The art on view in a new Oceanic art gallery (opening by the end of December) was once surrounded by the scent of aromatic flowers, the rustling of palm leaves, and the mesmerizing sound of shell trumpets. Museums tend to collect what fits in a glass box, and lose sight of such intangible effects. In particular, Oceanic artists rely on and revere natural materials, many of which may decay or dissolve but are no less valued.

Early observers of Rapa Nui culture and art recorded seeing small wooden figures being held up to the sky while others chanted and danced, particularly at feasts when the first fruits were offered. A male figure with a protruding stomach offers one version of Rapa Nui physiognomy. As with his skeletal companions, there isn’t a precise record of the significance of these remarkable images. This one may have been intended to portray a specific individual, with a small beard and ornaments in his elongated ear lobes. With their wide staring eyes and perplexing characteristics, the art of Rapa Nui continues to give observers more to wonder about than to confirm proven facts.

Male Figure (Moai Tangata), early 19th century, Polynesian, Easter Island (Rapa Nui), wood, bone, obsidian, 10 1/2 x 2 1/4 x 2 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 68.131. On view starting at the end of December, Oceanic art gallery, third floor, SAM downtown.

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