A Tau tau, the Wellcome Collection

Until last weekend, I had no idea of what a tau-tau was. Now that I have seen one, I won’t be forgetting it in a hurry.

A tau tauImage courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London

A tau tau
Image courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London

I discovered this tau tau in the current exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, which is simply and snappily titled Death. The exhibition features the private collection of Richard Harris, which includes a plethora of strange and magical items, all of them relating to that most taboo of subjects. Despite the fact that it is going to happen to all of us one day, death is something most of try to avoid talking or thinking about. The way that it has been viewed over the centuries and throughout the world has varied immensely, hence the array of amazing objects included in Death.

Tau taus are unique to the Toraja people of Indonesia. They were created to sit outside the rock-cut tombs of the wealthier Torajans, guarding their remains and acting as symbols of their wealth and status. The arrival of Christian missionaries in the early 20th Century almost wiped out the practise, and in more recent times the remaining tau taus have been regularly plundered by grave robbers.

Tau taus in situ, an image taken near the village of Lemo in 1971

Tau taus in situ, an image taken near the village of Lemo in 1971

For any visitor to Death, it’s hard to miss the tau tau. It sits silently in the centre of one of the galleries, spotlit and staring. Its presence is unsettling, and despite its simple carving and rudimentary accessories, it has a real sense of personality. This tau tau looks like it could get up and start shuffling towards you at any second, which is a distinctly unsettling thought.

I’m not sure about the morals of display such items, which have obviously been stolen from their rightful location at some point, but the tau tau is certainly an object of wonder. Standing next to it was a rather sinister experience, one which will I suspect haunt me for a long time to come.


3 Responses to “A Tau tau, the Wellcome Collection”

  1. I note in comparison the prevalence of idyllic imagery on American gravestones, when they use images. We’re trying to ward off death, even in the land of the dead.

  2. As usual very interesting!

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