June 2010

Moai, reimiro, ua… the Fascinating Objects of Easter Island

For immediate release

Montréal, June 7, 2010 - With Easter Island, An Epic Voyage, Pointe-à-Callière, presents an international exhibition, the largest on Easter Island in recent years. It includes over 200 pieces from the precious collections of some twenty European and North American lenders. In addition to the famous enormous stone statues, the Rapanui created a host of other objects, including little-known but fabulous wood carvings, all of them testifying to absolutely remarkable creativity, artistry and technical skills. Here is a look at some of them:

Stone moai
There are some 890 moai on the island. Production is thought to have begun shortly after the Polynesians arrived, around 1000 CE, and continued until the 17th century, peaking in the 14th and 15th centuries. While most of them are between 3.5 and 5 m tall, some reach over 10 m. Almost all the moai were carved from the soft tuff of the Rano Raraku volcano. These colossal statues weighing 18 tonnes on average were likely rolled on logs to move them. Many of them were installed on an ahu, a slightly raised platform, fronted by an esplanade where ceremonies were probably held.

Made from obsidian – sharp shards of vitrified lava. This precious material is rare in Oceania and must have been traded between different parts of the island.

A reimiro (“wooden neck ornament”) is a crescent-shaped pectoral, with a crescent-shaped hollow in the middle, with suspension holes. These sacred objects were worn during celebrations by men and women from powerful families.

Another symbol of power. The handle of a ua staff has two faces, with inlaid bone and obsidian eyes. They connected the man holding them to the earth and filled him with mana, divine power. For the Rapanui, and for all Polynesians, the gods and spirits were everywhere, in all tangible and intangible aspects of life.

The handle on a paoa has two faces. It is often described as a club. Given that it is not cylindrical, however, it would be uncomfortable to wield in that way. It may be a prestigious item, probably symbolically derived from clubs observed in Polynesia – in New Zealand, in particular.

Moai kavakava
The word moai means “image” and thus does not apply only to the stone statues. The island also has a number of wood carvings, although these are much less known. There are some masterpieces among these carvings, a tribute to the symbolic wealth of the Rapanui universe and the exceptional artistry of early Rapanui wood carvers. Seen from both the back and the front, a moai kavakava (“ribbed figure”) is so gaunt as to appear skeletal. They were kept inside dwellings, wrapped in tapa (beaten barkcloth), but displayed on feast days – when they were held in the hand or hung with others around the neck and rattled together during dances.

Moai tangata
Moai tangata (“human figures”) have a fixed stare like moai kavakava, but more realistic proportions. Moai tangata have a suspension hole, but oral tradition does not mention how they were used.

Moai papa and Moai vie
Moai papa (“flat figures”) are female figures, unlike moai kavakava and moai tangata. They are recognizable by their extremely thin profile and their postures: the arms are in motion, with one hand pointing toward the pubis and the other folded over the belly or under one breast. Once again, their use is unknown, but they have no means of suspension. Moai vie have the same postures as moai papa. But their thicker torsos are more realistic.

These objects were worn by adolescents during celebrations. They are egg shaped, divided into three or four lobes by raised ridges, representing the sacred egg from Moto Nui sought by participants in the Birdman contest. They were worn during celebrations, probably to invoke the mana of the sacred fertility-giving egg.

Ao and rapa
These “ceremonial dance paddles” had different functions. An ao was a symbol of power, reserved for dignitaries. Shorter than ao, rapa were twirled in dancers’ hands.

Petroglyphs (rock paintings)
There are some 4,000 petroglyphs on Rapa Nui – engravings, bas-reliefs and even paintings – at hundreds of sites, on simple pebbles or walls that are covered with them. The entire Rapanui bestiary is represented, along with geometric shapes, vulvas, fish hooks, boats, dwellings, the Birdman and the supreme god Makemake.

Painted tapa figure
Another type of object illustrates the exceptional artistry of the Rapanui culture: figures consisting of a framework of reeds covered with multicoloured painted and stitched tapa (barkcloth). Since only seven of these figures are known anywhere, it is difficult to know what they were used for. It is a rare opportunity for us to have two of them here, both remarkably well preserved despite their fragility.

Rongorongo script
In all of Polynesia, Rapa Nui is the only place that developed a system of writing – one that continues to baffle epigraphists. Some 120 rongorongo signs, in some 500 combinations, have been identified. They include animals, plants, fish hooks, insignia of power, body parts, crescents and more. They are usually carved into both sides of a wooden tablet. Traditionally, only chanters from noble families, called tangata rongorongo, were able to inscribe and read the signs and handle these tablets.

Moai tangata moko (“lizardman figure”)
This type of figure, also called a moko (lizard), combines the features of a human – male when the sex is represented – with those of an animal associated with the world of the dead, given its ability to slip out of sight between rocks. Moko are carved in a curved shape, often out of Sophora toromiro, a sacred wood. Like moai kavakava, they have a prominent backbone and ribs – and sometimes the fan-like tail feathers of birds on the lower back. When present, the suspension hole is in the middle of the back, for they were hung horizontally in dwellings and around dancers’ necks.

Moai tangata manu (“Birdman figure”)
Some of the figures representing the sacred Birdman have predominantly human features, and others, mostly bird-like ones. Some have a navel – indicating human birth – while most do not. They are all male figures, with protruding ribs and backbones. During celebrations following the designation of the Birdman, he led a procession with the precious egg strapped to his arm and a moai tangata manu on his back.

Stone sculpture
Some small stone busts or heads were also collected. They are more varied in appearance than the huge moai.

The Easter Island – An Epic Voyage exhibition, presented from June 8 to November 14, 2010, is being produced and mounted by Pointe-à-Callière, the Montréal Museum of History and Archaeology. The Museum wishes to thank its partners, Scotiabank, Tourisme Montréal, the Consulate General of Chile in Montréal, Air Canada Cargo, Hôtel Intercontinental, Astral Media, Historia, Archambault, La Presse, and The Gazette.

Supported by the Department of Canadian Heritage through the Canada Travelling Exhibitions Indemnification Program.

The Museum is subsidized by the city of Montréal.