Visitors to Medicine Man, our permanent collection on the first floor, will find this month’s object extremely hard to miss. Dating from 1880–1925, at the time of Henry Wellcome’s near-kleptomania, it’s a wooden carving of a man, complete with a pair of elaborately decorated wings, a top hat, and a very skimpy pair of underpants…
Hailing from the Nicobar Islands, 1300 km southeast of India in the Indian Ocean, this carving is known as a ‘kareau’ figure, or a ‘scare-devil’, and was placed outside houses to protect the inhabitants against malevolent spirits of the dead, which the Nicobarese believed inflicted disease and death upon the living. Carved by a spiritual healer called a ‘menluana’, kareau figures not only incorporate sacred imagery of immense importance to the Nicobarese (in this case the wings, which represent revered spirits) but also embody some of the islanders’ most fundamental fears. In the Second World War, the Nicobar Islands were invaded by the Japanese, and kareau figures dating from this period can often be seen to represent Japanese soldiers, complete with helmets and rifles. The top hat on this earlier kareau figure probably represents the Nicobarese distrust and fear of Europeans: the islands were visited first by the Danish, in the 18th century, and were later sold to the British, and for an isolated island in the middle of the Indian Ocean the top hat perhaps became a symbol of European invasion, attempts to ‘civilise’ the islands and bring them under colonial control.
Kareau figures drew upon a form of sympathetic magic (fighting fire with fire) to help fight off the deadly spirits. Kareau figures could often be used as reliquaries to store the bones of dead ancestors, and these bones were thought to have the power to fend off the spirits of the very same ancestors. Figures that stood upright, like this one, represented important heads of families, while others, sat cross-legged, represented important ancestors.
The kareau figure in Wellcome Collection forms one of a increasingly rare and precious stock of Nicobarese artefacts. The Nicobar Islands were at the centre of the Asian tsunami in December 2004 and, being so isolated, were some of the hardest hit and last to be reached by aid workers. 6000 people on the islands are believed to have lost their lives. Much of the Nicobarese’s traditional material culture was destroyed in the disaster and, being a record of time and place, it is a tragic loss of cultural memory. The Nicobar Islands, now under the territorial control of India, are out of bounds to foreigners for conservation reasons, and even Indian citizens need a special permit to visit.