Male Figure (Moai Tangata), early 19th century
Rapa Nui people, Rapa Nui (Easter Island)
Wood, obsidian, bone; H. 16 in. (40.6 cm)
Gift of Faith–dorian and Martin Wright, in honor of Livio Scamperle, 1984 (1984.526)
Of all the diverse forms of wood sculpture created by artists on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), the naturalistic male figures known as moai tangata, with their enlarged heads, frontal stance, and prominent stomachs, 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.
Sporting the small, goateelike 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 has a hole drilled through the back of the neck indicating that, like other Rapa Nui figures, the carving may have been worn as a pendant during harvest festivals and other ceremonies. What appears to be the figure's hair consists of a group of three images depicting fishlike creatures with human heads and long flowing beards. These distinctive "fishmen," virtually identical to examples that appear in Rapa Nui rock art, possibly represent spirits, called nuihi, which combine the features of humans and sharks.