Easter Island is known for two things: the social and environmental devastation that followed over -exploitation of its resources in the late 19th century and its 887 monumental statues, called moay, the construction and transportation of which were mysteries for centuries. Today, both legacies remain inextricably linked to the culture of the island. In an exhibition that reaches its finale today at Zayed University Silicon Oasis in Dubai, two artists from the island are showcasing work they say speaks to the heart of the isolated Polynesian Island.
Christian Tuki has painted for 33 years. His work uses themes of nature and aims to give a sense that the people of Rapa Nui, as the island is referred in its official language, possess a far deeper history than that which can be gleaned from the statues alone. Using earth tones and often depicting people and animals as they appear in reality, Tuki reveals an ongoing connection with nature that is part of a great nationalistic pride.
"I want to show that [we are people] who love simple things; music, nature, [we are] respectful of it and its laws. We are one of the wonders of the world." Andres Pakarati wears many hats: artist, tattooist, traditional Polynesian carver. Born into a traditional Rapa Nui artist family, he learnt the art of carving from family, a skill that has been passed down for generations. "When we start learning to make these small sculptures, we do so because we can sell them to the tourists," he explains. "It's for work. It takes years to learn how to make bigger ones."
Pakarati explains that his family has been making the island's traditional sculptures for more than 1,500 years. Upon mastering the art, he says that he soon realised this alone would not be enough for him, at which point he began to learn about other forms of expression. "I'd travel for three months a year and had seen the sculptures of other places. It [gave] me a better understanding of what I do," he says. "In my own culture, art is the most important thing. At home everyone is an artist, and it's important because the artists are the ones who keep us in touch with our roots. We have a specific style, an aesthetic that's our own."
Over the course of the current Easter Island exhibition, Pakarati has worked on two traditional statues called paenga, both of which will reach a height of three metres. He's working on them at a desert site outside Dubai. When complete, one statue will sit at the university, the other at the Chilean embassy here. Almost 1,000 of these statues sit on Easter Island today. It is estimated they were carved between the years 1250 and 1500. The tallest reach about 11 metres in height and in some cases the stone they are made out of weighs hundreds of tonnes. This and the fact that the statues' raw materials would have to have been moved from one area of the island to another has shrouded them in mystery.
Local legends explain that the movement of the statues resulted from their being commanded by higher powers to walk to their ultimate locations. Barring that theory, it is supposed that the statues were moved via a massive human effort, involving ropes and a trolley system made of wood. This hypothesis is made primarily because the halt of the statues' production coincided with the disappearance of the island's last tree, which, according to scientists' pollen tests, occurred around 1650.
The island has undergone waves of immense change and, as Pakarati explains, it continues to. Much of the deforestation that mars the island's past is the work of its original inhabitants, making what the artist calls centuries of bad decisions with regards to resource management. But the arrival of Europeans also brought new animal species, among them rats. These non-native rats made their nests in the trees, and in an effort to eliminate them, many of the island's trees were destroyed.
Though reforestation has taken place, Pakarati explains that the population of 4,000 people is bombarded almost year round with tourists, and this presents its own set of challenges. "The mix of indigenous culture and modern cultures doesn't always work. We have so many more TVs, cars, computers, there are fast food places everywhere," he explains. "It's changed this famous place quite a lot. It's affected our lifestyles."
Tuki shares the same sentiments, that the island people are struggling but determined to maintain their traditions while opening up to the modernities that are necessary for any tourist destination. "I want to tell everyone that we like being so far away, but we still need to grow and learn."