Representatives of Easter Island’s indigenous Rapa Nui community met with officials from the British Museum this week to make an impassioned plea for the return of Hoa Hakananai’a, a sculpted basalt head removed from the island in 1868. The visit represents the culmination of a renewed recovery campaign sparked by Easter Island mayor Pedro Edmunds’ August appeal to the museum—and, as Naomi Rea reports for artnet News, marks the first time the London institution has agreed to enter discussions regarding the famed sculpture.
The imposing head’s fate remains unclear: Museum officials accepted an invitation to visit Easter Island and continue talks there, but a spokesperson emphasized the possibility of a loan rather than outright repatriation, telling the Times’ Tom Whipple that “the museum is one of the world’s leading lenders and the trustees will always consider loan requests subject to usual conditions.”
For the Rapa Nui, the statue’s 150-year absence is a visceral personal loss. As John Bartlett explains for the Guardian, the islanders believe the sculpture and its 900 or so extant compatriots, collectively known as Moai, are living incarnations of deceased relatives.
“We want the museum to understand that the Moai are our family, not just rocks,” Anakena Manutomatoma, a member of the island’s development commission, tells Bartlett.
Hoa Hakananai’a dates to roughly 1200 A.D. and is one of around 900 Moai carved by Easter Islanders between 1100 and 1600 A.D. The sculpture’s name, which translates to “lost or stolen friend,” offers an apt summary of its tangled provenance: Richard Powell, captain of the British Royal Navy frigate H.M.S. Topaze, spotted the statue on a clifftop while exploring the area back in 1868. Hoping to win the favor of his queen, Powell took both Hoa Hakananai’a and a smaller statue known as Hava back to England. The following year, Queen Victoria donated both sculptures to the British Museum.
The Rapa Nui’s latest repatriation effort has at least one powerful backer: the government of Chile, as represented during the London visit by National Assets Minister Felipe Ward. Chile annexed Easter Island, situated some 2,480 miles west of its capital city of Santiago, back in 1888 and made it a special territory in 2007. Under Chilean law, the Moai are deemed an “integral part of the land” rather than artifacts. Since last year, however, the indigenous group has regained control of its ancestral heritage when Chile’s then-president Michelle Bachelet returned the Moai and ancestral archaeological sites on the island to the Rapa Nui community in late November 2017. (They had been controlled by the Chilean National Forest Corporation since 1972.)
Chilean lawyer Paz Zarate tells the Times’ Whipple that the four-ton statue is one of the island’s most significant. Not only is it one of the few surviving constructed of basalt (the majority are made of soft volcanic tuff), but it is also unusually well-preserved. Carvings associated with the Tangata Manu, or “bird man” cult, adorn the sculpture’s back.
According to a separate BBC News article written by John Bartlett, Rapa Nui sculptor Benedicto Tuki has offered to create an exact replica of Hoa Hakananai’a in hopes of facilitating the real monolith’s return.
“Perhaps in the past we did not attach so much importance to Hoa Hakananai'a and his brothers,” Tuki says, “but nowadays people on the island are starting to realise just how much of our heritage there is around the world and starting to ask why our ancestors are in foreign museums."
For now, Hoa Hakananai'a will remain on view in the British Museum’s Wellcome Trust Gallery. But with a second discussion and trip to Easter Island in the works, the Rapa Nui remain hopeful. In the meantime, Tuki tells Bartlett, he and his peers will work toward the eventual goal of securing the return of all lost Moai—including those currently held on the Chilean mainland.
“We are just a body,” Easter Island governor Tarita Alarcón Rapu told press during the delegation’s London visit. “You, the British people, have our soul.”