Easter1Rapa Nui Easter Island Male Figure mo‘ai kavakava
Sporting the small, goatee beard typical of both male and female Rapa Nui wood images, this figure wears large circular ornaments in the artificially elongated lobes of his ears and of the type worn as a pendant during harvest festivals and other ceremonies. Eyes are of fish vertebra and obsidian. Powerful & well carved, a detailed, traditional & expressive late example of type c1900. Some loss to right foot. On Perspex display stand base.

Deep warm handled Patina

Wood, obsidian, bone; Height 36cm (14.4 inches)


Mo‘ai kavakava are male carvings and the moai Paepae are female carvings. These grotesque and highly detailed human figures carved from Toromiro pine, represents ancestors. Sometimes these statues were used for fertility rites. Usually, they are used for harvest celebrations; "the first picking of fruits was heaped around them as offerings". When the statues were not used, they would be wrapped in bark cloth and kept at home. There was a few times that are reported when the islanders would pick up the figures like dolls and dance with them. The earlier figures are rare and generally depict a male figure with an emaciated body and a goatee. The figures' ribs and vertebrae are exposed and many examples show carved glyphs on various parts of the body but more specifically, on the top of the head. The female figures, rarer than the males, depict the body as flat and often with the female's hand lying across the body. The figures, although some were quite large, were worn as ornamental pieces around a tribesman's neck. The more figures worn, the more important the man. The figures have a shiny patina developed from constant handling and contact with human skin.

The name mo‘ai kavakava is formed from mo‘ai for the monumental monolithic human figures found on Easter Island and the word kavakava meaning ribs. Little is known about the cultural context of these figures although they are generally considered to be representations of starving ancestors or demons.
German Expressionist Max Ernst was inspired by these figures and their rituals, and they can also be found in the collections of the French surrealist André Breton.


Another form of wood sculpture created by artists on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), is the naturalistic male figures known as moai tangata, with their enlarged heads, frontal stance, and prominent stomachs; these bear the closest formal resemblance to the island's well-known stone figures. Little is known about the nature and use of moai tangata, but they likely portray ancestors or other powerful supernatural beings and may have been venerated as part of family or individual religious observances. Possibly representing family ancestors, some moai tangata, although their features are conventionalized, may have been intended to portray specific individuals.

S.R. Fischer, ‘Rapani’s Tu’u ko Iho versus Mangareva’a ‘Atu Motua: Evidence for Multiple Reanalysis and Replacement in Rapanui Settlement Traditions, Easter Island’, Journal of Pacific History, 29 (1994), 3–48

S. Hooper, Pacific Encounters: Art and Divinity in Polynesia 1760-1860 (London, 2006)

A.L. Kaeppler, ‘Sculptures of Barkcloth and Wood from Rapa Nui: Continuities and Polynesian Affinities’, Anthropology and Aesthetics, 44 (2003), 10–69

R. Langdon, ‘New light on Easter Island Prehistory in a ‘Censored’ Spanish Report of 1770’, Journal of Pacific History, 30 (1995), 112–120

J.L. Palmer, ‘Observations on the Inhabitants and the Antiquaries of Easter Island’, Journal of the Ethnological Society of London, 1 (1869), 371–377

P. Rainbird, ‘A Message for our Future? The Papa Nui (Easter Island) Eco-disaster and Pacific Island Environments’, World Archaeology, 33 (2002), 436–451

J.A. Van Tilburg, and G. Lee, ‘Symbolic Stratigraphy, Rock Art and the Monolithic Statues of Easter Island’, World Archaeology, 19 (1987), 133–149

J.A. Van Tilburg,  Remote Possibilities: Hoa Hakananai’a and HMS Topaze on Rapa Nui (London, 2006)

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