Dive in and explore the Oceania exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts
The art and culture of Oceania is the subject of the latest Royal Academy exhibition, including dazzling art of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia, and encompassing the vast Pacific region from New Guinea to Easter Island, Hawaii to New Zealand
Female tattooed figure, 18th or early 19th century, Aitutaki, Cook Islands, Wood, pigment, height 58 cm. (c) Five Continents Museum, Munich; photo: Marianne Franke
Few exhibitions have a dawn blessing of the exhibits in the galleries before opening and an official procession involving representatives from across Oceania, but that is what preceded the recent opening of the Royal Academy’s Oceania exhibition, the latest in a series exploring world cultures. A map illustrates the vast scale of this watery geographic region - an area that represents nearly a third of the world’s surface - a region rich in history, ritual and ceremony.
The art within the exhibition is as exceptional as the show’s ambition. Over 200 items spanning over 500 years of art and culture, past and present, in the first ever major survey of Oceanic art to be held in the United Kingdom.
From the grimacing god of war from the Hawaiian Islands, Ku’s intimidating down-turned mouth defined by rows of dog teeth, to a double-headed wooden figure (ti'i) from the Society Islands, to the exquisite carved Ta Moko panel carved (1896-99) by Tene Waitere of New Zealand, and the amazing red and yellow ’ahu’ula (feather cloak) that belonged to Liholoho, Kamehameha II, the second king of Hawaii (1797–1824), there are highlights in every room.
The exhibition marks two 250th anniversaries: the anniversary of the founding of the Royal Academy in 1768, and that of Lieutenant (later Captain) James Cook setting sail on HMS Endeavour on his first expedition to the Pacific (1768-1771). It was the first of three voyages of discovery to an area that was mostly unknown to Europeans at the time, and they expanded understanding of the world and its peoples beyond imagination.
Cook’s Pacific voyages returned laden with artefacts, collected, traded, taken, or gifted, a number of which are included in the displays. Among them, drawings made on Cook’s first voyage by Tupaia, the Tahitian priest and expert navigator (c.1725-1770) who after joining the Endeavour in Tahiti took to the unfamiliar medium of ink and paper to produce some fascinating depictions of his culture.
Ahu ula (feather cloak) belonging to Liholoho, Kamehameha II., Early 19th century
feathers, fibre, painted barkcloth (on reverse). 207 cm
Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge
The exhibition, divided into three themes, has brought together an extraordinary assortment of art and it comes right up to date with well-chosen contemporary pieces from the Pacific region. Moreover, the exhibition was developed with an eye to the complex history of the region as well as present-day issues, in close collaboration with Oceanic partner organisations.
The first theme, ‘Voyaging and Navigation’, is a beautiful gallery of deep sea blue walls and dappled light to get us in the mood. Here, we find canoes that exemplify movement across water, and elaborately carved paddles, prows and sternposts that act not just literally as implements but symbolically as empowered forms; canoes featured in origin stories and rituals of death. Also, a trio of indigenous navigation charts from the Marshall Islands made from intertwined sticks and shells tells of the Pacific islanders’ outstanding seafaring and navigation skills; this was the last region of the world to be settled by humans.
The second theme, ‘Making Place’ focuses on settlement and the establishment of community. Here we see carved beams and other examples of the fabric of houses that are works of narrative art. And in a potent dark-walled gallery of tall, stare-eyed standing statues of gods and ancestors, the basalt figure of Moai Hava (meaning ‘lost god’) from Rapa Nui, and the feathered form of the Hawaiian deity, Ku glare down at us. Here too is the snarling god image made of feather, fibre, human hair, pearl shell and dog teeth that was one of a group given to Captain Cook by a high chief of Hawaii.
Feather god image (akua hulu manu), Late 18th century, Hawaiian Islands. Fibre, feathers, human hair, pearl shell, seed, dog teeth, 62 x 30 cm. Photo: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum
Gifts such as the feathered god image were of great sanctity and value. They helped forge good inter-island relationships as well as the connections between local communities and Europeans when they arrived. The gifting culture remains strong in Pacific life today. Some of these statues, like the carved wooden Polynesian deity known as A’a were much admired by and influenced the artists Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore.
The final room follows the theme of ‘Encounter’ - colonial encounter, trade and cross cultural exchange - to show some of the things that Europeans began to collect avidly as ‘curiosities’ from the late-18th century onwards. It also explores how encounters with Europeans informed Pacific Islanders as they adapted to colonial governance, and assimilated new technologies as well as elements of Christian worship.
Two contemporary pieces in the last section stood out for me. One, the large mural by John Pule, entitled Kehe Tau Hauaga Foou (To all new arrivals) (2007) that has the Niuean artist adapting traditional Pacific art forms to present an extraordinary Pacific perspective on today’s world; and the other, New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana’s 23m-wide panoramic video installation, In Pursuit of Venus (infected) (2015-17) that was like a moving visual, aural and performative tapestry of encounters between the Pacific peoples and European explorers such as Cook and the botanist Joseph Banks. It was utterly riveting.
Oceania has been organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London and Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, Paris, with the participation of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge. It will go on show in Paris in the spring of 2019.
Royal Academy of Arts, London W1
Until 10 December 2018
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