Rapa Nui: Masterpieces of Easter Island Art

Rapa Nui, better known as Easter Island, is best known for its monumental stone figures known as Moai which are believed to be effigies of the gods. The remote Pacific island has also produced iconic artworks in wood on a smaller scale. Rare and highly sought after by collectors, these objects are testimony to the skill and spiritual drive the islanders once had in fashioning images of great power and beauty. Here are two examples. Both are masterpieces of Polynesian art.

DANCE PADDLE (RAPA)

Dance Paddle (rapa), Easter Island, circa 1800. Wood. H: 86 cm. Auctioned by Sothebys in 2019 for 1.8 million Euros.

Few tribal representations of the human body are as elegant as this double-bladed dance paddle known as rapa. Essential to many ceremonies, rapas were usually carried in pairs to accent the movements of performers who spun them on their axes to the rhythm of a chanted accompaniment. They were used by both men and women, although the sexes seldom performed together.

That the rapa is a masterpiece of tribal art is without question. Contributing to its remarkable elegance is the economy to which the human form has been reduced. The paddle shows only the barest hints of human features, namely the beautifully arched eyebrows that taper into abstract earring studs and the thin torso that ends with the broad paddle serving as the “hips”.  The refinement of the rapa is all the more remarkable when one considers these ceremonial instruments were carved exclusively from the planks of the centre of a log from a now-extinct tree. It is, to say the least, a delicate and arduous task.

Rapa (detail)


PECTORAL CHEST ORNAMENT (REI MIRO)

Chest Ornament (Rei Miro), Easter Island, Wood, obsidian, bone, W. 38 cm, 19th century. Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Museum of Art, Raymond and Laura Wielgus Collection, Indiana University, Bloomington.

This object is a pectoral known as Rei Miro. It was worn by aristocratic chiefs during important feasts and rituals. The pleasing crescent shape resembles the shape of a boat, and indeed, in the Rapa Nui language, rei means stern or prow and miro means boat. The two ends of the “boat” feature ancestral faces with round obsidian and bone inlaid eyes that imbue the pectoral with the power of the gods. Completing the mystical picture is the concave side of the pectoral which subtly delineates “lips” that frame the broad “smile” of the chief god Makemake, creator of humanity, god of fertility and of the bird-man cult.

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