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Collection, London: a world city in 20 objects, , ,

2 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Nicholas Mercury says:

    Fascinating Really enjoyed the London series.

    Like

  2. Tomas baibramael Gonzalez says:

    BOINAYEL, Son of the Gray Serpent
    In the realm of the Taino spiritual world, deep into the mouth of caves, Cacikes and Bohikes would place twin Cemi. One Cemi known as the son of the Gray Serpent, Boinayel, the other Marohu, meaning bright and cloudless day. Both weather Cemi were bound together and left on an alter. It is said that whenever rain was needed to water their crops. They would enter into these caves with offerings and prayers for these Cemi asking for rain. As the grey serpent clouds gather high over the mountains tops the rain would gather into streams and rivers, thundering down the mountain sides and fertilize the land with their sweet clear water.
    These Cemi where carved out of stones or the hard dens wood of the Guayakan tree. Once carved, they would be highly polished with their distinctive weeping eyes. They would then be placed inside dark and damp caves. As the water condense onto the Cemi it would gather around the slanted eyes forming water droplets that would drip down their faces as tears, turning into rain drops.

    Like

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 15,713 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

It’s #ValentinesDay! To celebrate, we’re sharing some of the stories of love throughout history. These seated ancient Egyptian statues depict the divine Isis and her husband Osiris. They were found together in the tomb of an official from the time of the reign of king Amasis (570–526 BC). Isis wears a sheath dress and a crown in the form of the emblem of Hathor – a solar disc set between cow’s horns. In her right hand she holds the ankh, the sign of life. Her face is modelled with wide-open eyes and a slight smile. Osiris, carved in the same beautiful style of the 26th Dynasty, is wrapped in fine cloth, as he holds symbols of sovereignty – the flail and crook. 
The inscriptions around the bases of the statues were intended to invoke ‘Isis, mother of the god, great in magic, mistress of the Two Lands’, and ‘Osiris who presides in the west, great god, lord of Ro-Setaou’. Following his judgment of the deceased, Osiris could grant wishes for a peaceful arrival in the netherworld, while Isis gives life – the carved life symbol reveals her to be a magician stronger than death. This divine couple belonged to a sumptuous burial and would have ensured perpetual protection for the person interred in this tomb. 
You can see these statues in our blockbuster exhibition #SunkenCities, opening 19 May.
#history #ancientEgypt #Egypt #Valentines #💘 Today we are celebrating #ValentinesDay by highlighting some of the love stories in the Museum. This Japanese shunga print comes from a masterpiece album titled 'Poem of the Pillow' by Utamaro (d. 1806). Utamaro has avoided the stereotypical scenes of love-making that were often produced at the time, and instead created an innovative and powerfully sensual design. He uses a very low viewpoint and places the unusually large figures so that they seem to expand beyond the frame of the picture. The eye is shocked by the white of the woman's skin against the bright scarlet under-kimono, and the transparency of the gauze fabric that covers the couple's entwined legs only heightens the sensuousness. Finally, however, the viewer focuses on the heads and shoulders. The details emphasise the emotion of the moment – the man's eye as he gazes intently at his lover, the tender touch of their delicate fingers and the exquisite nape of the woman's neck.
#Valentines #love #history #Japan #shunga #💘 Happy #ValentinesDay! To celebrate, we’ll be sharing some of the love stories in the Museum. This image shows the Roman emperor Hadrian with his lover Antinous. Hadrian (r. AD 117–138) had married into the imperial family, but in his late forties he met a Greek youth named Antinous from Bithynia, now in modern Turkey. The young man became the emperor’s lover, but drowned in the Nile in AD 130. Hadrian founded a city named Antinooplis at this site, and made him into a god – an honour usually reserved for members of the emperor’s family. Hadrian publicly commemorated Antinous in huge number of statues, figures, portraits and coins across the Roman world, an almost unparalleled public memorial to a lost love. The statues of Hadrian and Antinous can now be found together, side by side, in Room 70.
#history #valentines #love #Hadrian #💘 This envelope, with a colourful design on its front and a red background and reverse, is typical of the 1990s and early 21st century. On the front is a traditional sailing boat, or junk, sailing on a calm sea with just a few clouds high in the sky. The four characters written on the main sail wish for 'the wind in your sails'. This phrase is used as a general wish for good luck, but is especially used to wish 'Bon Voyage' to someone setting out on a journey. There are five other good luck wishes on the front, all presented as though stamped images from a carved seal. They wish for peace and calm, wind in your sails, a wonderful future, abundance and profit. Wishing everyone a happy #ChineseNewYear! #GongXiFaCai The inscription on this tall red envelope translates as 'Good luck in all you wish for!' Above the inscription are illustrations of three objects representing traditional forms of money in China, and a ruyi sceptre. The traditional forms of money include spade money, a coin with a square hole in the middle, and a small silver ingot. Unlike real coins, the spade and coin carry good luck wishes: 'good luck' (on the spade) 'in all you wish for' (on the coin).The ruyi sceptre also conveys a wish for good luck as ruyi means 'all you wish for'. Happy #ChineseNewYear! #GongXiFaCai Happy #ChineseNewYear! These are called xiao hongbao, literally translated as 'little red envelopes'. Red is the colour associated with celebration in China. In the 1990s, a new style of money envelope appeared. Although it still had a red back, the front was printed in many colours and overstamped in gold. On this envelope there are lush peony flowers in full bloom. They are symbolic of spring, as well as feminine beauty, love and affection. In Chinese, the peony is known as mudanhua or fuguihua. The characters fu ('wealth') and gui ('honour') appear frequently in good luck wishes, and pictures of peony flowers add strength to the wish. The inscription on this envelope reads 'May wealth and honour blossom, in abundance year after year'. The arrangement of the peonies and the inscription is reminiscent of traditional Chinese flower painting. #GongXiFaCai
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 15,713 other followers

%d bloggers like this: