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"Splendid Isolation: Art of Easter Island"
2001-12-11 until 2002-08-04
Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York, NY, USA

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 ceremony.

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.


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