Little is known about the meaning and use of hermaphroditic figures, although there are several distinct forms: hybrid lizardmen, women, skeletal men and Moai tangata, naturalistic men with plump stomachs.
This figure has unusually long arms and is standing, passively, on squat legs. It represents a person of high standing, suggested by the closely shaved head, elongated ears and a circular tattoo indicated by the raised disc on the small of the back. It is believed that such figures were worn suspended from a performer’s neck during feasts and religious events. Traces of an applied white pigment remain that may relate to an unknown ritual use.
This figure seemingly portrays a wealthy man whose sagging breasts and belly are testimony to years of good eating. However, the figure does not have the manicured goatee beard typical of Rapa Nui men. This, coupled with the breasts, which are strikingly similar to those found on female figures (Moai papa), follows a recurring element evident in Polynesian figurative art and may also suggest that this figure is the depiction of a hermaphrodite.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008