The art of Oceania: seven stories

Published 23 August 2018

Curators and scholars give us a glimpse of the remarkable diversity, ancient and modern, that marks out Oceania on the world’s art map.

    • , Deity figure known as A'a

      A sculpture of a Polynesian god was admired by Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore

      This figure of a Polynesian deity, known as A’a, is one of the British Museum’s most famous Oceanic artefacts. A’a was created on the island of Rurutu, in the late 16th or 17th century. Thirty small figures emerge from the sandalwood surface, while the penis (now damaged) was probably originally carved erect. These features, along with the overall phallic form, suggest A’a was associated with fertility, prosperity and fecundity. At the back, a detachable panel covers a cavity which was carefully and skilfully crafted to hold the skull and bones of an important ancestor. A’a is thus more than an image of a deity – he is a reliquary.

      A’a was admired by a number of influential artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore. Both artists acquired casts of the figure and the British Museum presented Moore with a bronze of A’a on his 80th birthday.

      In 2015, a tiny red feather was discovered, caught on a splinter of wood inside the cavity. Red feathers were considered sacred across Polynesia, so its presence is further evidence of the significance of this extraordinary figure.

      Julie Adams is a curator in the British Museum’s Oceania section.

      Image: Deity figure known as A‘a, 116.8 x 31 cm, wood. Presented to J. Williams by Rurutu Islanders, 1821, Rurutu, Austral Islands. Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum, Oc,LMS.19.

  • In contexts of social interaction, a person with mana had dignity, authority and eloquence; in conflict, warriors with mana were awe-inspiring and overwhelming.

    • , God image, probably Ku the God of War

      A feather form of a Hawaiian deity was given to Captain James Cook

      The cultures of Oceania are remarkably diverse, but one shared concept of fundamental importance is mana. It refers to power, to an effectiveness based less in physical strength than in spirituality and divinity. In contexts of social interaction, a person with mana had dignity, authority and eloquence; in conflict, warriors with mana were awe-inspiring and overwhelming.

      Museum artefacts, long separated from the places and people who created them, are presumed to have lost life and meaning. Yet this feathered image (Akua hulu manu) of the Hawaiian god Ku has extraordinary presence and mana. He seems to resist being simply looked at; rather, he is assertive, to the point of demanding something of us.

      Ku was the god of war, closely identified with the Hawaiian kings. In 1779, this was one of a group of god images presented to Captain James Cook by the Hawaiian king Kalaniopu’u. These were gifts of extraordinary sanctity and value, which have been much debated. Presumably, they sought to bind the British navigator – himself evidently a man of considerable mana – into relationships with the kingdom. The gifts marked an act of astonishing generosity, but also one that enlarged the realm of Polynesian identity and mana.

      Nicholas Thomas is Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge, and co-curator of Oceania.

      Image: God image, probably Ku the God of War, Late 18th century, Hawaiian Islands, Fibre frame, human hair, pearl shell, seeds, dog teeth, feathers, Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum, Oc,HAW.80.

  • A crocodile-shaped feast trough once seized from the Soloman Islands

    This seven-metre-long feast trough, carved from a tree-trunk, was captured by the British Navy in 1891 from a village in the Roviana lagoon of the New Georgia group in western Solomon Islands. It was made to hold puddings made from root vegetables and nuts. These puddings were eaten at feasts celebrating successful raids, where warriors in canoes captured the heads of their enemies. These deadly raids aimed to degrade neighbouring communities who were competing with each other for European trade. The head of an enemy is shown in the jaws of the crocodile at one end of the trough. Along the sides, figures brandish imported European axes and guns, which Islanders desired.

    The British saw these raids as a threat to the development of commerce in the region and HMS Royalist was despatched from Australia to put an end to the killings of traders and local employees. Captain Davis, and the crew of the Royalist, retaliated by ransacking villages and destroying war canoes throughout Roviana lagoon. The feast trough was among the precious artefacts looted by the expedition. It was brought back to Britain by Davis, who hoped to make money from its sale. He instead presented it to Admiral Lord Charles Scott, who gave it to the British Museum in 1903. Its huge size makes it a challenge to display, so Oceania offers a rare and welcome opportunity to exhibit it.

    Ben Burt is a curator in the Oceania section at the British Museum.

  • , Ceremonial Feast Bowl

    Ceremonial Feast Bowl, 19th century (before 1891).

    Kalikongu (village), Roviana lagoon, Solomon Islands.

    Carved wood, shell inlay, pigment. 692 x 26 x 31 cm. Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum, Oc1903,1007.1.

  • It was made to hold puddings made from root vegetables and nuts. These puddings were eaten at feasts celebrating successful raids, where warriors in canoes captured the heads of their enemies.

    • A Fijian necklace of sperm whale ivory to signify the highest of ranks

      This is a 19th-century Fijian necklace of carved whale ivory pendants suspended from lengths of plaited coconut fibre cord. Each human figure (right) has a distinctive flat oval face and neatly placed legs with carved feet that rise gently at their tips, following the curve of the sperm whale tooth. Simple incisions delineate facial features, creases in the limbs and even the toes, giving them a lively individuality.

      Rare and valuable, the necklace would have been worn by a leader or chief of high status. The ivory of sperm whales was coveted in the ritual gift economy of Western Polynesia. Access to this resource was restricted and crafted only by specialist artists. Whales were deemed divine beings and not hunted. Instead when beached on the reef, protocols honouring their sanctity would be followed before leaders could approach and teeth could be recovered.

      Maia Jessop Nuku is Evelyn A.J. Hall and John A. Friede Associate Curator for Oceanic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

      , Necklace
  • An orator’s stool from Papua New Guinea that oversaw disputes

    Debate is a familiar aspect of parliaments, whether in Britain or the Pacific Islands. But for the many peoples of the Middle Sepik – the Iatmul, Sawos, Kabriman and others – a better analogy for political assembly might be British borough councils. For in this Papua New Guinean region, politics is always local.

    At the centre of political debate within villages is a single “orator’s stool”, typically carved and painted with the image of an ancestor. The stool is not made to be sat on. It is placed by a central post in a ceremonial house where it serves as a kind of oratorical prop. A speaker will make his points by placing ginger or coconut leaves on its seat, as if invoking ancestral sanction. Sometimes its base will include totemic symbols, like birds and crocodiles. Thus the stool brings to contemporary disputes – about land, fishing rights, lineage – the world of ancestors, mythology and cosmology.

    But in the Middle Sepik, each people, indeed each village, has its own political character. They interact and trade with, copy and borrow from, feud and intermarry with, their neighbours. This mid-20th-century stool from Kabriman, a village of the Blackwater River, is similar to those from nearby Iatmul villages. It is painted in white and red ochres in Iatmul style. Was this a matter of artistic imitation? Were special rights negotiated?

    Did the Kabriman commission an Iatmul artist? Or was the stool itself a subject of dispute?

    Peter Brunt is Senior Lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington and co-curator of the exhibition Oceania.

    • Tooi [Tuai], Drawing of Lorokoro's moko

      A drawing of a tattoo sketched by one of the earliest Māori visitors to Britain

      This drawing was made by the Māori leader Tuai, chief of the Ngare Raumati people, and depicts the tā moko, or facial tattoo, of his eminent older brother Korokoro. But unlike the majority of works in the RA exhibition, it was made in England. It is one of a number produced by Tuai during his remarkable 11-month visit to the country in 1818 – the first known Māori artwork to be made on these shores.

      The earliest recorded Māori to visit Britain was Moehanga of Ngapuhi in 1806. Tuai’s trip a decade later was sponsored by the Church Missionary Society. He worked on farms, visited homes, schools and factories – including those at Ironbridge Gorge – and attended society parties, as well as participating in church services. This drawing was made for George Seth Bull, a school teacher and missionary, during conversations about Māori customs.

      Tā moko are sacred and highly ritualised, often marking a rite of passage for a high-ranking individual. They can only be carried out by tohunga tā moko experts using uhi, chisels made from the bones of birds. The face is divided into eight fields, each of which conveys specific information, identifying the individual’s hapu (localised group of common descent), rank, social status, power and prestige. The uirere, for instance – a section across the eyes and nose – indicates tribal prestige and hereditary rank.

      Adrian Locke is RA Senior Curator and co-curator of Oceania.

      Image: Tuai, Drawing of Korokoro’s moko (face tattoo), 1818. England. Ink on paper, 20.6 × 16.1 cm. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Ngā Pātaka Kōrero o Tāmaki Makaurau – Auckland Libraries, Auckland, GNZMMSS-147-5

  • A panoramic video by Lisa Reihana that retells the history of first contact

    “When the Māori people first saw Captain Cook, they thought he was a god,” says Lisa Reihana, the Auckland-born artist whose 23m-wide panoramic video installation, in Pursuit of Venus [infected] (2015–17), projects across the largest gallery in the Oceania exhibition. “There was a Māori legend that predicted a god would come from the sea in a shell and change everything. When Cook arrived on a ship with billowing sails that looked like the inside of a cut-in-half nautilus shell, they thought the myth was coming true.” White, wearing a powdered wig and well over 6ft tall, Cook was like no-one they had ever seen.

    It took years for Reihana – who is descended from the Māori clans of Ngapuhi, Ngati Hine and Ngai Tu on her father’s side – to create her startlingly original, disquieting yet captivating account of Cook’s arrival in New Zealand. The video is inspired by Les Sauvages de la mer pacifique, a wallpaper designed in 1804-06 by the French painter Jean-Gabriel Charvet that, when all 20 drops are hung together, creates a giant mural of life as he imagined it in the Pacific Islands. Reihana’s “cinematic reimagining” strips out the none-too-convincingly depicted Islanders whose dress is almost neoclassical. She retains only Charvet’s exotic and luxuriant landscapes on to which she has superimposed staged scenes performed by actors, with dialogue in English and several Pacific languages. The scenes are based on rituals, vignettes and other events – some more plausible than others – described in journals by Cook and his contemporaries, among them the expedition’s botanist Joseph Banks. These range from men engaged in wrestling, the dance known as a hula, a kava-drinking ceremony and a wedding, to two floggings, domestic scenes in which a mother nurses her sick (infected) child and another where a man appears to give birth. Cook’s violent death in Hawaii is also depicted. There’s no overarching narrative. Rather the result is a gigantic moving picture, quietly compelling and full of incident. One might also spot objects known to have been used or acquired by Cook – his clock for example (“It still keeps time!” says Reihana).

  • Lisa Reihana, In pursuit of Venus [infected] (detail)

    Lisa Reihana , In pursuit of Venus [infected] (detail) , 2015-2017 .

    Single-channel video, Ultra HD, colour, 7.1 sound, 64 minutes. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of the Patrons of the Auckland Art Gallery, 2014. Additional support from Creative New Zealand and NZ at Venice Patrons and Partners © Image courtesy of the artist and ARTPROJECTS.

  • For time is another theme integral to the thinking that informs the work. Polynesian cultures, Reihana explains, “believe the future lives within you now as much as the past. In the West, the future is in front of you, but for us it’s behind you because you can’t see it. It’s a completely different view of where you are in the world.” If Westerners find this confusing, it’s no stranger than how the crew of the Endeavour must have seemed to the local population. “When they first saw them, the Māori people thought they must have eyes in the backs of their heads because of the way they rowed. In a waka [a Pacific canoe], you face forward. They couldn’t figure out why you would row in a way that meant you couldn’t see where you were going.”

    in Pursuit of Venus [infected] takes its name from the original purpose of the then Lieutenant Cook’s voyage to the Pacific in 1768, the first of three, which was to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun from Tahiti. The title’s parenthesis alludes most obviously to the devastating effect of the infectious diseases the colonisers unwittingly brought with them. “There was just so much to delve into and tease out from the subject,” she says, reeling off a list of themes: history, science, costume, performance, language, colonialism, post-colonialism… and Cook himself. “He was an amazing cartographer, a great navigator. That he filled in a quarter of the world’s map is incredible – although he’s usually perceived quite differently in our part of the world because he also heralded the age of conquest and colonisation.” The installation at the RA is its first screening in Britain, following its success at last year’s Venice Biennale. Reihana hopes it carries a “kind of wonder and strangeness” that “allows people to see Cook’s arrival in New Zealand in a way that’s not judgmental”.

    Claire Wrathrall is former Editor of Art Quarterly.

    • Installation view of the Gods and Ancestors room

      Book now for Oceania

      Until 10 Dec 2018

      ★★★★★ “A stupendous odyssey through the superb art and fascinating culture of the Pacific… A blockbuster and then some.” – The Guardian.

      Oceania brings together around 200 exceptional works from public collections worldwide, and spans over 500 years. From shell, greenstone and ceramic ornaments, to huge canoes and stunning god images, we explore important themes of voyaging, place making and encounter.