Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Masterpieces of Old Polynesia - Moai Kava Kava at Te Papa Museum

Apart from the famous giant Moai statues, the little wooden moai kava kava sculptures are the most famous works of art from Easter Island. These carvings have a interesting history and provide a fine example of how current scientific theories contamiate art history. Following the broad adoption of the theory of the social collapse of Easter Island society due to ecological overstretch, these little images suddenly came to represent emaciation caused by stavation. Fortunetely good sense prevailed and the current view is that rather than emaciation, the figures portray the cadavers of deceased ancestors, manipulated in secondary burial rites. In other words they represent the rotting carcases of ancestors. Although this may sound goulish this is entirely in keeping with the burial customs of Eastern Polynesia.

This early example was part of the William Oldman collection and is especially finely carved. Normally these figures have a suspension lug carved at the nape of the neck, presumable to be worn around the neck at religious festivals. On top of the head are figures carved in low relief of frigate birds, formerly part of the birdman cult of the creator god Makemake. In the mouth between the teeth are traces of red ochre. Interestingly the carving also has a contemporary break at the shoulder with two holes drilled for binding the break with vegetable fibre, which far from detracting from the piece this only adds to its appeal like the native butterfly repairs on Hawaiian calabashes. The image below of the midriff, hands and penis clearly show the superb quality of the carving and the beautiful colour of the patination as well as the high polish, produced I suspect by stone burnishing by the artist.

In Oldman's 1938 catalogue he describes the carving thus; “342 Male figure, similar. The head-glyph is of two joined birds with fish-like tails (see detail plate 85). On the spine near waist is a small circle. Teeth coloured with orange-red pigment. Height, 16½ins.; width, 3½ins. Easter island. Brought home by Thos. Dawson of Penzance about 1835.”

In the catalogue of his magnificent collection of Moai kavakava, William Oldman listed this carving third which if I know collectors, indicated his true preference, probably he down graded it because the damage to the shoulder and for your interest below is an image of number one. Interestingly years ago I was allowed to handle numbers one and two and they are superb, no image in colour or in black and white can match the glory of having these objects held in your own hands. Currently they are in the Canterbury Museum closed due to earthquake damage. This Moai kavakava is in Te Papa Museum which is the National Museum of New Zealand and is currently on display and I saw it again some months ago when in Wellington. Again and again the very best of Polynesian Art shocks the modern carver by the sheer beauty and the delicacy of the carving. Time to Stone Age people had a different meaning to that of modern people, looking at this Moai kavakava one can see detail that only patience and unlimited time can produce, that and of course extrordinary skill. As a carver skilled at using traditional techniques one knows exactly how much time was required to carve, abrade and burnish an object of this quality and sometimes I really wonder if a modern human being is capable of equaling such superb workmanship and artistry.

As an interesting aside some years ago I tried to convince the Canterbury Museum to let me make limited edition bronzes of their best Oldman Moai kavakava, however my timing was well off because at the request of a Japanese Museum and paid for by them the Canterbury Museum had just completed making a mold of one of their giant Moa skeletons but when they tried to make a mold of one of their only two complete and perfect Moa eggs, they somehow managed to break the thing and subsequently and perhaps wisely decided to retire from the replication business.However, I believe they made a serious mistake in this regard because I believe many collectors would love to own a bronze of any of the Oldman Collection moai kavakava. However, I do not intend giving up on the idea and perhaps when they have got over their little fright they can be persuaded to revisit the idea, so email me expressions of interest and perhaps together we can help change their minds. The other ones in Canterbury are, you guessed it, currently in shoeboxes.


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