Dance Paddle (Rapa), early 19th century
Rapa Nui people, Rapa Nui (Easter Island)
Wood; H. 28 1/4 in. (72 cm)
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Mrs. Gertrud A. Mellon, 1972 (1978.412.1571)
The art of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) is particularly notable for the variety of its representations of the human form. Rapa Nui dance paddles, known as rapa, push the human image to the limits of abstraction, depicting highly stylized anthropomorphic figures reduced to bladelike forms representing the head and abdomen. The normally detailed facial features seen in other types of Rapa Nui wood sculpture are here refined into a single curving browline that incorporates the nose and extends downward at either side to small knobs representing ear ornaments. The result is an image of the utmost refinement whose elegant lines and highly polished surface make rapa among the most visually striking of the island's diverse wood images.
Essential to many dances and ceremonies, rapa were usually carried in pairs to accent the movements of performers who spun them on their axes to the rhythm of a chanted accompaniment. The paddles were used by both men and women, though the sexes seldom performed together. Men also reportedly employed rapa during funerary rituals in which they kept a vigil over the body of a slain comrade. Their bodies covered in black ash, the mourners carried dance paddles as they intoned sacred chants intended to assist them in avenging the victim's death.