The first-ever American exhibition devoted to the art of Easter Island – the
most remote inhabited place on the earth – will open at The Metropolitan
Museum of Art on December 12, 2001. Featuring some 50 works, including
a celebrated stone head of a moai, Splendid Isolation: Art of Easter
Island will explore the island's distinctive art forms as expressions of
supernatural and secular power.
Dating from the 13th to the late 19th century, works in the exhibition will
range from a monumental stone head to refined wooden sculptures, brightly
painted barkcloth figures, and tablets inscribed with rongorongo. They will
be brought together from the Museum's own collection as well as loans from
museums and private collections in the United States and Canada. Many of
these works will be on public display for the first time.
Easter Island was settled around 600 A.D. by Polynesian voyagers who
arrived from the islands to the west. By the time Dutch explorer Jacob
Roggeveen encountered and named the island on Easter Sunday 1722, its
people had been living in almost total isolation for more than a thousand
years. During that period, the Easter Islanders (today known as the
Rapanui) had developed a unique series of artistic traditions. The art on
Easter Island both embodied and signified the supernatural power of the gods
and the chiefs who were believed to be their direct descendants. To harness
this power, their artists created images of diverse supernatural beings, who
mediated between the divine and material worlds and sought to tap the
supernatural power, or mana, of the gods for the benefit of human society.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is the massive head of a moai, whose weight
is over a half ton (Smithsonian Institution). One of only two examples in
North America, this robustly hewn stone face was brought to the United
States by an American expedition in 1886. During the period from
approximately 700 to 1600, Easter Island sculptors created nearly 1,000
moai, some of which exceed 30 feet in height. The moai that adorned its
sacred temples are conventionalized images of ancestral chiefs, in which, like
the living chiefs themselves, the supernatural power of the gods was believed
to be manifest during religious ceremonies. 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 will be a hybrid bird-human figure
(American Museum of Natural History), representing Makemake, the most
powerful of the island’s gods. 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 of a migratory seabird. The winner's chief became the
leader of the island for the next year. Admired by early- 20th-century
European artists and intellectuals, birdman 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.
Also featured in the exhibition will be a barkcloth-covered human figure
whose face is brightly painted in red, black, and white stripes (Peabody
Museum of Archaeology); it also wore tattoos of dance paddles that were
formerly worn by the islanders. Among the finely crafted ornaments is an
elegant crescent-shaped pendant with a skillfully sculpted face (Indiana
University Art Museum). This large pendant, which extends shoulder to
shoulder, was probably worn by a high-ranking woman for a special
Two extremely rare wooden tablets inscribed with the island's unique
hieroglyph-like script called rongorongo will also be on view. After the
islanders converted to Christianity in the late 19th century, the vast
majority of them were destroyed and less than two dozen examples survive
today. The tablets detail the history and mythology of the island, but have
never satisfactorily been translated.
Lenders to the exhibition are: American Museum of Natural History,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Peabody Museum of Archaeology
and Ethnology, Harvard University; Peabody Essex Museum, Salem,
Massachusetts; American Museum of Natural History, New York; Indiana
University Art Museum, Bloomington; Springfield Science Museum,
Springfield, Massachusetts; and New Brunswick Museum, Saint John, Canada,
as well as a number of private collections.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Metropolitan Museum will offer a
variety of educational programs and resources, including a series of lectures,
gallery talks, and films designed to inform the visitor about the origins and
significance of Easter Island’s diverse artistic traditions.
The exhibition will be accompanied by an illustrated catalogue.
The exhibition is organized by Eric Kjellgren, the Evelyn A. J. Hall and John
A. Friede Assistant Curator for Oceanic art in the Metropolitan's Department
of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.