Monday 17 September 2012

Hidden Friend

My three year-old has a bit of an obsession with the film Night at the Museum in which objects come to life through magic. His imagination is particularly fired by the talking Easter Island head. Since he likes going to museums anyway, it’s not surprising that he likes to visit the British Museum to see their Easter Island statue.

He’s called Hoa Hakananai'a and he is a tall, striking figure that dominates the gallery where he stands. He has been placed so that looks his other-worldly gaze over the heads of the visitors in the direction of Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, in the South Pacific. This is one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world and, consequently, one of the last places on the globe to be populated by humans, probably between 700-900. Over time the islanders developed a unique culture and they carved large numbers of these statues, called Moai. They were  probably intended to represent the faces of deified ancestors or spirits and many were placed looking on the coasts looking outwards where they must have been an awe-inspiring sight to visitors arriving over the sea.

Like many small islands, Rapa Nui has a fragile ecosystem and over time the island became over-populated and resources over-harvested. All the species of large trees, many landbirds and some sea birds became extinct. There followed an environmental disaster and, by the time of European arrival in 1722, the island's population had dropped to 2,000–3,000 from approximately 15,000 just a century earlier. During this period of upheaval, the Ancestor Cult ended and was replaced by the Birdman Cult. At the same time, somewhere around 1600, the islanders abruptly stopped carving their Moai.

On the back of Hoa Hakananai'a a carving has been added representing this new Birdman cult. It is not easy to make out all of the detail and, to my eyes, is closer to carved graffiti than to high quality religious artwork. It certainly does not compare with the strength, power and mystery of his front.

It is unusual to have the impact of environmental changes carved in stone. Hoa Hakananai'a is a solid representation of the relationship between art/ culture and the environment and a reminder that this relationship has been with us for a very long time.

Art and culture are ways of exploring what it means to be human and the relationship between humans and the world we inhabit. Hoa Hakananai'a, which roughly translates as “Hidden Friend” was a gift from the Rapanui to the British in 1868.  If we care to listen to our hidden friend, he has a message that he has brought with him from the past. Moreover, he will be around after we have gone, carrying his message into the future – a future in which my son will be living with the consequences of our actions today.

File:Wellcome Trust Gallery + Living & Dying (Room 24).jpg

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