Wooden Easter Island HeadsWood Easter Island heads
Fiona Brenninkmaker's Easter Island
The development of woodcarvings on Easter Island from a sacred vessel to an art object for auctions. Let me take you on a little trip to Easter Island. This is the easternmost of the 287 Polynesian isles. It has been discussed how the island was populated, but there is agreement that it was colonised by populations from the western Isles of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.
It is a slightly different island from other Polyynesian ones, some tree species just could not thrive there and this means that in the past it had to struggle because of its limited naturesources. In one place the most important timber spring for the island was the toromiro bush or tree. Why was it so important?
On Easter Island, the primordial purpose of the arts, as shared by the remainder of Polynesia, was to act as a mediator between man and the super-natural realm, and most of this "art" was engraved in lumell. The attitude towards the collection of these wooden works can be seen as a gate to the comprehension of the change of significance of an artistic genre over time.
Ancient and ghostly objects attracted most of the interest of early occidental gatherers, and in this connection I would like to follow their story from spirit vessels to eccentric curiosities to "primitive art" and ultimately to looty auctions. Easter Island woodcarvings divide the curved posture and the disproportionately large number of wooden sculptures from Polynesia.
However, wood carvings became a sophisticated craft on Easter Island, and the skinny masculine characters, also known as Moai Kavakava, are one of a kind in this area and therefore very popular. An especially detailled woodwork is carved on the face and skull of the males and the females have a generally shallow shape.
It is said that according to Rafa Nui traditions Tuu-ko-ihu ascended the Punapau craters and saw two dormant ghosts, which just had the shape of a rib, no shells. Returning to his home, he immediately took accidental wooden objects and made two sculptures depicting these two ghosts he had seen.
The most interesting wooden figurines are compositions of man and animals such as the moko, a moai aringa, a double-headed figurine and the tangata manu, a birdfigurine. Anthroposophical worship resulted in a particular and singular image and developed through the religious value of the bird kept by the people.
Its shape was also seen as a natural expression of the Make Make Make Make divine work. The dancer shave their heads and paint them with scarlet pigments during their ceremonial performance. These woodcarvings, according to the first islanders, were kept up to heaven in ceremonial practice or carried as trailers while the attendees were dancing and singing.
During the manufacturing processes, many levels of significance emerged around these items. Timber itself was regarded as a being with a spirit, and the sculptor had to know the right ceremonial way of dealing with it, from felling a forest to finally shearing it.
Secondly, it is important to recall the particular cultural contexts in which they were made. The woodcarvings were to work in a very particular societal environment, linked to convictions deeply embedded in geneology, story and legend and embodied by chieftains and ghosts. Usually the figurines were wraped in tapas or shawls and only released for festivities if they could also be hung on the throat or at the groin.
Perforation on the back of the throat or through the spinal column indicates that they were carried during harvest, collecting eggs or during harvest. The hut doors are protected by wooden paintings of iguanas and other zomorphic characters, possibly to protect the doorstep from the spirit. Obviously, the oldest kinds of wooden figurines were made by craftsmen for ceremony and ceremony.
It is the most interesting time for contemporary artisans, since there was a supremacy of carvings and the shape of the timber was often followed in its initial state. Later undisturbed, unified wooden fragments from international springs were introduced. In 1804 a well-known bird figurine, gathered by a native of Russia and now in the St. Petersburg Musuem, shows how skilful the woodcarvers were.
The shape of the birdmen was adjusted to the shape of the timber's naturally curved surface. On the bill is sculpted a man's face, seen from above and looking like a man with a long moustache, then the picture changes from the side to a snout.
During the early phase of Easter Island's development, there were major changes. On Easter Sunday 1722 the discoverer Jacob Roggeveen came across the island, until then the island had been isolated for more than a thousand years. It was with this missions that the research, observations and collections of island civilization began.
After Cook's journey in 1774, the stream of works of art from the new island increased considerably. This early collection is interesting because of the island' s inhabitants' gradual adjustment to missions. Early, fine carvings and dancing utensils were the first to be sold.
With the European contacts becoming more and more common, the islanders' attitudes towards their own treasured properties became more and more limited, and many of the items engraved before the inscription. Materials and information collected on the Cook trip sets a benchmark for prospective travellers on the island. Most of these wooden figurines were either bought by gentlemen collecting antiques or lodged with missionaries, antiquarians or literature-associations.
Later on, these privately owned collection were often scattered to make up the core of the museum's ethnographic collection. In 1864 the island was invaded by a missionary and by 1868 the island had been Christian. For example, rigorous and traditional Viktorian ideals meant that many of the genitals of the characters were cut off from older specimens and left out entirely from new work.
As a result of the availability and popularity of this early tourism industry, the inhabitants of the island were forced to give up their own esthetic norms and religions in favor of the production of memorabilia. It is a fascination the concept that with the West gathering and owning things takes on a new significance. It can only be fully comprehended if it is used in its initial contexts for ceremony and ritual.
However, this lack of comprehension is demonstrated by the fact that these wooden figurines were most eagerly gathered and appreciated in the West and that many innovative reproductions of the bird figurine were made for trade without realizing what they were. It is not easy to visually understand these wooden figurines as they can be found in today's museum and auctions.
Only in the twentieth-century, an intelligent contexts began to evolve in which ocean artefacts could be observed. By exploring English ships in Polynesia in the latter part of the eighteenth centuary, more oceanographic items found their way to England than to any other part of the globe. From this collection of artefacts, large artworks were created in the twentieth centuries.
It was only after the First World War that he really had the chance to expand his collections with delicate objects at low costs, as he did not know the value of ocean objects in England. The works of contemporary art have often been shown in connection with ocean works. The Easter Island became an important influential place in his work and inspire motives like Lop Lop, the bird mannequin.
Epstein also bought oceansic works by Charles Raton and Louis Carré in Paris and Kenneth Webster in London. Until 1931 he had collected over two hundred of them. It was interested in their sculpural shapes and their initial worship contexts. One of Cook's journeys, he had seven Easter Island figurines on display in his own museum collections.
Remains of oranges were found in the mouths and eye of the men, suggesting that it was an early example, perhaps used in a procession. In 2002, the number was put at $100,000 to $150,000 at Sotheby's Paris and finally auctioned for over $300,000, which shows how the revaluation of these numbers has increased.
Being an extraordinarily large skinny picture and the styling on its back suggesting a loin cloth were likely contributory factors to its value. Epstein's own Easter Island illustrates the transformation of these figurines into popular local trophy and souvenir items for museums and homes.
As a result of their impact, the woodcarvings developed from those on the periphery, known as "primitive art", to their recognition internationally as one of America's largest fine arts galleries. In 1979, the National Gallery of Arts hosted the groundbreaking exhibit entitled Artworks of the Pacific Isles. Over the last few years, the rapid rise in the prices of Australian arts has reflected another step in the historic background of these works.
Recent auctions have made us aware of how high the artistic rankings of these items have been. One Rene Gaffé masculine figurine in December 2001, for $625,000 and another for $614,500 at Sotheby's New York in 2008. Shape, origin, cultural and historic importance, shine and state have become important criterions to judge the value of a wooden figurine from Easter Island far away from its origin.
Nowadays, some of the island' s inhabitants rediscover their origins and look back on the work of their forefathers, who try to learn back the traditions and style of their time.