Among the enigmatic carved figures from Easter Island, the Moai Tangata Moko figures, also known as "lizard-men", reveal some of the most distinctive traits. More than an anthropo-zoomorphic entity whose identity is marked in the combination of its human and lizard features, the fluidity of these figures' movement, motion and composition clearly bring to mind the notion of metamorphosis.
According to conventional characteristics, the half-man, half-reptile figure stretches out in a sinuous movement, bringing to mind both the fluidity of an animal and the process of metamorphosis; the arms are folded on the chest in the axis of the body, the hands are joined together under the chin, the "lizard" head is complete with a nose and bushy eyebrows, the corners of the jaw, curled in a spiral, resemble ears, the ribs are visible, the protruding and detailed spine fans out on the upper part of the buttocks, the navel and genitalia are depicted. Its size, the use of toromiro wood, the quality of the sculpture and the depth of the patina place the offered lot amongst the fifty known "lizard men" figures which were sculpted before 1870.
In Easter Island mythology, the lizard takes pride of place, as it comes and goes between the surface and the depths of the earth. According to Orliac (2008 : 142-143) "they are the hosts of graves and of the world of the dead; thus they carry the tale of the actions of the living and bring back to the light messages from the ancestors". They never appear as such in sculpture, but their features are visible in these famous lizard men figures, Moai Tangata Moko. As with the rest of the Easter Island statuary, their importance remains mostly mysterious. According to Orliac (idem: 144), the poor reputation of lizards in Rapa Nui suggests that they are probably used to "protect humans against the ailments caused by certain reptiles that are evil or manipulated by sorcerers".
The hole pierced in the centre of the spine made it possible to hang the figure horizontally and most likely to wear it during ritual and festive dances. According to Kaeppler (in Hooper, 2008: 143), they then embodied prayers and chants "thereby giving a permanent form to ephemeral ritual activities".
As with each of the pieces in this corpus studied by Catherine and Michel Orliac, it was sculpted from an arched branch of a Sophora toromiro tree. This exclusivity highlights, according to them (idem), the symbolic connection, stronger even than the bond with the other otherworldly dwellers, that this tree has with the reptilian entity.
cf. Hooper (2008: 146, n° 93) for a very similar statue of a lizard man in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin (inv. n° 1880.1603, from the Royal Dublin Society); and Oldman (1943: pl. 87, n° 358) for another, in the W.O Oldman collection.
For almost forty years this statue was considered by writer and avant-garde gallery owner Daniel Cordier - who took part in the famous 1964 Le Surréalisme exhibition at the Galerie Charpentier - as one of the most prominent pieces of his collection.
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