Hei Tiki

Posted by Anthony JP Meyer | June 10, 2023 | Selection of works - Meyer Gallery
Te Puawaitanga (the flowering) period (1500 – 1800 AD)Maori people, New Zealand, Polynesia

The exceptional proportions, as well as the quality of the carving and the beauty of the stone, place the present hei tiki amongst the most remarkable treasures (taonga) of Maori art, an object, which superbly combines the principles of power and ornament and beauty.
Nephrite with a fine patina of wear and age.
10,5 cm.
Provenance : Private collection Maryland, USA.
Price on request.

Additional infos

A superb, type I, Hei Tiki in the form of a stylized human figure with head turned towards the left shoulder. A bi-conical suspension hole is drilled through the top of the forehead along with the trace of a previous piercing probably in the form of an extended tab. The large oval head is detached from the shoulders showing the neck which is a rare typology. The face offers a powerful grimace with the nose carved with a double crossbar and the heart-shaped open mouth showing the canines and the curved, forked tongue (indicative of the power of political speech) over the pointed chin. The eyes are deeply set with large circular wells and prominent pupils under strong brows. The torso is finely rendered with the ribcage apparent, powerful shoulders, and the hands akimbo on the strong arched thighs. The three fingers of each hand are well detached from each other and the elbows, knees and ankles, and triple toes are indicated. The female gender is indicated by the presence of a well-defined vulva under the belly.

Most Hei Tiki, including many of the very large examples, are relatively narrow, being carved from chiefly nephrite adze blades. Thus, the outer sides of the arms are flat edged and the general relation of width to length of the large tiki is quite low. Here we have a high ratio with a wide body relative to the length of the figure, which indicates that this Hei Tiki was carved from a particularly massive jade blade. It corresponds to the Type B of the Hei Tiki Shape Chart by D. Austin 2015.

The body projects forcefully outwards. The tension of the curves and counter-curves is accented by inclined planes drawing the eye inwards. The fine balance of the openwork areas of the arms and legs creates a perfect symmetry accentuated by the placing of both hands on the powerful thighs. The ribcage is well defined and carved adding power to the large shoulders. The powerful face is symmetrically carved with strong brows framing wide in-set round eyes. The nose is flattened with large aggressive nostrils and the peaked bridge representing Mount Taranaki. The open, grimacing mouth offers a pointed lower lip, and two upper fangs protrude to either side of the extended, forked tongue.

These nephrite (pounamu) Hei Tiki, hei (pendant) tiki (human image), were worn by men and women of high rank, and served both as ornaments and symbols of authority. They were imbued with sacred power (mana) and the material itself was reserved exclusively for ownership by noble bloodlines. Hei tiki of this remarkable sculptural quality are rare, and this example is to be considered one of the very finest of its type.

The Hei Tiki – a cultural object worn around the neck – is considered a taonga tuku iho (treasured heirloom) because each hei tiki is handed down from one generation to the next and emotionally connected to the memory of tupuna (revered ancestors). No two hei tiki are alike and each one has its own personality imbued with wairua (spirit).