The life-sized wooden figure of the god Sope has an enigmatic air – simple, faceless and at the same time with a powerful charisma, it is reminiscent of a modern work of art. It originally stood in a temple on Nukuoro, a Polynesian exclave in Micronesia. During the month-long harvest festival the figure was one of several to be decorated with flowers and presented with fruit and other food as sacrificial offerings.
It has no face, no expression – in fact, there is not the slightest hint of emotion; nevertheless, or maybe precisely because of this, the life-sized figure of the deity Sope has a powerful, expressive presence. It is so simple and well preserved that it almost looks like a modernist European art work. In reality it originates from the other end of the world.
The Polish researcher and collector Johann Stanislaus Kubary purchased this wooden figure in 1877 on Nukuoro, a Polynesian exclave in Micronesia, and brought it back to Germany. Kubary spent almost half of his life in Oceania, driven by restlessness and a thirst for knowledge. He generally found himself in financial difficulties and also failed to gain academic recognition. Today he is virtually forgotten – although his detailed written observations are an important source that provide us with insights into life in the Pacific.
Of the many objects in Berlin which Kubary collected, the statue of the god Sope, made from a single piece of wood, is one of the most valuable. Worldwide there are only thirty-seven such figures. The figure, which can now be seen as a Humboldt Highlight, made stopovers at two museums in Hamburg before it arrived in Berlin and became a part of the Ethnologisches Museum.
Until Christianization, the sculpture stood in the main temple on Nukouro, where there were reputedly six effigies of this type. Here they were worshipped in a special way: during the month-long harvest festival the figures were dressed and richly decorated with flowers and presented with fruit and other food as a sacrificial offering. Their aura still gives us a sense of their original use in a ritual context. However, we do not know what impression they made on the people there – whether they were seen as unapproachable or animate. Unfortunately, very little is known of the pre-Christian culture on Nukuoro.
To be seen in the museums on the second floor of the Humboldt Forum.
Until May 2019, the first Humboldt Forum Highlights were on display in the Pergamonmuseum, Altes Museum and Neues Museum on Museum Island.
The first 15 of these Humboldt Forum Highlights were being presented between October 2018 and May 2019 in two formats: in an exhibition as well as during conversations that will be held at various locations in Berlin.