Story By Crispin Howarth | Photo Caption: Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Moai Kavakava, 18th-mid 19th century. Wood, bone, obsidian. Private Australian collection.
There is perhaps nowhere in the world as isolated and remote as Rapa Nui (Easter Island). Known primarily for the enigmatic stone monolith giants, moai, found across its plains and coastlines, it is in wood carving that Rapa Nui artists created some of the most remarkable in pre-contact Polynesian sculptures.
Currently on display at the National Gallery of Australia are five sculptures from Rapa Nui; three from NGA’s collection (two figures, a Moai Tangataand a Moai Moko) and a priest’s staff (Ua) are accompanied by a further two wooden figures (Moai Moko and a Moai Kavakava) generously loaned from a private collection. Such figures are associated with traditional religious ancestral practices from the time before massive cultural changes were wrought upon the island.
Rapa Nui society suffered a cataclysm between 1862 and 1864 when the small population of around 3000 people was decimated by Peruvian slavers who abducted half of the island’s population. Traditional society fell apart: a cross section of society including chiefs and priests were enslaved and taken to labour in Peru. Following this devastating wake came Christianity further affecting societal change. The turbulence of these events coupled with more change a few years later when the island was rented out by the Chilean Government to a sheep farming company meant that by 1882 only 111 or so Rapa Nui remained. All this has led to our fragmented understanding of the traditional arts of Rapa Nui.
The gaunt Moai kavakava figure is one of less than 100 of these sculptures extant today. They became highly sought after in the early 20th century. ‘High Priest’ of Surrealism Andre Breton owned numerous Rapa Nui wood sculptures and was apparently buried with one. This particular emaciated male figure has jutting cheekbones, protruding ribs and raised spinal column – was it the artists intention to create a depiction of starvation? the likeness of a corpse or of a ghostly ancestral spirit? There is great visual tension due to the excellence in the sculptor’s hands in creating a refined, balanced and precise form. The ridged spine is considered to be a conceptualisation of ancestral genealogy, an important aspect of many Polynesian cultures and the circular device at the end of the spine just above the pelvis many indicate high social rank. The figure has bared, gritted teeth and a gaze which glares, created with sections of bird bone and inset with obsidian pupils. The head looks off to one side – only seen in a few figures – and the meaning of which is unknown.
How old is the Rapa Nui tradition of these figures? While this Moai kavakava has been radiocarbon dated, the results suggesting it is from the mid-18th century, it could also be as early the latter half of the 15th century. This may sound surprising, if not incredible, that a tradition of wood sculpture on Rapa Nui would extend back so far, and yet, those tiny obsidian dots created for pupils have been found in the archaeological context of cremation burials from the 13th and 14th centuries.