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Exhibitions/ Splendid Isolation

Splendid Isolation: Art of Easter Island

December 11, 2001–September 8, 2002

Exhibition Overview

The first American exhibition devoted to the art of Easter Island, this presentation features nearly fifty works that examine the island's diverse artistic heritage. Featuring objects from the Metropolitan's collection as well as loans from museums and private collectors in the United States and Canada—many on public display for the first time—the exhibition explores Easter Island's distinctive art forms as expressions of supernatural and secular power. Dating from the twelfth to the late nineteenth century, the works in the exhibition range from one of the island's renowned stone figures to refined wooden sculpture, rare barkcloth effigies, and examples of rongorongo, the island's unique and undeciphered script.

Few Pacific islands hold as prominent a place in the Western imagination as Easter Island. Now part of Chile, the island lies in the southeast Pacific Ocean approximately 1,400 miles from the coast of South America. The Easter Islanders—who today refer to themselves and their homeland as Rapa Nui—are Polynesians whose ancestors came from the islands of the central Pacific; they share, both culturally and genetically, a common ancestry with other Polynesian peoples, such as Hawaiians, Tahitians, and the Maori people of New Zealand. In the ancient world, the Polynesian voyagers were known as the most accomplished sailors. Their skill in sailing—guided only by the stars, the flight patterns of seabirds, and the form and rhythm of ocean swells—enabled them to cross over a thousand miles of open sea and to discover the island. After settling around 600–800 A.D., the Easter Islanders lived in almost total isolation for more than a millennium until the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen encountered and named the island on Easter Sunday 1722. During this period, they developed a unique series of artistic traditions.

As in other Polynesian societies, wood and stone carving on Easter Island was customarily done by men. Women worked in softer materials such as fiber and barkcloth, a fine, clothlike substance manufactured from the inner bark of certain trees. Although there were no professional artists, artistic skill was recognized and honored within the community and talented individuals were commissioned to create specific works. Focused on religious imagery, their art embodied and signified the supernatural power of the gods and the chiefs who were believed to be their earthly descendants. To harness this power, artists created images of diverse supernatural beings. These images mediated between the divine and human worlds and were used to tap the supernatural power, or mana, of gods and ancestral spirits for the benefit of humanity.

Easter Island's most famous images are its colossal stone figures, or moai. The moai are conventionalized representations of ancestral chiefs, in which, like the living chiefs themselves, the power of the gods was believed to reside during religious ceremonies. Between approximately 1100 and 1650 A.D., Easter Island sculptors created nearly nine hundred moai, some of which exceed thirty feet in height. Each was made under the direction of a master artist by a team of stone carvers who carved them from the bedrock using stone picks. Nearly all of them were carved at Rano Raraku, an extinct volcano that served as the primary statue quarry. Once a moai was completed, thick ropes were attached to it. It was then hauled overland, sometimes for miles, on wooden sledges or log rollers to be erected at one of the island's temples. Most moai were placed at temples along the coast where they faced inland, keeping watch over the community. Though, by the mid-nineteenth century, all of them had fallen as the result of warfare or neglect, many have since been re-erected by archaeologists.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is a massive, stone head originally from the temple at Ahu O'Pepe (Smithsonian Institution). Weighing over 1,200 pounds, this robustly hewn face—one of the only two examples in North America—was brought to the United States in 1886 by an American expedition. Like other moai, white coral eyes with stone pupils would have been placed in its hollow eye sockets, when a ritual was in progress, to awaken the divine power of the ancestral chief it represented.

In addition to moai, Easter Island artists created a diversity of other art forms. Working in wood and stone as well as more delicate materials such as feathers, reeds, and barkcloth, artists produced highly refined objects with polished surfaces and supple curves. Among the most striking on view is a wooden birdman figure representing the creator god Makemake (American Museum of Natural History). Makemake was associated with the annual birdman ritual in which athletes competed on behalf of individual chiefs by descending a 1,000-foot cliff face and swimming to an offshore island in search of the first egg laid that year by the sooty tern, a migratory seabird. The winner's chief became the leader of the island for the next year. Admired by early twentieth-century European artists and intellectuals, birdmen and other figures from Easter Island became an important influence on the Surrealists, particularly Max Ernst, whose works often include birdmen inspired by Easter Island imagery.

Featured in the exhibition is a barkcloth-covered human figure whose face is brightly painted in red, black, and white stripes representing decorative body painting (Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University). Among a selection of finely crafted chiefly ornaments is an elegant crescent-shaped pendant adorned with two skillfully sculpted faces (Indiana University Art Museum). This large pendant, which extended from shoulder to shoulder, was probably worn by a high-ranking woman on important occasions.

In addition, three extremely rare wooden tablets inscribed with the island's unique hieroglyph-like script called rongorongo are also on view. After the islanders converted to Christianity in the 1860s, most of these tablets were destroyed and less than two dozen examples survive today. These tablets likely record the history and mythology of the island, but their symbols have yet to be decoded.

The exhibition is made possible by Compañia Sud Americana de Vapores and Viña Santa Rita.