Their name derives from the famous stone monoliths that dot the island (moai) and the prominent ribcage (kavakava). This emaciated character, whereby not only the ribcage; but the spine, hips and cheekbones are prominently exposed, led to considerable debate as to the meaning behind these enigmatic carvings. It was once thought that they represented starving ancestors, making reference to the islands well known history of ecological and societal collapse in the 18th – 19th century. It is now thought more likely that they represent the bodies of deceased ancestors, manipulated in secondary burial rites.
With its perforation to the back of the neck, the present piece was intended to be worn as a large pendant. Accounts from western visitors to Easter Island from the middle of the 19th century onwards record moai kavakava being worn during important ceremonies and dances by both men and women. Indeed, some accounts witnessed as many as twenty figures worn around the body of one individual at a time. When not in use, the figures were kept wrapped in cloth within the home, possibly as protective talismans.
Into the 20th century, the dreamlike characteristics of Oceanic art generally, and rapa sculpture specifically, greatly influenced the Surrealist movement of the early 1920s. The German Expressionist Max Ernst was greatly inspired by the moai kavakava, with the heads of the moai featured in the Thursday section of Max Ernst’s collage novel Une Semaine de Bonte. Whilst Andre Breton began collecting Easter Island moai kavakava from the age of fifteen and had amassed a major collection by the time of his death.
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