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Fijian Kiakavo Dance Clubs

Dance Clubs (Kiakavo), 19th Century
Fiji, Polynesia
Wood, fiber and pigment
97.138.13, .17, and 2015.17.10
Anonymous Gift and The George Stanley Lodin Collection
Two late 19th Century  Fijian men hold
clubs across their laps for a staged photograph.
Bowers Museum Collection
Gift of Mr. E. Morgan Stanley
Fijian Club Scene
Up until and in the few decades followings Fiji’s willing cessation to the United Kingdom in 1874, clubs were held as ferocious and vitally important weapons within a Fijian society which revolved in part around combat. Bows, arrows, and spears abounded in skirmishes between Fijian moieties, but even so the comparative prevalence of clubs is astonishing. In the 19th Century alone it is estimated that over 100,000 clubs may have been made in Fiji, 4,000 of which are now catalogued in museum collections around the world. Early explorers explain that even in peacetime Fijian men did not leave their homes without at least a decorative club, that visiting a neighboring village without a club was seen as discourteous, and that lowering a club was a standard sign of greeting throughout the Fijian Islands. Smaller clubs like the three kiakavo featured in this post were used by male dancers to accentuate their motions during rituals and feasts. Though some of this information may have been exaggerated, photographs confirm the pervasiveness of clubs in Fiji.
Smoking Club
Of the twenty plus styles of club in Fiji, the most unique styles of club of any grouping of Pacific islands, at least three are commonly referred to as gunstock clubs. From the name one might imagine that they were based on a Fijian’s understanding of a gun, but despite the kiakavo, gata, and sali clubs all sharing a long, straight shaft, curved head, and a spur approximately where the cock of a musket would lie, historical evidence indicates that these designs all predate western contact with the peoples of Fiji. Rather than being an imitative aesthetic addition, the v-shape created by a spurred club head was ideal for catching and redirecting incoming blows from enemies’ clubs. The popularity of this design in the gataand sali war clubs led to the creation of the kiakavo, a smaller variant reserved for dances. This is not to say that Fijian weaponry was not affected by the advent of western arms and armor. Clubs with heads in the shapes of European helmets are held in collections around the world, though it is possible that they came from a single 19th Century source. A more direct incorporation of the gunstock-shape in Fijian arms took place in the early 1800s when American muskets were acquired by trade and inlaid with ivory in their stocks.
The labelled parts of the kiakavo including the teretere, the small ridge between the spur and the head which differentiates kiakavo from gata.
This orientation of 97.138.13 illustrates how one may have believed this style of club to have been inspired western guns.
Drawing on Nature
The gugu club (2015.3.1) is another great example of design from nature.
Its shape and name come from the Fijian vernacular name for the boxfish.
Bowers Museum Purchase
Rather than drawing on man-made objects, Fijian weapons, textiles, and ritual furnishings tended to draw from either geometric or natural forms. Traditional dishes used to drink kava could be circular, but rare designs took the forms of birds, turtles, and men. When the function allowed for it, Fijian clubs tended to be inspired by plants and animals. For instance, the Fijian word gata translates to snake and was thusly named for its long, thin shaft and head, as well as how the ‘v’ of the club has been described as the jaws of the snake. In addition to being a club, sali is a close relative of flowering plant bananas come from. The meaning of kiakavo is unknown, but individual parts such as the small ridge between the spur and the shaft which distinguishes kiakavo from gatateretere, which could interchangeably mean the crest of a rooster or iguana—also take inspiration from living things.
On the Surface
Detail of the shaft of 97.138.17. 
The incorporation of hundreds of small inscribed triangles into the hilts and shafts of clubs was common in Fijian wooden clubs, something which we can see in the hilt of the kiakavo to the left. While some of the earliest western accounts state that these triangles were kill tallies, no single club would have seen as much combat as this. It is likely that these shallow cuts instead marked the passage of time. Feasts, ritual events, and the deaths of kin were all scored with the addition of inscribed markings. It is evident though that there was overlap between these markings and common features of Fijian superficial carving. When motifs did not draw from Fiji’s natural world, they instead drew from the geometric. Diamonds, zigzag, and line patterns decorate many wooden clubs, usually along the shaft, but depending on the variety of club, the head can also be decorated in this same manner. Two of the Bowers Museum’s kiakavo have undecorated shafts, which may indicate that there was woven sheath which has since been separated from the club. Feathers were also used to decorate clubs, most of which have not survived into the 21st Century.
Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
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