Repeating Islands

London’s Standard’s weekly series examines an artefact from the British Museum with origins in one of the capital’s diverse cultures. Rebecca Allen, a Museum curator, looks at a gorgeous Taíno sculpture.

This is a Taíno sculpture, probably dating from the 15th century. The Taíno were one of the pre-European, native peoples of the Caribbean, and this figure is from Jamaica. The sculpture is just over a metre tall, and is made of a very dense tropical hardwood called Guayacan, which has been polished with pebbles to give the surface a deep shine.

It depicts a male spirit-being in a drug-induced trance, and may have been used in religious rituals. In Taíno culture this figure embodied the life force, or “cemi”, which takes many forms and which could do powerful things. The figure is beautifully carved — the sculptor has seen the form of the figure within the wood and carved…

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