If you were living in the Society Islands in the late 1700s, and you saw someone wearing this costume coming in your direction, you’d know that: (a) someone important had died and (b) you’d better run away or hide smartly.
When a chief died, the bereaved family would arrange for a group of mourners to grieve publicly for the dead person. The chief mourner of that group would wear this ‘heira tupapa‘u. Other mourners in the group would be wearing maro, or loincloth, and would daub themselves with soot, often with red and white decoration painted on top.
The group’s task was to go around the chief’s territory, acting crazy with grief, and terrorising everybody in the process.
The mourners warned of their advance with special shell clappers. They carried weapons and could be expected to use them.
How many mourners a dead person had, how well-dressed they were, and how long they could be employed in mourning all depended on the resources of the bereaved family. It was a costly business keeping mourners in service. They needed accommodating and feeding, as well as presents to compensate them for time spent on their duties.
A mourner’s costume such as this was enormously valuable. The ahu parauahu parau chest apron was made of costly materials (one pearl shell might cost the equivalent of a pig), and was very time-consuming to make.
The headdress is made up of 11 pieces of shell – five of pearl shell and six of black shell – bound together with sennit (cord made by plaiting dried grass or other fibre) to make a mask to cover the mourner’s face.
The feathers radiating from the edge are from the tails of tropical birds. Pearl shell has been painstakingly cut into tiny rectangles and then tied together with fine fibre to make the chest apron. Whole pearl shells formed a collar.
This ahu parau was part of a full costume and was one of at least 10 brought back from Cook’s second voyage. Cook’s expedition crew acquired the costumes in exchange for red feathers they had brought from Tonga. This costume was among various items from the voyage purchased by Joseph Banks from the crew on their return.
Left: Ahu parau (chest apron), 1700s, Society Islands, maker unknown. Gift of Lord St Oswald, 1912. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (FE000336/1)Right: Lisa Reihana, detail in Pursuit of Venus [infected], 2015–17, Ultra HD video, colour, sound, 64 min. Courtesy of the artist and New Zealand at Venice