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A'a from Rurutu: A'a returns to Polynesia

An Oceanic sculpture, admired by both Henry Moore and Pablo Picasso, has gone on display at Te Fare Iamanaha/Musée de Tahiti et des Iles. In 2016, our Archive team worked with the British Museum on research into how Henry Moore came to own a bronze cast of the sculpture.

A vintage colour photo showing an older man, with thinning grey hair, wearing a yellow cardigan. He is standing in front of two bronze sculptures which depict a deity figure from Polynesia.
God figure known as A’a, carved in anthropomorphic form with 30 small figures over surface of the body and making up the facial features. A lidded cavity in back. Made of wood, probably pua (Fragraea sp.). © The Trustees of the British Museum.
God figure known as A’a, carved in anthropomorphic form with 30 small figures over surface of the body and making up the facial features. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Henry Moore was an avid collector of sculpture and artefacts from other countries and cultures.

His home, Hoglands has several of these objects on display, including a copy of a magnificent wood carving of the god A’a. The figure, pronounced with a glottal stop in the middle, was the principal deity of the people of the Pacific island of Rurutu.

The original wooden figure is now in the collection of the British Museum, who were given both the sculpture and plaster moulds from the London Missionary Society (LMS). The LMS were presented with the work directly from the people of Rurutu in 1821 and subsequently made the plaster casts in order to explain the traditional religions of the Pacific people to their society members.

So how did Henry Moore come to have a bronze copy of the figure in his home?

In 2016, the Archive team was contacted by the British Museum who were preparing their exhibition Containing the divine: a sculpture of the Pacific god A’a. The Museum wanted to clarify the sequence of events which led to the creation of the bronze casts. By looking through our Correspondence collection the Archive team managed to find the initial letter from Moore’s friend and fellow collector, the American architect Gordon Bunshaft.

Bunshaft had seen an image of Picasso, his wife and dogs with a bronze cast A’a. Knowing it was in their collection, the artist and historian Sir Roland Penrose suggested that Bunshaft should contact the British Museum to ascertain if further casts might be available. Writing in 1979 to Malcolm McLeod, the Keeper of the Ethnography Department, Bunshaft requested whether or not they would loan Henry Moore a mould so that further bronze copies could be made for Moore and himself.

The British Museum agreed that for the cost of £500 plaster casts of A’a would be made available to Moore, who then arranged for them to be sent to the Morris Singer Foundry in Basingstoke. The foundry reassured Moore that it would be simple enough to produce two bronze casts. Moore agreed to split the costs of the casting with Bunshaft and oversaw the shipping of the second cast to his friend in New York in 1980. In 1985 the British Museum made an additional cast which was sent back to the people of Rurutu, where it is now on display.

Moore was delighted with the figure. In the book, Henry Moore at the British Museum he explains his fascination:

“…The little images, scattered all over the body like frogs jumping from a pool, are not stuck on but are all part of the same piece of wood – a remarkable technical achievement. And each figure is a separate piece of invention. The excitement of this piece comes from its sense of life-force, with all those small figures springing from the parent figure. The head, too, is marvellous. Its great round back repeats the shape of the full, round belly, but emphasises, by contrast, the thinness of the jaw. On my cast I have made up the edge of the chin, where it is damaged in the original, because I so like its razor sharpness.”

A close up view of the head of the A'a sculpture.
Detail of the bronze cast made of A'a. Photo: Errol Jackson.

Moore’s copy of the A’a figure is still in pride of place in the Entrance Hall of Hoglands, which you can visit during our open season. Ask at the ticket desk about tours of the house; tickets are £6 per person and tours run from 11:15 to 16:15 each day (Wednesday to Sunday and Bank Holidays).

You can find out more about the loan of the original sandalwood sculpture from the British Museum to Tahiti in this article by Martin Bailey.

If you would like to take a closer look at A’a, but can’t make it to Hertfordshire or Tahiti, The British Museum made a 3D scan of the figure as part of their work for the 2016 exhibition. You can view the scan on the Museum’s Sketchfab channel.

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The world’s leading resource on the life and work of Henry Moore, containing publications, correspondence, photographs and exhibition material.

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