Many of you will know that Tehamana was Gauguin’s companion or ‘vahine’ during his first stay in Tahiti (1891-3). She is the subject of a very beautiful and complex painting in Gallery 10 of the Gauguin exhibition called Merahi Metua no Tehamana or Tehamana has Many Parents. Well, that’s one translation. The other is ‘The Ancestors of Tehamana’, which puts a very different spin on the potential meaning of the painting! On the one hand, ‘parents’ alludes to the Tahitian practice of children being brought up by adults other than their blood parents, and ‘ancestors’ suggests an ancient past, lineage or culture, represented by the image of Hina, Goddess of the Moon on Tehamana’s right. Above Tehamana’s head, we can see two rows of yellow glyphs taken from inscriptions that were discovered in 1864 on Easter Island (they have never been deciphered), and by her side, two ripe mangoes, alluding to Tahiti as an exotic, fertile land, or perhaps Tehamana as a mature, young woman? Tehamana herself strikes a very dignified pose, I think, and looks directly at us - confidently, warily? Her hair is decorated with flowers, which Gauguin associated with the natural beauty and decorative sensibility of Tahitian women. In his written record of the funeral of King Pomare V in 1891, for example, Gauguin noted the glorious floral arrangements of Queen Marau, who ‘with the fine instinct of the Maoris…turned everything she touched into a work of art.’ And we even have Gauguin’s description of Tehamana herself, ‘clothed in the orange-yellow garment of purity’, as ‘a beautiful golden flower, whose Tahitian noa noa filled all with fragance, and which I worshipped as an artist, as a man.’ In stark contrast, Tehamana is here shown wearing the rather frumpy style of dress, high collared and long sleeved, that had been imposed on Tahitians by European missionaries. So what is Gauguin saying in this painting? Is it a criticism of European influence on Tahitian society and culture? And what is Tehamana’s role here? Does she embody the spirit of ancient Tahiti?
What do you think?