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A journey through the art of Oceania

Published 23 August 2018

As the RA mounts its groundbreaking exhibition on the art of the peoples of the Pacific Islands, Maia Jessop Nuku introduces its themes of voyaging, encountering and place-making.

  • It was Arthur C. Clarke who wondered if we hadn’t perhaps misnamed our planet by calling it Earth: “How inappropriate”, he insisted, “to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean”. Occupying almost one-third of Earth’s surface, the Pacific is not only the largest ocean but the largest single geographical area on the planet, a vast realm of astonishing diversity that continues to capture the imagination. Oceania comprises some 20,000 of its islands and close to 1,800 different cultures and language groups that share common ancestry.

    It was the last region of the world to become settled by humans; populations speaking languages from the Austronesian language family moved into the region 60,000 years ago, travelling eastwards from the islands of South-east Asia to settle in present-day New Guinea. Some 30,000 years later a generation of seafarers pushed the known limits of the world further, sailing across the straits to settle Melanesian archipelagos off the coast of New Guinea. Remarkably, the final exploration north and eastwards into Micronesia and Polynesia began just over three millennia ago. Technological refinements and navigational expertise led to increasingly bold voyages that took double-hulled outrigger canoes across vast distances. The outer limits of these migrations delineate the boundaries of present-day Polynesia, with Hawaii and Easter Island to the north and east respectively, and New Zealand – the final destination where Māori established themselves as recently as 1200 CE – to the south.

    The astounding mobility of Oceanic peoples was a catalyst for the flourishing of an almost kaleidoscopic range of cultures and art traditions. While communities adapted to circumstances in each new environment, water was, of course, a constant element, sustaining life and shaping cosmological belief systems. From the rivers and swamps of dense rainforests to the tranquil lagoons that encircle coral atolls, the ocean and its watery depths were enlisted as metaphors of history and identity, marking the spiritual passage between life and death. To this day metaphysical waterways convey the recently deceased to the potent underworlds of Pulotu and Hawaiki, ancestral homelands where the spirits of one’s antecedents are believed to dwell.

  • John Pule, Kehe tau hauaga foou (To all new arrivals)

    John Pule, Kehe tau hauaga foou (To all new arrivals), 2007.

    Enamel, oil, pencil, pastel, oil stick and ink on canvas. 270 x 220 cm. Auckland Art Gallery © John Pule.

  • The Royal Academy’s exhibition Oceania presents the region’s distinctive landscape as a vital and deeply interconnected highway that links Pacific peoples together in a network of dynamic exchange and encounter. It includes an astonishing array of some 200 artworks, ranging from 14th-century carving to 21st-century painting – such as Niuean artist John Pule’s 10-metre-wide, 2.7-metre-high odyssey Kehe tau hauaga foou (To all new arrivals) (2007; above). The show is structured around three key themes that guide the visitor and reinforce the close conceptual underpinnings that connect what appear (on a formal level at least) to be radically distinct art traditions. “Voyaging” evokes the extraordinary story of navigation across this vast landscape, presenting the arts associated with ocean travel: decorated paddles and immaculately executed fishhooks are accorded ritual, as well as practical, purpose; exquisitely carved canoe sterns and highly embellished prow figures from the Solomon Islands are inlaid with sections of shell designed to catch the light. An iconic navigational chart from the Marshall Islands (below) is deceptively simple: this knotted grid of sticks was not intended as a literal map but was deployed as a mnemonic device to unlock the wealth of intangible knowledge required for long-distance voyaging. Using visual and sensory cues from the atmosphere, highly skilled priest-navigators learned to “read” their way through the constantly shifting landscape of the ocean; fixing a star or constellation as a point of reference in the sky, they were able to carve out pathways to arrive at their destination.

    A second theme – “Making Place” – explores the extraordinarily innovative ways in which Islanders created and inhabited homelands in these vastly distinctive geographies, establishing dwellings on sacred sites where they might interact with their gods in the strip of existence afforded them between ocean and sky. The artworks in this section of the show tell a multitude of stories relating to origins, ancestral power, performance, secrecy and initiation. They include some of the great masterpieces of Oceanic art, such as carved and elaborately painted façades of ceremonial houses, crocodile reliquaries from the Sepik region of New Guinea and spectacular turtle shell masks from the Torres Strait Islands.

    The final theme – “Encounter” – explores a range of defining moments grounded in early indigenous encounters that consumed rival clans in inter-island warfare and localised raids that sought to settle disputes and restore cosmological balance. The Enlightenment era of scientific exploration, which began in earnest with Captain Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific region in 1768 – the year in which the Royal Academy of Arts was founded by Royal Charter – launched a dramatic new epoch of encounter between the Oceanic cultures now long-established in the region and the emerging European nations whose tall-masted ships now ventured into the maritime theatre of the Pacific. This colonial encounter was of course seismic in scale, and its reeling effects are still being processed by indigenous peoples today – it kick-started an era marked as much by misunderstanding, violence and tragedy as by the sharing and mutual curiosity of “discovery”.

  • , Stick chart

    Stick chart

    19th-century navigation chart, Marshall Islands.

    Wood, snail shells. 55.7 x 34.2 cm. National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen.

  • Now, 250 years later, the dynamics of power that motivated this extraordinary collision of two worlds have been creatively reimagined in a video installation, in Pursuit of Venus [infected] (2015–17), by leading Māori artist Lisa Reihana. Inspired by a set of early 19th-century French wallpaper panels, Reihana reconfigures their Eurocentric vision of an exotic and largely acquiescent Pacific paradise with a series of vignettes that celebrate the agency and customary knowledge of contemporary Islanders. These intriguing scenes unravel and complicate the daily encounters that took place on 18th-century Pacific beaches between Islanders and Cook’s crew. Fraught with tension and a constant backdrop of threatened violence, the piece is peppered with humour and incident, building in drama to end finally in tragedy.

  • Lisa Reihana, in Pursuit of Venus [infected] (detail) depicting the Raiatean Tupaia meeting a Maori Chief

    Lisa Reihana, in Pursuit of Venus [infected] (detail) depicting the Raiatean Tupaia meeting a Maori Chief, 2015–17.

    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 the artist and ARTPROJECTS.

  • Pacific artworks remain a vital cultural resource for both sides of this extraordinary and entangled era of encounter. Expansive in its vision, Oceania gives visitors a strong sense of the range of values that have been imposed over time upon these singularly impressive objects. Those brought back to England by early explorers such as Cook lined the shelves of 18th-century cabinets, as specimens of intellectual curiosity. Other works on view became salvaged trophies that gauged the successes of English evangelicals from the London Missionary Society, who were active in the region from 1797 onwards. Māori conversion to Christianity is attested in works such as Patoromu Tamatea’s wood-and-shell Madonna and Child carving (c.1840s, cover image), in which the status of Mary is indicated by a tā moko (or facial marking) usually reserved for men of high rank.

    Cultural artefacts were later acquired in volume as souvenirs by the 19th-century colonial officers and administrators that followed in their wake. But singular works in the exhibition were received by Europeans as gifts; for Pacific peoples the idea of the gift and the reciprocal relations it engenders has remained a constant. Consistent with protocols of exchange across the region, the formal presentation of high-status gifts has in some instances allowed for things to continue to circulate, acquiring new histories and biographies that both enhance the status of the giver and create a debt that binds each party irrevocably to the other.

  • From the rivers and swamps of dense rainforests to the tranquil lagoons that encircle coral atolls, the ocean and its watery depths were enlisted as metaphors of history and identity.

  • At the turn of the 20th century, Oceanic art was eagerly consumed by a host of European avant-garde artists engaged in a reimagining of modernity. Pablo Picasso, Jacob Epstein, André Derain and Henri Matisse were among those inspired and delighted by its radical aesthetics and bold interpretation of form. Today our parameters for understanding these compelling artworks continue to expand. Collaborative research between museum ethnographers based in Europe and new generations of Pacific scholars, artists and cultural practitioners has led to fresh and invigorated appraisals. Such exchanges underscore the ongoing resonance of ancestral treasures (or taonga in Māori) for current generations living in the Pacific.

    Customary traditions and protocol remain powerfully alive in the Pacific region. Indeed, many of the major loans for Oceania are accompanied by tribal elders who have been overseeing appropriate cultural protocols for these ancestral treasures when they are installed at the RA. These treasured heirlooms are not valued simply because they survive from an earlier era; they are understood as vectors of spiritual power, or mana. As remnants of the past, they bear the traces of the ancestral hands that fashioned them. Yet they are understood as not just made by ancestors – they are ancestors. Ritual protocols include the rhythmic and steady recitation of chants by elders skilled in the arts of oratory, and serve to animate and activate ongoing relationships between the living and the dead, with those who have gone before but who are recognised as continuously present in the cultural heirlooms and artworks on display. In this sense Pacific artworks can be understood as having agency; bridging the past with the present, they actively engage the community with its past, channelling and invigorating ancestral relations at appropriate times.

    The monumental works that will feature in the Royal Academy’s exhibition demonstrate the richness, vitality and accomplishment of Pacific civilisations. The startling creativity and level of skill in executing even the smallest of fishhooks is also remarkable. Nothing was deemed unworthy of extreme care and attention. In Western traditions of philosophy and science, humankind sits atop an evolutionary ladder that classifies nature as a distinct and separate category, sanctioning humans’ right to exercise dominion over plant and marine life, over the birds and animals. In contrast, Pacific peoples understand their relationship to nature and the environment as one of close kinship. Genealogies extend beyond tribal affiliations to an identification with the divine bird-like beings that emerged from the darkness aeons ago, during the era of creation when islands were vigorously birthed into being and the first generations of gods and chiefs sprang from the tendrils and roots of tubers that sprouted up from the rich and fertile soil of the muddy earth. For all things – animate and inanimate – possess mana.

    As the youngest descendants of a living chain of being, the current generation plays a crucial role as caretakers (and guardians, kaitiaki in Māori) of our most valuable resources: water and land. The relationship of Pacific peoples with the ocean continues to be a vital and energetic one. In this globalised era of hyper-mobility and consumption, when climate change threatens the very existence of many of these island nations, raising the profile of these uniquely eloquent Pacific arts has never been more important. This exciting new exhibition presents us with a timely, opportunity to reframe and revitalise our relationship with this most majestic of oceans as a vital connector of all our intersecting worlds.

    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.

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