This newly acquired Fijian priest’s fork represents the zenith of the carver’s art in pre-European contact Fiji. The sleek, ergonomically designed handle has a flared pommel and ringed section with floral-like decoration before expanding out to three gracefully elongated tines. The artist has shown consummate skill in making each tine elegantly twist along its length. Typical of the finest Polynesian arts, the priest’s fork balances form and function perfectly. Its squid-like appearance and glass-like patinated surface (from many years of use) lend an understated attraction that transcends a mere utilitarian nature. However, behind the beauty of this object lies a macabre purpose.
While forks such as these were notoriously known as ‘cannibal forks’, this unflattering epithet is misleading and obscures their true purpose. Before the mid 1870s, cannibalism was an accepted, normal part of Fijian life, but certain rituals were exclusive. Only priests, for instance, used these forks and only during the ritual consumption of meat, which was not always human flesh, to honour the gods and to act as their medium, receiving their wisdom and instruction. Priests, literally, became the mouthpieces of the gods. Records also indicate that an attendant might be employed to carefully place morsels of food into the priest’s mouth without touching his lips, as even the priest’s lips were sacred.
The fork dates to at least the first quarter of the 1800s as it looks to be carved without the use of iron tools. Also, the undulating zigzag patterns, reminiscent of a snake in motion, may represent female tattooing common in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The production and use of these forks declined from the 1850s to 1876, when a British punitive campaign brought colonial administration to every part of Fiji. Only a dearth of indigenous cultural knowledge regarding these objects survived the mass transition to Christianity; the accounts of early travellers, such as whalers, sandalwood traders and missionaries, are all that remain to provide insight (however Euro-centric) into the pre-Christian arts of Fiji.
This work sits superbly among the other fascinating objects in the Gallery’s new dedicated space for Polynesian art.
in artonview, issue 61, autumn 2010