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Dance paddle, Easter Island (Rapa Nui)

Horniman Museum and Gardens


Early-to-mid-19th century.
Wood (possibly toromiro wood, Mimosa sp.)

Little is known about this type of ritual paddle, a rapa. The double-sided form of this one is unique in Polynesia, since they typically have only one blade. Used as part of a pair in seated ritual dances, possibly connected to fertility and to funerary rituals, the paddle is characterised by the abstract carving of an anthropomorphic figure, which is highly distinctive from other kinds of indigenous representation. This raises questions about the symbolic significance of the decoration in relation to the dance ritual in which it was used. A striking match is achieved between the visual abstraction of the human figure and the shape of the paddle. 

Though differing wildly across cultures, rituals act as psychological frameworks, particularly focused on life’s transitional moments: birth, adolescence, illness, death and so forth. Through dance and movement, offerings and consumption, song and other activities, rituals provide a commonly understood means of expressing emotions, feelings and/or wishes associated with change and grief that can otherwise be painfully difficult to express.

Henry Wellcome’s lifelong interest in anthropology and ethnography was reflected in the nature of more than half of his collections, which contained vast hoards of photographs, masks, weapons, religious and ritual objects and, not surprisingly, many others associated with healing. In the Medicine Man gallery, see if you can find Edward Curtis’s 19th-century photographs of Native Americans, a pair of Fakir’s sandals from India, a Peruvian mummy dated 1200–1400 and a kareau figure from the Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal.

Horniman Museum and Gardens, London


This will be on display at Wellcome Collection between 12 July - 21 August 2011

See this object in its context at the Horniman Museum (on display 20 January - 6 March 2011)
See this object in its context at the Natural History Museum (on display 8 March - 17 April 2011)
See this object in its context at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (on display 19 April - 29 May 2011)
See this object in its context at the Science Museum (on display 1 June - 10 July 2011)

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