Atua: Sacred gods from Polynesia

A review

Jess Bolton

Society and culture | Pacific, Australia

17 July 2014

Jess Bolton reviews the National Gallery of Australia exhibition Atua: Sacred Gods from Polynesia. 

Atua: Sacred Gods from Polynesia, presented by the National Gallery of Australia and Senior Curator of Pacific Arts Dr Michael Gunn, explores the mystical power of gods and spirituality within Polynesian culture. A god is atua and atua are gods. The influence of an atua can be harnessed for war, ocean voyages and even fertility of the land and people. This exhibition considers the concept of atua by exploring the importance of spirituality and god worship within pre-Christian Polynesian societies.

Atua are an aspect of Polynesian culture that has all but disappeared due to Western colonisation and the influence of Christian missionaries. In the 1700’s thousands of art objects were worshipped in sacred enclosures on almost every Polynesian island within the Pacific. By 1830 however, most of these objects had been lost or destroyed under the combined onslaught of missionaries, Christian Polynesians and Western looters. The objects on display within this exhibition are some of the last surviving atua of their kind. These exquisite works were carefully selected as exemplars of pre-Christian Polynesian visual culture.

The atua represented originate from Fiji to Tonga, down the Kermadec trench to Aotearoa New Zealand, from the Cook Islands, further east to Tahiti, as well as from Rapa Nui (Easter Island), the Marquesas Islands, the Austral islands, Hawaii and many other small island groups and archipelagos.

Each piece within this exhibition has a unique character and a distinct presence. The age of the objects, the craftsmanship behind their construction and the inherent liveliness of the atua arrests audience attention. The exhibition challenges audiences to accept the idea that an object can become imbued with a spirit and can remain forever enlivened with that presence.

These pieces were brought together from over 30 institutions around the world. Works from international collections such as the British Museum and the Vatican are showcased alongside a number of pieces from within the National Gallery’s collection. This includes the Maori canoe figure Te Rauparaha, moai moko (lizard-man) from Rapa Nui and the Maori paepae frontal board on display in the final room of the exhibition.

Additionally, extensive conceptual consideration has gone into the design of the exhibition to facilitate audience-object interaction. Objects are displayed on plinths, in island groups, centred within the gallery spaces. The varied blue tones of the walls and the ambient lighting of the objects creates a transcendental atmosphere and the atua appear as if floating within an ocean-like environment. Informative wall text and artwork labels provide insight into the history of the island group, the known provenance of the pieces, and the role of the atua within their traditional cultural context.

The first room of the exhibition features two contemporary pieces by Rarotongan artist Eruera Nia. These two carved objects Akamata and Tuputo were created using traditional materials and techniques. They are cleverly integrated into the exhibition to demonstrate how, despite the decline of many customary practices, aspects of traditional Polynesian spirituality do remain.

By bringing these objects together, Atua highlights the National Gallery of Australia’s promotion of Pacific art in Australia. It also uniquely brings together a formidable collection of atua from around the world to one place -where they are accessible to many people within the Pacific region. The exhibition reinforces the impressive history and diversity of Polynesia and in doing so, provides people with a unique opportunity to witness objects of high quality cultural heritage.


Atua: Sacred Gods from Polynesia is on display at the National Gallery of Australia until August 3, 2014. Free entry.

An event,  Atua: Pacific Community Celebration Day involving discussion and celebration of the Pacific in conjunction with the exhibition will be held on Saturday, 19 July 2014 at the Gandell Hall of the National Gallery of Australia. More details about the event can be found here.

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