Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Takona: Body Painting in Rapa Nui Performing Arts1

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Takona: Body Painting in Rapa Nui Performing Arts1

Article excerpt

During the several years 1 stayed on Rapa Nui - also known as Easter Island, on the eastern side of the South Pacific Ocean - I saw and participated in many cultural events such as dancing and singing. Due to its theatricality and its strong sense of belonging, to do with places and clans, one particular genre of storytelling caught my attention: Takona, a traditional form of Rapa Nui body painting. 'Ta' means to mark and 'kona' means a geographical place or surface. Thus, 'Takona' can be literally translated as 'marking a place or a surface'. Through Takona it is possible to represent either a place or a person associated with a place. The word 'kona' does not only mean 'place'; it can also refer to the surface of different parts of the body where each design is drawn, with each part having its specific name, as I describe later. In contemporary practice, Takona can be found during the Tapati Rapa Nui Festival. Also, performing arts company Mata Tu'u Hotu Iti has made integral use of the technique in their storytelling practices. Before introducing these two contemporary usages, I begin with a brief history of the practice.

Although the birth of body art goes back to other areas of the Pacific, it is difficult to determine a starting date or to affirm where it first began to be practised.2 As for body painting, it is known that many cultures utilised different pigments to cover their faces and bodies in sacred ceremonies. The Rapa Nui culture developed it in a particular way, incorporating original motifs, which had a great importance as part of the body's decoration, as well as helping to make tattooed designs stand out. Prior to the arrival of the first sailors and missionaries, Takona was used to distinguish rank and class.3 In contemporary society, Rapa Nui people believe that the king and other nobility had indelible tattoos which depicted the genealogy of their family and affirmed the legacy of each as passed by blood line. Other individuals and the working class used body painting as a way to differentiate their roles in society. Thus, fishermen might have fish, fishing spots, stars, and ways of reading the tide painted on their bodies. Similarly, the sculptors of moai (stone statues) might have painted on their bodies their work instruments, or perhaps the place where the object for sculpting was located. According to oral tradition, another use of body painting was during a ceremony in which young men selected a partner by assembling at a particular place on the island where the girls were fully assembled and painted. The ceremony consisted of the display of the body and paint in order for young men to choose their future wives. In yet another example, following the competition to elect a new leader of all clans over the coming year, body painting was employed to designate the winner: the head of the winner was shaved and painted red.

It seems that painting the face and the body was a practice consistently used on special occasions and in rituals, but according to notes made by the first sailors, voyagers and missionaries, as well as oral tradition, it is probable that it later became part of daily ornament, especially for women. Brother Eugene Eyraud wrote in 1864 that 'both men and women painted their face and whole body in many different ways, with women and children using only red and young men, all colours'.4 Since first European contact with the island in 1722, Rapa Nui has suffered continuous social and cultural upheavals. External and internal forces have influenced the culture and performing arts. Firstly, according to Arredondo, missionaries prohibited the practice of body painting or Takona, because they considered it an erotic practice due to its leading to excessive admiration for the body.5 Secondly, during the early stages of the introduction of education on the island, missionaries banned the speaking of Rapa Nui language at school.6

The revitalisation of Takona: Tapati Rapa Nui Festival

In 1965, tourism started to develop on the island through commercial flights of LAN Chile airline. …

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