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 13,530 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Born #onthisday in 1859: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Here’s his application to study at the Reading Room.
All prospective users of The British Museum Library had to apply in writing, stating their reasons for study there. At the time he applied for a reader's ticket, Arthur Conan Doyle was already well-known as the creator of the great detective Sherlock Holmes, but he had not yet given up his work as a doctor, and in this letter of application he gives his occupation as 'physician'.
As well as his detective stories, Conan Doyle wrote many historical novels. At the time he wrote this letter he was probably carrying out research for his novel The White Company, which is set at the time of the Thirty Years' War (1618-48) in Europe.
#author #library #museum #BritishMuseum #history Mary Anning was born #onthisday in 1799, one of the most famous fossil finders of her day. This large skull and lower jaw of an ichthyosaur was found by her at Lyme Regis in Dorset in 1821. You can see it on display in the Enlightenment Gallery (Room 1), on loan from the @natural_history_museum.
© 2003 The Natural History Museum.
#history #fossil #dinosaur Albrecht Dürer was born  #onthisday in 1471. Here’s his wonderful drawing of a woman from 1520.
This study is drawn with a brush in black and greybodycolour. The light is strongly shown by white heightening when it falls onto the woman's face and hair. The light falls down the exact centre of her face. On the left, only the protruding eyelid and cheek bone catch the light. Her eyes are closed and her head centred, its outline strongly marked by black line and silhouette.
By 1520, the date of this drawing, Dürer was deeply interested in the ideal, human form. He had made numerous life studies, both male and female. He had also travelled to Italy and studied classical sculptures and their proportions. For Dürer, the chief purpose of these theoretical studies was to discover the mathematical proportions of the ideal human body. These he would then use in his paintings (portraits, altarpieces and images of saints) and prints. 
#Dürer #art #drawing #history The Enlightenment Gallery in the Museum (Room 1) shows how people saw the world in the 18th century.
The #Enlightenment was an age of reason and learning that flourished across Europe and America from about 1680 to 1820. This rich and diverse permanent exhibition uses thousands of objects to demonstrate how people in Britain understood their world during this period. It is housed in the King’s Library, the former home of the library of King George III.
Objects on display reveal the way in which collectors, antiquaries and travellers during this great age of discovery viewed and classified objects from the world around them.
#BritishMuseum #history #art #museum #gallery To celebrate the ‪#ChelseaFlowerShow opening, here's some floral inspiration from the collection.
This watercolour is by Dutch artist Jan van Huysum (1682–1749).
#flowers #art #artist #floral Born ‪#onthisday‬ in 1883: Walter Gropius, architect and founder of the #Bauhaus school. He designed the shape of this teapot in 1969.
#art #design #history #teapot
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 13,530 other followers

%d bloggers like this: