Rapa Nui

Postcards keeping a language alive?

About the project

Title: Rapa Nui
Type of work: Graphic design / cultural and social design
Date: February 2012
Extent of the project: 2 weeks, full-time

All around the globe, languages are dying. Most of the time they cease to exist — sometimes without thinking of its importance to culture. Rapa Nui is one of those endangered languages. Rapa Nui is an Easter Polynesian language spoken on the Easter Island. Written Rapa Nui has fifteen letters; ten consonants and five vowels, and uses the Latin script. It’s one of few languages that haven’t lost the original proto-Polynesian glottal stop (ʔ) and the nasal velar consonant (ŋ). The Rapa Nui people call their island Te Pito te Henua which means The Navel of the World and it is arguably the most remote inhabited island in the world. Although their roots are exclusively Polynesian, the island is ruled from the South American continent; it is under Chilean authority, which is almost 4,000 km away.

However, there is a political, ongoing conflict between Chile and Easter Island; the Rapa Nui people want autonomy and the right to teach and use Rapa Nui as the official language. In the last decade, there has been a strong emphasis on preserving the broader culture through a revival of the Rapa Nui language, but even this is under pressure from the Chilean mainland.

The design

Inspired by labelling your surroundings when learning a new language, these six postcards show objects with the name of the object written on or in it. The objects are elements related to traditional Rapa Nui culture, including traditional ways of communicating such as wood and stone carving, body painting, and weaving. The postcards are the beginning of a series that would build up a vocabulary of Rapa Nui surroundings, culture and traditions; a series that would continue to develop and grow.

Selling the postcards would allow the Rapa Nui people to subtly show their support to the people working for autonomy and revival of the language, while also encouraging to learn it. As Rapa Nui is mostly spoken among the elder generations, involving and encouraging children to make new postcards would introduce the language form an early age. Finally, visitors and inhabitants could send the postcards off into the world, spreading the knowledge of Rapa Nui culture and language.


Rapa Nui is best known for its massive stone sculptures; the moai. Stone and rock carving is a crucial aspect of Rapa Nui traditions and culture.


Body painting, takona, is an important element in traditional Rapa Nui culture; it is often used in performing arts as a visual aid for the storytelling.


During the Tapati Festival, the winner of the fishing competition will paint his catch and hang them around his neck as a symbol that he is a good taŋata hi.


Weaving string figures, kai-kai, with natural string is an old tradition that the people on Rapa Nui still compete in during the Tapati Festival.


The sweet potato is a key ingredient in traditional Rapa Nui cooking along with fish or chicken. Umu is the conventional way of cooking using an earth oven.


Despite being a treeless island for centuries, wood is a key element in traditional culture on Rapa Nui. Huka-huka is the wood used for making fire; ahi.

Back of postcards

On the back, each postcard has a short explanation of the cultural element that the object on the postcard’s front is linked to, written in both Spanish and English.

A glimpse of the process

Keeping the postcards' motifs non-digital is part of the design as the project is meant to be taken over by the Rapa Nui people. Each new word should be illustrated using the things and materials surrounding you.

Rock carving

Learning the basics of rock carving.

Fish painting Alternatives photo test

Experimenting with the ways of presenting the object; here in or out of context.