London, a world city in 20 objects: No. 5 The Taíno sculpture

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 through to it, meaning the spirit is found within the wood itself.

On the figure’s back a prominent spine has been carved, showing each vertebra clearly, while on the face of the figure tear channels are shown. These are made more conspicuous by the use of gilding. The figure is in suspended animation, frozen in time, as tears stream down his face.

This object features in the current British Museum exhibition Shakespeare: Staging the World, supported by BP. At first glance it may seem an odd choice for an exhibition that focuses on Elizabethan and Jacobean London but it has very strong visual and imaginative links with one Shakespeare play in particular: The Tempest.

In the play, a group of sailors are frozen in time by Prospero, a shaman-like figure with magical powers. Prospero commands Ariel, a spirit of the island who owes his freedom to Prospero, to tell him how the enchanted prisoners are faring. Ariel describes the enchantment and tells how one man in particular — Gonzalo — has been trapped in time while tears flow down his cheeks:

“Him that you termed, sir, the good old lord Gonzalo: his tears run down his beard, like winter’s drops, from eaves of reeds” (The Tempest, Act 5, Scene 1).

This description is evocative of the kind of magical transformation represented by this sculpture. The enchantment Ariel describes is matched in the face of this figure.

Another thematic link with The Tempest lies at the point where Ariel is freed by Prospero from being trapped in an enchanted tree: “It was mine art, when I arrived and heard thee, that made gape the pine and let thee out’ (Act 1, Scene 2). This is reminiscent of the Taíno understanding that to carve wood is to free the form within it. Ariel, the spirit, has been freed from his imprisonment in the pine.

There are surprising and poetic links between the way Shakespeare imagined the nature of enchantment, and the understandings and insights of the Taíno people of the Caribbean.

On display in the BP Exhibition Shakespeare: Staging the World at the British Museum, WC1 (020 7323 8299,

For the original report go to

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