An Artist Sets Sail, but South Pacific Pulls Him Home
MOE ROA, Easter Island
WHEN Benedicto Tuki Pate was a child growing up here in the early 1950's, contact with the outside world was limited to a single supply ship that called just once a year. There was no radio, no hospital and no store here on this remote speck of land in the heart of the South Pacific.
"To me back then, the world was this island and this island was the world," Mr. Tuki said. "We were very, very isolated and hadn't read anything and didn't know anything about any other place or people, not even Tahiti," the closest group of islands, some 2,000 miles northwest of here.
Today, however, Mr. Tuki, now 60, is very much a man of the world. Almost by accident, he has ended up becoming a sculptor whose work has been displayed on four continents and who is one of the most ardent defenders and advocates of Easter Island's singular Polynesian culture.
Easter Island is renowned everywhere, of course, for its moai, the giant statues that stand mutely along the rocky coast here, and Mr. Tuki's first piece, carved when he was 11, was a miniature moai in traditional form. His only teacher, he said, was his father, a fisherman, farmer and sculptor who had to rely on all three trades to provide for his family.
"In those days, there was no money here, and our whole economy was based on barter," he recalled. "My father would carve something and then trade it to a neighbor for an item of food or clothing. I would watch him work, and that is how I learned."
IT would have been hard for Mr. Tuki not to have taken note of the monoliths his ancestors erected: there are perhaps a thousand of them, as tall as 50 feet tall, scattered over an island three times the size of Manhattan. But they are collective works, strongly linked to the island's original religion, not individual expressions of personal creativity.
Because of that, Mr. Tuki reached adulthood thinking of himself more as an artisan than an artist. It was when he met his wife, Ana María Arredondo, a Chilean historian, when she came here on vacation in the 1960's, that his thinking began to change. "She opened up the world for me and made me what I am," he said. "I was working then as a solderer for the government oil company, but she made me realize I had a talent in my hands that I ought to use for more than a hobby."
By the end of the 1970's, Mr. Tuki was officially recognized as the top sculptor on this island of sculptors. But his big breakthrough came in the early 1990's, when he was invited to the Netherlands to carve a wooden moai.
The Dutch were the first Europeans to arrive here, on Easter Sunday of 1722, and an exhibition was being organized on Texel, an island off the Dutch coast, to mark that event. Mr. Tuki jumped at the opportunity, which he saw as a chance to disseminate Easter Island's culture in places where it was unknown.
"I wanted then, and still do now, to promote this island at the world level," he said. "I know that many people think that the culture of Rapa Nui," as Easter Island is known in the language of its people, "is exotic or folkloric, but they need to know we are linked to a broader Polynesian culture that is one of the richest and most open in the world."
While in Europe, he began to visit museums, intent on seeing firsthand works of art that he knew only from books or postcards. Exposure to Egyptian and especially Greek sculpture had the strongest impact: for the first time, he said, he realized that his own art, for all its strong roots here, was part of a wider, universal human impulse and tradition.
Since then, he has traveled widely and accepted numerous invitations to work abroad, including in the United States. In 2000, for instance, he spent three weeks creating a moai at the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, a work now on display in Washington.
Mr. Tuki said that because of his pride in Easter Island's unique artistic tradition, he rarely felt intimidated. But last year, he was invited to work at the Carrera quarry in Italy, where he spent two weeks fashioning a chunk of marble, "so smooth, so lovely, so wonderful to the touch," into a moai.
"Afterward, I had to put down my tools, and for two months I couldn't even touch them," he said. "It was very emotional to have worked in the same place as a genius like Michelangelo, the greatest sculptor of all time. It made me feel like I had reached the very top, the summit, that there was no higher place to go, and I did not want to go on."
As a result, Mr. Tuki is focusing more on wood than stone at the moment. At his workshop here on the outskirts of the only town on Easter Island, he proudly displays the fruits of his labor: human images as well as ceremonial batons, clubs, tablets and pectorals in the shape of fish, birds, lizards and turtles.
FOR all his travels, Mr. Tuki insists on cultivating his roots here. He continues to farm a small parcel of land in the hills above town, growing the chirimoya fruit, known in English as soursop, in hopes of selling it on the South American mainland, more than 2,000 miles away, or in Tahiti. "I'm proud to have traveled, but really, I wouldn't live anywhere else but here," he said. "This island is deeply a part of me, and every time I return, it seems more beautiful than ever. Just as I was born here, so will I die here."
As Mr. Tuki fondly recalled, when he was a child, fewer than 1,000 people lived here, all in a dozen or so families, except for the inhabitants of the tiny Chilean Navy garrison that governed the island. At home, people spoke the Rapa Nui language, and though they were devoutly Roman Catholic, they respected and tried to follow their own traditions.
Today, Easter Island has nearly 4,000 residents, and is flooded much of the year with tourists. Nearly half of the permanent population consists of Spanish-speakers from mainland Chile, which took possession of Easter Island in 1888, after disease and Peruvian slave raiders had reduced its population to barely 100 from over 10,000.
Mr. Tuki's work has been exhibited and won awards in galleries and shows all over Chile, and he has many clients there. But his relationship with "the continent," as people here call the Chilean mainland, is complicated.
A Chilean citizen, he speaks fluent Spanish, with a slight Polynesian accent, and he travels the world on a Chilean passport. But he does not regard himself as Chilean, and considers the growing Chilean presence here to be damaging to the island's culture, identity and language. Like many native-born Rapa Nui, he wants the Chilean role restricted.
"People my age were the last to have lived without what the world calls civilization," he said. "I'm proud to be a part of that generation, and I don't want us to lose any more than we have already lost."