Takona Rapa Nui body painting

takona rapa nui body painting easter island

Takona is the ancient art of decorating bodies with natural pigments. This practice, formerly used in rites and ceremonies, has recently been revitalized, especially during the Tapati Rapa Nui Festival. Learn about the history and meaning of takona rapa nui.

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Origin of Takona on Easter Island

Participants with takona during the "farandula" parade in the Tapati Festival

Participants with takona during the “farandula” parade in the Tapati Festival

Many peoples of different cultures of the world have used (and still use) natural pigments to decorate the bodies on special occasions. The application of body paint is usually related to magical rituals, sacred ceremonies, initiation rites and acts of war. Although it has also been used to reaffirm identity, group membership or simply as a temporary decoration.

Some examples of this practice are the war paintings of the Native American Indians, the henna designs of the women of India and other countries of the Near East in the wedding celebrations, or the decoration with annatto of the Amazonian tribes.

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As with other local traditions, it is not really known how and when takona or rapa nui body painting started to be used on Easter Island. Some hypotheses point to a possible contact of Rapanui sailors with South American peoples such as the Selknam in Patagonia, whose inhabitants used to paint their bodies. Perhaps it was a custom imported by the first settlers from other Pacific islands or it is even possible that it arose spontaneously on Easter Island itself.

The Rapa Nui culture developed this body art along with that of tattoo, which was sometimes used as a base, as a make-up, to highlight permanently engraved designs. However, it does not appear that the ancient islanders used a specific term to refer to this ornamental practice. In fact, the word takona is a term that was recently used. In the Rapanui language, “ta” means marking or tattooing and “kona” means place or surface, so takona could be literally translated as “marking a surface or place of the body” with a drawing or design.

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Rapanui body painting in ancient times

Antique illustration showing a couple with body paint

Antique illustration showing a couple with body paint

The first data on Rapanui body painting appear in the accounts of the first European navigators who arrived on Easter Island. In their chronicles they describe some natives of “red copper” color, others white painted and other times mixing colors with a striking effect.

The custom of painting the body and face was a relatively common practice in the ancient islanders and it is believed that it served to define the rank and social class of each person. It is possible that fishermen wore fish or mangai (fish hook) drawings, farmers showed types of plants, warriors their weapons and moai sculptors their work tools.

But takona was especially used during certain rituals and celebrations that took place throughout the year. Thus, for example, in the Tangata Manu competition, where the clan that would rule the next period was chosen, the winner’s head was shaved and painted red as a symbol of his new status.

In the initiation ceremony “Te manu mo te poki“, which could be translated as “the bird for children” and which represented the passage to adult life, the adolescents were painted with white stripes on the limbs and circles on the buttocks, similar to those that can be seen in the moai of the Ahu Nau Nau in Anakena.

Takona contestant with Make Make symbol

Takona contestant with Make Make symbol

Takona was also present in certain festive gatherings or koro, in the decorations of the neru, young women confined in caves like Ana o Keke to whiten the skin, and in certain funeral rites.

Ancient legends relate episodes where decorative painting takes center stage as the legend of the young Ure Pooi, whose jokes forced girls to paint themselves twice to attend a party, or the legend of Manu Keu Renga, a spirit in the form of a bird that brought a tablet on his back to teach how to grate the pua plant and obtain an orange pigment widely used to paint the body and other elements.

The practice of takona in the Rapanui people decreased over time due to a series of historical events. The abuses of slavers that ended a large part of the population in the mid-19th century and the subsequent influence of Catholic missionaries led to the disappearance of this custom, which has not been recovered to this day.

Kie’a, the natural pigment used in takona

Applying the kie'a or natural pigment

Applying the kie’a or natural pigment

Currently, the term kie’a (or ki’ea) is used, generically, to name the different natural pigments of white, black, red and orange color. However, this word rapanui was originally associated with the red colored powder obtained after pulverizing a volcanic rock found in places such as Poike, Vinapu and the Motu Nui islet.

That reddish powder was moistened with water and little balls were formed that were kept in small baskets. When they needed paint, they mixed the balls with sugar cane juice to make a pigment suitable for applying to different surfaces.

This reddish substance called kie’a mea mea, red in the Rapanui language, was highly valued by the ancient islanders since this color had a symbolic value associated with sacred rites and mana or spiritual force. Therefore, in addition to beautifying their bodies with it, it was also used to make cave paintings such as those of the Ana Kai Tangata cave, decorate the interior of the Orongo houses and enhance the surface of some statues as can be seen in the emblematic moai Hoa Hakanani’a.

Tourist with takona during the Tapati festival

Tourist with takona during the Tapati festival

The orange color was made by grating the root of the pua or turmeric and mixing the powder with sugar cane juice, or by extracting a yellowish clay present on the slope of the Rano Kau volcano.

The white color, called marikuru, was extracted from a non-oxidized volcanic tuff found on the Motu Nui islet. Another source was the white root of the pia plant (Tacca pinnatifida) that they grated like the turmeric.

Finally, the black color was made by burning leaves of ti (Cordyline fruticosa) on a stoe. The resulting soot was scraped off the stone and agglutinated with cane juice to obtain the pigment. This substance is the same one that was used as raw material for tattoos.

Takona Rapa Nui today

Takona representation in the Tapati Festival Easter Island

Takona representation in the Tapati Festival

Fortunately, at the end of the 20th century, the art of body painting on Easter Island was recovered from oblivion by a group of islanders concerned with rescuing ancient traditions. Perhaps the decisive event occurred in 1985, when the practice of this ancient custom was included as a competition in the Tapati Rapa Nui Festival that is held every February.

More information about Tapati Festival

The organizers wanted this competition to truly reflect the whole process. For this reason, the participants had to extract the colors of the historical places, make their own pigments and represent a character through the different designs of Rapanui symbology painted on their bodies. It was on this occasion that the word takona was first used to refer to body painting.

The representation of takona in the Tapati Festival

Contestant describing the symbols of his takona painting

Contestant describing the symbols of his takona painting

Currently, the takona competition, which takes place at Hanga Vare Vare, is one of the most anticipated performances by the audience during the Tapati Festival. The contestants, men and women, go up on stage almost naked to show their entire painted body. They present themselves to the audience and begin a narration, in the Rapanui language, where they describe in detail the designs of their bodies. They have to explain the reasons why they decided to draw these symbols and their historical, mythological or social context.

The performance of takona follows a certain order. Participants begin by describing the head and face paintings, continue down the neck and chest, down to the arms and torso, and end with the legs and back of the body.

Sometimes contestants act in pairs or groups, perform a dance or hoko, or use props to embellish or emphasize the narrative. Once the performance is over, a jury of experts evaluates both the painting and the development of the performance and assigns the score that each artist deserves.

Takona, a symbol of identity rapanui

Haka pei participants decorated with takona

Haka pei participants decorated with takona

The revitalization of body painting has transcended the competence of takona and has spread to other artistic and cultural manifestations of the island, helping to keep this legacy of the ancestors alive.

During the Tapati Festival, body painting is also used in other competitions. It is especially relevant in the theater competition called A’amu Tuai, where each candidate’s team has to interpret a story or legend whose quality and fidelity to tradition will be judged by a jury. Body painting is used to differentiate and define the personality of the actors.

Another exciting moment is the haka pei competition. In this unique event, the brave participants ascend to the top of Pu’i hill and adorn themselves with kie’a as a symbol of strength and courage, before imploring the protection of the god Make Make.

Read more about Haka Pei, the extreme sport of Easter Island

This risky game consists of sliding down the slope, lying on a kind of rustic sledge built with two banana trunks linked together. At speeds that sometimes reach 80 km/h, the contenders descend to the base of the hill in less than ten dizzying seconds. The winner will be the one who manages to travel the longest distance from the launch point.

The use of takona can also be seen in other festivals and cultural celebrations such as the He Re’o Ngapoki Festival dedicated to children and young people, the Rapa Nui Language Day, or the Koro Nui Tupuna organized by the educational village.

Likewise, some contemporary music groups and local dance companies have incorporated body painting as a way of expressing the Rapanui identity and its connection with tradition.

Takona and Rapanui makeup for tourists

Tourist couple posing for a photo shoot  Amu'a Rapa Nui

Tourist couple posing for a photo shoot | Image: Amu’a Rapa Nui

If you travel to Easter Island and want to feel how kie’a is applied to your skin, there are several options to try this Rapanui experience. The easiest, tourist and innocent way is by attending one of the traditional dance shows such as Te Ra’ai or Puku Rangi Tea. The dancers themselves will encourage you to make up your face with makeshift lines, curves and spirals.

The second alternative is to pose as a model for a photo shoot with typical costumes and body paint in the most emblematic places of Easter Island. It is a unique opportunity to share with your partner or family, have a fun time and take an unforgettable memory of ancient traditions. We suggest you contact professionals such as Amu’a, Kahu Tupuna or Mokomae to reserve your session.

Finally, if you visit Easter Island during the celebration of the Tapati Rapa Nui and want to experience it from within, you have to participate in the “farandula parade” that takes place on the penultimate day of the festival. Here they are all invited. Choose the clan you want to support and go to the “headquarters” of it. Here you will undress and receive a mud bath. After drying in the sun for a while, you will be ready to receive a takona session and complete your outfit with some feathers or shells.

Then you will go with hundreds of other participants through a checkpoint where they will score you according to the costumes and appearance. The more authentic and original your appearance, the more points you will receive, which will be accumulated in the global computation of your team.

It goes without saying that this is an ideal time to disinhibit, laugh, take a few selfies and enjoy the moment. The evening continues shortly after with the parade of the candidates on allegorical carriages and groups of painted tourists who mix with the islanders to dance to the music.

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