Charting the evolution of Easter Island wooden carvings from spiritual receptacle to auction treasure.

Allow me to take you on a small journey to Easter Island.  It is known to many but only through a veil of mystery and romanticism. Lying 3000 km from mainland, a good five to six hour plane journey from Chile. It is the furthest East of the 287 islands that make up Polynesia. Its native name is Rapa Nui and it is one of the most isolated places on earth.

There is some debate as to how the island was settled, but it is generally agreed that it was colonized by people from islands to its West, from Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. Its landscape differs slightly to other Polynesian islands, some trees simply could not grow there and this meant it has struggled in the past because of limitations on its natural resources.  Forests in general, when in abundance were of fine quality. The toromiro shrub or plant was the main source of wood for the island at one point.

And why was wood so important? The original function of art on Easter Island, as was common to the rest of Polynesia, was to serve as a medium between man and the supernatural world and most of this ‘art’ was carved in wood. Attitudes towards collecting these pieces of wood can be seen as a gateway to understanding the shift in meaning attached to an art form over centuries.  The items that represented ancestors and spirits drew the most attention from early Western collectors and it is in this context that I wish to trace their history from spiritual receptacle to exotic curio, to ‘primitive art’ and finally to highly collectable auction lots.

The Easter Island carvings share the flexed stance and disproportionate head of much Polynesian wood sculpture.  But woodcarving became a highly developed art on Easter Island, and the emaciated male figures, otherwise known as Moai Kavakava, are unique to this area and because of this were highly sought after. They have obliquely protruding ribs and an overall emaciated appearance. A particularly detailed carving is executed on the face and head of the male and the female has an overall flat form.

According to Rapa Nui tradition it is believed Tuu-ko-ihu climbed the crater Punapau and saw two sleeping spirits whose form took simply that of ribs, no bodies. He returned to his house and immediately took random pieces of wood and made two statues representing these two spirits he had seen. Some of the most interesting wooden figures are composites of human and animal forms such as the Moko, a lizard form, the Moai Aringa, double-headed figure and the Tangata Manu, a birdman figure.

The birdman cult led to a special, unique iconography and evolved because of the sacrosanct value of birds held by the islanders.  Early on it is thought they acted as signals to early navigators at sea. Their form was also thought of as a physical manifestation of the creator god, Make Make.  Dancers shaved their heads and painted them with red pigment during their ritual performances. According to the earliest visitors to the island, these carvings were held up to the sky in ritual practices or worn as pendants while participants danced and chanted.

Many layers of meaning were accrued around these objects during the process of making them. Even the practice of being an artisan was associated with higher power and knowledge. The material of the wood itself was considered a living creature with a soul and sculptors had to know the correct ritual process in handling the wood from cutting down a tree to the final polishing. Secondly it is important to remember the special context of the culture in which they were produced. These carvings were meant to function in a very specific social context which was attached to beliefs rooted in genealogy, history and mythology and embodied by ancestors chiefs and spirits. Generally with the Moai Kavakava it was assumed that because they literally represent dead corpses, or how the ancestors might have appeared to the living as ghosts, they mainly served as receptacles for spirits.

Most of the time the figures were kept carefully wrapped up in tapa or cloth and only brought out for festivals when they could also be suspended from the neck or waist. How many they wore, depended on their rank or status or the degree of chance they had of having their requests granted by a deity.  Perforations at the back of the neck or through the spine indicate they were suspended from islanders or worn during harvesting, egg gathering or fishing.  Entrances to huts would be guarded by wooden images of lizards and other zoomorphic figures, possibly protecting the threshold from spiritual enemies.

It is evident that the earliest types of wooden figure carvings were made by artisans for ceremonial and ritual purposes. This is the period most interesting to modern day collectors, as there was a superiority of carving and the form of the wood was often followed in its original state.  Later, unblemished, uniform pieces of wood were brought in from foreign sources.  A famous original birdman figure collected in 1804 by a Russian and now in the St Petersburg museum shows how adept the carvers were.  They adapted the form of the birdman to the natural curve of the wood. A human face is carved on top of the beak, which was seen from above and looks like a man with a long beard, then from the side, the image changes to a bird and long beak.

The early contact period of Easter Island history was characterized by great change. The Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen came across the island on Easter Sunday 1722 by then the people of the island had been living in isolation for more than a thousand years.  Exploration, observation and collection of island culture began with this mission.  The flow of art objects from the newly discovered island rose in significant quantities after the voyage of Cook in 1774. The information from this period is scant and anecdotal, drawn from ships’ logs and journals from the crew on board them. The history behind this early period of collecting is interesting because of the slow adaptation of the islanders to meet missionary stylistic requirement.  Early, finely carved figures and dance paraphernalia were the first items traded. As their contact with Europeans became more frequent, the islanders’ attitude to their own highly prized objects shifted, and many of the objects carved prior to contact, grew increasingly scarce.  It became fashionable for the European aristocrat to maintain a curiosity cabinet.

The material and information gathered on the Cook voyage set a standard for future travelers to the island.  Many of these wooden figures were sold to gentleman collectors of antiquities or deposited with missionary, antiquarian or literary societies.  Others were instructed by the government to collect handicrafts for research purposes.  These private collections were often later dispersed to form the nucleus of museum ethnographical collections.  Missionaries arrived on the island in 1864, and by 1868 the majority of the island had converted to Christianity.  A rapid decline in traditional artisanal and societal customs was followed.  Strict and conservative Victorian values led for instance to many of the genitalia of the figures to be lopped off older examples and omitted completely from new carvings. The supply and demand of this early tourist trade meant there was pressure on the islanders to abandon their own aesthetic standards and religious beliefs in favour of producing souvenirs.

The idea that with Western collecting and possession comes new meaning to objects is fascinating. Their meaning can only be fully understood when used in their original context for ceremonies and rituals.  This gap in understanding is usefully illustrated by the fact that these wooden figures were most avidly collected and highly prized in the West and numerous inventive replicas were made of the birdman figure for commercial purposes, without any understanding of what they represented. These wooden figures cannot be understood simply on visual terms as they are today in museums and auction houses. It is telling that there is no equivalent in the Polynesian language for art, there are only terms existing that can be associated with skill.

It was only in the 20th Century that an intellectual context began to develop in which to consider Oceanic artifacts.  With the exploration of British vessels in Polynesia in the late 18th century, more Oceanic objects found their way to England, than to any other part of the world.  This amassing of objects turned into large collections of art in the 20th century.  W. O. Oldman was one of the largest English collectors and dealers. He first started collecting in the 1890s.  But it was after World War 1 that he really had the opportunity to extend his collection with fine pieces at little cost, because of the ignorance of the value of Oceanic items in England.

By the 1920s, Modern art dealers in Paris were beginning to offer tribal art material for sale as fine art rather than ethnographic curiosities, perhaps spurred on by Gauguin’s fascination with Polynesia. Modern artists work was often shown in conjunction with Oceanic pieces.  Max Ernst in 1934 published his book, Les Sept Elements.  It was a collage novel in seven parts, each part corresponding to a day of the week.  Thursday was entitled L’Ile de Pacques.  Easter Island became an important influence on his work and inspired motifs in his work, such as Lop Lop, the birdman figure.  Jacob Epstein was also buying Oceanic pieces from Charles Raton and Louis Carré in Paris and Kenneth Webster in London.  By 1931 he had amassed over two hundred pieces.  He was interested in their sculptural forms and their original religious context.  He had seven Easter Island figures documented in his collection, one from Cook’s voyage.  Traces of orange pigment were found in the male figures mouth and eyes which suggests it was an early specimen, perhaps used in a ritual performance.

The figure came up for auction at Sotheby’s Paris in 2002 estimated at $100,000 to $150,000 and ended up selling for over $300,000 showing how the appreciation of these figures has risen.

Its an exceptionally large emaciated figure and the design on its rear which suggests a loincloth were probable contributing factors to its value.  Epstein’s collection was dispersed after his death at auction and scattered in various public and private collections.   Epstein’s collection exemplifies the transition these figures underwent once removed from Easter Island, becoming coveted native trophies and souvenirs to highly sought after art objects sourced for private and museum collections.

The increasing interest from the art world in America was spearheaded by Nelson Rockefeller and another art connoisseur, Morton May.  Their influence saw the final attitudinal shift from the carvings being peripheral art forms, coined ‘primitive art’, to their international endorsement as art by one of the biggest art museums in America.  The National Gallery of Art held the landmark exhibition Art of the Pacific islands in 1979.

The soaring price of Oceanic art at auction over the last few decades reflects another stage in the historical context of these objects. It is with the most recent auction sales that we realize how high up the art ranks these objects have risen.  A male figure in the Rene Gaffé collection in December 2001, sold for $625,000 and in 2008 another one sold for $614,500 at Sotheby’s New York. Form, provenance, cultural and historical significance, patina and condition, have become important criteria by which the value of a wooden figure from Easter Island is judged, far from their origins.

Since the 1970s after the death of their original owners, some of the finest examples have re-emerged for sale at auction. Today some islanders are rediscovering their roots and looking back at the work of their ancestors trying to relearn the tradition and styles of their ancient culture. And this of course takes our summary journey full circle.

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