‘Pacific princess’ – one painting, so many stories

MP Charles Chauvel at the blessing for Poedua.

MP Charles Chauvel at the blessing for Poedua. Copyright Te Papa, 2010.

The blessing for the painting of Poedua (Poetua), a princess from the Society Islands, by John Webber (1751-1793) was a much needed bright spot at Te Papa last week – a week when New Zealand reeled from news of the Pike River mining disaster.

This remarkable painting, recently purchased by Te Papa, has lots of stories to tell and connections to make. For me, working  as an “interpreter”‘ at Te Papa, it’s a  dream! The interpreter’s role is to help communicate stories to our visitors.  Often we’re the ones asking what might seem like obvious questions…..who is the woman in the painting? where is she from? why did the artist paint her like that? who is the artist? when was it painted? what was going on in the world at that time?  why is it here at Te Papa?

When I saw Poetua for the first time I had one of those “museum moments” – here was a painting with incredibly rich stories, that can be viewed from lots of different perspectives.  She has really caught my imagination and made me think. I’m not an art expert (please note!) but I do want to share some of my thoughts about Poetua.

The woman in the painting is Poedua, or Poetua, daughter of Oreo, a chief one of the islands in the Society Islands group. There are two main island groups – the Windward group to the east includes Tahiti, and the Leeward, western group, includes Ra’iatea (known to Māori as Rangiatea).

The artist is John Webber, official artist on Captain James Cook’s third voyage of exploration in the Pacific.  Webber was only 24 years old when he painted Poetua’s portrait, It was the first great portrait of an indigenous woman of the South Pacific to be presented to a European audience. To complicate things there are three existing versions of the portrait and this one is the only one of the three which is dated (1785).

The story of Poetua is one of encounters in the Pacific during the late 1700s – a time when very  different cultures and different worlds met, or some would say “collided”.  Anne Salmond has written extensively about this – her latest book Aphrodite’s Island, on the history of the European discovery of Tahiti, is fascinating. It’s now on my list for summer reading.

How did the painting come about? Cook anchored at Ra’iatea on 3 November 1777 in HMS Resolution, along with the accompanying ship, HMS Discovery. He was visited on board the Resolution by the island’s chief Oreo and his two daughters, Poetua and Tainamai, who brought gifts of welcome and respect.

On 24 November some men from the Discovery deserted. To ensure that the sailors returned Cook managed to entice on board Oreo’s daughter Poetua, and her husband Moetua, and Oreo’s son Ta-eura. Cook then held them captive on the ship until the sailors came back on board.

Poetua was pregnant at the time and it was while she was being held captive on board the Discovery that John Webber painted her. What did she think of all this? What on earth was this experience like for her? Lots to think about.

At the blessing Poetua was greeted by Te Papa’s Tahitian guests, which included MP Charles Chauvel, and our Māori staff as a revered Polynesian ancestor and princess. Pūtātara (conch shell trumpets) and pūkāea were sounded in welcome – much like they would have in Poetua’s home islands.  The connections between Māori and Polynesia are strong – Ra’aiatea is regarded as the ancestral homeland for Māori – and you could sense the depth of feeling for Poetua.

At the blessing Vicki Robson, art curator, mentioned another feature of this painting. Poetua is depicted by Webber in a Neoclassical style – meaning that the artist was making reference back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.  You can see this in the way she is standing and the folds made by her garments  – perhaps Webber had in his mind’s eye the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite? Vicki also pointed out that you can see another Neoclassical portrait from a similar date (1786-87)  Johann Tischbein’s painting of the German poet Goethe, on show in the European Masters exhibition.

So much to think about when you view the painting of Poetua, so much to learn … and so many connections to make.

Poetua will be on display until 30 January 2011 in Toi Te Papa, Level 5..

See objects and images relating to Tahiti in Te Papa’s Collections Online.

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