John Webber (After), William Sharp (Engraver)

A Night Dance by Men, in Hapaee

A Night Dance by Men, in Hapaee by John Webber, William Sharp

Artwork Detail

John Webber travelled to Ha’apai, one of the islands of Tonga, while employed as an artist on Captain Cook’s third voyage to the Pacific in 1777. While there he completed sketches of the locals and their customs, which were then engraved and published as formal documentation of the exploratory voyage. This engraving records record the performance of a group night dance called the me’elaufola for Captain Cook and his crew. Such ceremonies were part of the protocol innovated for the reception of exploring parties, in which locals and European explorers showcased their authority and forged relationships through impressive displays. Usually performed in a remote location and lit with torchlight, the me’elaufola was thought to harness sacred powers from Pulotu, the Afterworld. The rhythm of the dancers’ feet, extended arm movements, and thuds of bamboo canes escalated to a frenzied crescendo of noise, prompting ecstatic revelations and visions of the spiritual world. In Webber’s engraving the dancers’ bodies are lit from below, shrouding the scene with an atmosphere of anticipation and mysticism. Seated at the centre foreground is Captain Cook who is flanked by his crew.

A Night Dance by Men, in Hapaee
John Webber, William Sharp
Production date
405 x 561 mm
Credit line
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 2006
Accession no
No known copyright restrictions
International Art
Display status
Not on display

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