To honor their dead, Easter Islanders constructed wooden idols that were considered visual manifestations of the spirits of the deceased. Wood was the material favored by local artisans, usually from the indigenous Sophora toromiro tree. Wooden figures are called moai (sculptures) toromiro. Moai were normally wrapped in tapa cloth and stored in the rafters of houses. On ceremonial occasions they were brought out and worn around the neck of the owner or a dancer.
Moai aringa, double-headed or Janus-faced sculptures, may be depictions of the legendary twin-faced Easter Island warrior, Rav-hiva-aringa-erua. Moai papa (flat sculptures) are female figures or hermaphroditic depictions of a deified ancestral being. It is possible that this rare example, collected in 1870 on the island by a Chilean naval expedition, combines both these types. The carving's double and ambiguous sexuality expresses the duality that is a sign of the supernatural. The two heads are indicative of the all-knowing, all-seeing power of omnipotent spirits that can look backward and forward, surveying both the visible and invisible realms.
Easter Island female figures are typically flat, with wide, planklike bodies. They often have masculine features, such as this one's goatee, which may show that the supernatural power of the female beings they represent is equivalent to that of their male counterparts. The figure has elongated earlobes, a reference to her great age, decorated with disk-shaped ornaments. Her long fingers are a sign of aristocracy, as is the circle around the lumbar region, symbolizing the maro, the sacred loincloth of authority.
The Israel Museum, Publisher: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2005
Highlights of the Collection: African and Oceanic Art, Israel Museum, Jerusalem