Above - From left – the second, third and fifth items on display are Cook Islands’ ’akatara. 21121047
An exhibition in Venice exploring the sculptural beauty of command clubs from Oceania, including the Cook Islands, has inspired a Rarotongan experiment to discover how ancient weapons obtain their beautifully finished surfaces.
The Palazzo Franchetti in
Venice is currently hosting an exhibition entitled
Power & Prestige: the Art of Clubs in Oceania. Devoted to objects symbolising power
and prestige in Oceania, it
includes a number of ‘akatara from the Cook Islands.
The exhibition has been organised by the Fondazione Giancarlo Ligabue in collaboration with the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris. It is curated by Professor Steven Hooper, a specialist in Oceanic art at the University of East Anglia in the UK.
Steven Hooper told Cook Islands News the origins and purpose of the exhibition. “I have been studying art from Oceania for fifty years and there has never been an exhibition that focuses on ‘clubs’, yet museum storerooms all over the world, including in the Pacific, are full of them.”
“They were made in almost all Oceanian cultures and we wanted to bring them out of the storerooms to show that they were not just weapons – many of them were probably never used in combat – but are remarkable sculptures that served as exchange valuables, dance accessories, authority staffs and sometimes as god images from the pre-Christian era.”
just needed a stick with which to hit someone,” says Hooper, “you didn’t need
to go to all the trouble to make these extraordinary sculptures with their
beautifully finished surfaces and complex shapes. Something more profound was
The exhibition hopes to challenge simple explanations and present these neglected artworks as sculptures worthy of global attention.
have included several examples from the Cook Islands because the craftsmen of
the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century made exceptionally beautiful
staff clubs,” says Professor Hooper.
In advance of the
exhibition he contacted Jean Mason at the Cook Island Library and Museum
Society for the names of certain Cook Islands weapons
in the exhibition. Mason says she wasn’t
fazed about getting involved in what is traditionally considered a man’s “area of expertise”.
“I think you can say with confidence
this knowledge has been utterly lost in the Cook Islands,” says Mason. “There are no men I
know, living today, who have the
knowledge of traditional Cook Islands weaponry nor the battle techniques they
I was always interested in this area because
so very little is known or has been written about it.”
As part of her research, Mason is collaborating with local ta’unga Henry
Tavioni on an experiment to determine how ancestors achieved the patina, which
makes the polished wood of Cook Islands weapons look as if they were made from
“We started by soaking freshly made
weapons (clubs and short spears carved by Henry) in
a taro patch for one month, four months and six months, respectively,” says Mason.
“So far we have removed the items
that have been immersed for one month and four months; other items remain in the mud, as the experiment is not yet completed.
“It seems that one month is insufficient time for producing a shiny patina
even when polished; the artefact still showed pink (wet wood) under the black
skin when given fresh carved patterns. After four months some of the thicker
parts of the wood showed pink under the black skin when carved. It is obvious
then that a thinner implement will absorb more mud to give it the deep black
colour in a short time, while thicker implements take
longer. The experiment is ongoing. We might carry on for one year
to see the effect. It’s believed this is how long Atiuans, in the past, kept their weapons in mud.”
such as these are what Professor Hooper hoped for, as a spin-off of the Venice Exhibition.
“It will be very good,” he says, “if the exhibition and its accompanying book
stimulate research on this topic in the islands, especially to recover the lost
knowledge of techniques that were used to create them.”
says that, when the Covid 19 pandemic recedes, a similar exhibition may be
shown in the Pacific region.
Venice exhibition includes 126 artworks from places as far apart as Rapa Nui,
Hawaii and West Papua, and is on display in Venice to 13 March 2022, after
which it moves to the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris from 8 June
to 25 September 2022.
For the opening celebrations, thirteen members of Ngāti Rānana London Māori Club were invited to Venice to inaugurate the exhibition with a tapu-lifting ritual and haka for guests.