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Beyond Giant Stone Heads: A Rare Look at Easter Island

Art* An exhibition gathers sculptures and other items reflecting the remote area's religion and society. Some pieces are the last of their kind.


NEW YORK — It was, once upon a time, one of the most isolated places in the world--Rapa Nui, or Easter Island.

More than 2,400 miles from Tahiti or Chile, the South American country to which it belongs, the triangle-shaped island in the South Pacific became home centuries ago to people who populated it with giant stone statues representing their gods and ancient chieftains.

Now, one of those stone heads and almost 50 other items showcasing the scope of Easter Island's artistic history are being exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the first museum retrospective of such work in North America.

"Splendid Isolation: Art of Easter Island" runs through August. Taken from institutes and private collections in the United States and Canada, the exhibition contains wooden sculptures, inscribed tablets and bark-cloth figures that reflect the people of Easter Island's ancient religious beliefs and societal customs. Some of the pieces are the last of their kind.

The art in this exhibition wasn't made merely as an exercise in creativity for the artist, but served as signs of social rank or were for use in religious practices, said curator Eric Kjellgren. He compared that role to the art of the Middle Ages in Europe, with its religious connotations.

"The images were primarily made to adorn a sacred site," he said.

So, along with the stone head that opens the show and was taken from a temple, there are the bird men. These carvings, with the heads of birds on human bodies, have been identified as images of Makemake, the island's creator god.

Other carvings reflect the owners' societal status. There is the staff, almost 5 feet long, that would have been carried by a chief. Also included are the gorgets, large, wooden half-moon pendants meant to be worn by powerful female leaders.

Then there are works that demonstrate cultural norms. A figure made out of bark cloth has tattoo markings around the neck like those Rapa Nui warriors would have worn. And there are the tablets, covered in the marks of the island's language, Rongorongo.

Some of the pieces, such as the inscribed tablets, are among the last surviving ones, mirroring the decline of the island's population and its troubled history.

Rapa Nui, covering about 65 miles in land mass, was first settled somewhere around 600 to 800 by people hailing from the islands of the central Pacific. It would be about 1,000 years before a European explorer came across them; in that time, the great stone figures, or moai, were carved out of the volcanic rock that formed the island, and the island's trees were cut down to make log rollers or sledges to transport them.

As the trees came down, it became more difficult for the island to sustain its population, which started to shrink from an estimated 7,000 people.

There were about 2,000 to 3,000 people on the island when Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen arrived on Easter Sunday in 1722. During the next 150 years or so, due to disease, immigration or kidnapping for labor, the population continued to drop, until there were only 111 people on the island in 1870, Kjellgren said.

"A lot of information about the culture was lost with that population crash," he said.

There has been a resurgence of people on the island, which is now part of Chile. Kjellgren said there are about 4,000 residents, about half descending from the original settlers.

But the damage remains. For example, while Rongorongo is still spoken, no one can read it, so inscribed tablets like the ones in the exhibition are indecipherable.

Of the art forms that remain, such as wood carving, the emphasis has changed from carving images of the ancient gods to commercial purposes, Kjellgren said.

"The imagery was primarily religious in nature. That link was broken with the conversion to Christianity" that took place in the 19th century, he said.

The exhibition doesn't have any examples of contemporary pieces, as it isn't trying to feature the entire history of Rapa Nui art. Instead, it aims to introduce people who might only have known of the giant stone heads the diversity of what the people of Easter Island created.

"The goal is to include the stone figures but move beyond them to other art," Kjellgren said.

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