The Chief’s Imps: Buffoonery and Power in Hawaiian Wooden Sculpture

We know next to nothing about a lot of Oceanian art. Though many accounts of traditional ways of life in the Pacific Islands were written in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by Europeans, and, somewhat later, by Pacific Islanders themselves, these accounts usually provide only the vaguest references to the islands’ art. This is for a variety of reasons–for example, Europeans automatically dismissing most of the objects they saw as pagan “idols” or “fetishes”, or Pacific Islanders either not knowing what these objects meant because knowledge was guarded by a select few, or knowing but not wanting to share, or refusing to talk about the art because it was connected to traditional religion and they had converted to Christianity. The end result is always the same: we know so little about these objects that they might as well have been left behind by cultures that vanished thousands of years ago, rather than ones that are arguably still alive today. This is why, after about a month wondering whether I should or shouldn’t, I have decided to dedicate a post to art from the Pacific Ocean.


Double bowl with figure, with red feathers and possibly dog fur for hair. Late eighteenth/mid nineteenth century. The spots on the skin are pearl disks. Is the figure repairing the bigger bowl with its rope? I don’t know. Also, interestingly, though wearing a male loincloth, this figure is equipped with a vulva. Oh and also, I’m illustrating this post with my drawings because I’m getting paranoid about the use of copyrighted images. You can see the original here.

In particular, I want to talk about Hawaiian support figures. These are a particular category of Hawaiian wooden sculpture which includes human-like characters enhancing chiefly items like drums, bowls, and spear stands, often not merely by decorating them, but also by actually making them more useful or practical–for example, by lifting them up off their grounds with powerful legs and arms, or, in the case of a certain bowl, by allowing you to place condiments in their big round mouths. Besides their big mouths, these support figures are characterised by big chunky teeth (made from sawed-off dog bones or boar tusks), large eyes, and muscly limbs. Their heads are, for the most part, bald and shiny now, but they used to be decorated with shocks of “hair” made of dog fur, bright red feathers, or even actual human locks (right). Their poses suggest “the buffoon, the acrobat, or the playful imp. They exhibit neither noble bearing, pride, nor manifestation of mana [which can be translated, very very very roughly, as a kind of sacredness]. Instead, they are eternally committed to humble work, which they do lightly and with a cooperative and playful spirit” (Cox & Davenport 1974: 51).


Bowl with two figure supports. Mid/late eighteenth century–given to Captain Charles Clerke in 1778 by a chief of Kaua’i. The teeth are made of boar tusks. You can see the original here.

There is an intriguing possibility that these figures represent the menehune–pixie-like creatures from Hawaiian folklore. Like the support figures, menehune are described as stout, strong and muscular, with ugly faces and short thick noses, hard workers but also playful and fun-loving. Cox & Davenport go on to say that menehune stories were a form of escapism for commoners, which allowed them “vicarious participation in glamorous adventures, playing the impish hero and making fun of the haughty noble” (52). This in turn leads Cox & Davenport to suggest that carving these impish figures was a way for artists to indulge their own creativity, free from the constraints that came with depicting powerful gods. It’s an interesting idea, but the fact that support figures are exclusively found on items which would once have belonged to chiefs–as opposed to commoners or carvers–suggests that these figures were not nearly as subversive as Cox & Davenport suggest. In other words, they had a serious political purpose–most likely, they were one of the things that gave material form to the chief’s power.


This figure (who may look very manly but was once a woman, with long flowing locks), used to be where chiefs would sit in a temple just before sacrifice. Late eighteenth/early nineteenth century. Original here.

How? The first thing that I thought when I first came across Hawaiian support figures was that they might be a way for chiefs to pretend they had way more servants than they actually have. As far as I can tell, no one, in the official literature, has had this idea. Nor is there any evidence to support it, beyond the simple fact that these figures pose as though carrying out menial jobs. I guess their limbs are also designed to draw people’s attention and give an impression of strength–some of the support figures’ arms are positively gorilla-like. And the expressions on many of the figures’ faces could be interpreted as reflecting intense physical effort. However, I wonder if there is a reasonably scientific way of testing this hypothesis, that is independent of what the figures actually look like… if anyone has any ideas, I’d be happy to hear them in the comments section below.


The bowl that humiliates Kahahana and Kepuapoi of Oahu. Currently in Honolulu’s Bishop Museum.

But masquerading as extra servants isn’t the only way that Hawaiian support figures can advertise a chief’s power. An alternative interpretation of these sculptures is that they represent the chief’s enemies doing humble, humiliating jobs. By enemies, I mean both rival chiefs or rebels. I had this idea while I was drawing some of these sculptures–this activity always helps me look closer at things, and, in this case, it made me realise that the figures’ faces could often be interpreted as expressing fear. This, in turn, reminded me of the “cannibal furniture”, made of stuffed people with their faces frozen in panic, which made rare but memorable appearances in the cartoons of my childhood (see the Headhunting in Oregon episode of Cow & Chicken). The only scrap of proof that something even remotely like this might have been the case for Hawaiian support figures is a legend about a particular bowl (above, left), now at Hawaii’s Bishop Museum, in which the supporting figures are said to represent chief Kahahana of Oahu and his consort, Kepuapoi. The owner of the bowl, chief Kahekili of Maui, had commissioned this bowl to commemorate his victory against Kahahana and Kepuapoi, and to humiliate his enemies further by transforming their mouths into containers for seasonings such as salt and seaweed. However, Cox & Davenport write that this story is of “questionable authenticity” (57).

Bowl with three figures. Late eighteenth/early nineteenth century. Original here.

Bowl with three figures. Late eighteenth/early nineteenth century. Original here.

A final way in which Hawaiian support figures have been seen as materialising the chief’s power is by demonstrating his or her disrespect towards both rivals and people of lower status. Specifically, Kaeppler (1982) points out that, in traditional Hawaiian culture, jutting your chin forward and stretching your mouth wide open, exposing both teeth and tongue, is a gesture of disrespect. Only chiefs could be disrespectful with impunity, and indeed it was important for them to express disrespect towards their political rivals, so having objects that seemed to poke fun at their guests was a clear sign of one’s power.

These are all the theories I could find or come up about Hawaiian support figures–if anyone knows of others, or has their own, or indeed has any other comments to make, feel free to share below!


Cox, J. and W.H. Davenport. 1974. Hawaiian Sculpture. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii.

Kaeppler, A. 1982. Genealogy and disrespect: a study of symbolism in Hawaiian images. RES (3): 82-107.


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