Oceania at the Royal Academy is the first ever major survey of Oceanic art to be held in the UK. This ambitious exhibition celebrates the art of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia, including New Guinea to Easter Island, Hawaii to New Zealand, to encompass just part of this vast Pacific region. The show brings together around 200 works from public and private collections worldwide and spans over 500 years of creativity. It is a rare opportunity in London to explore the art and culture of an area that represents nearly a third of the world’s surface, a place rich in history, ritual, and ceremony and probably the most extensive artistic region in the world.
It also marks two important anniversaries: the 250th anniversary of the Royal Academy, founded in 1768 – the same year Captain James Cook (1728-1779) set sail on his first expedition to the Pacific on the Endeavour.
The Admiralty engaged Cook to command a Royal Navy/Royal Society scientific voyage to the Pacific Ocean – the reason was to observe and record the Transit of Venus across the Sun for the benefit of a Royal Society inquiry into a means of determining a more precise placement of longitude. Other members of the expedition included Sir Joseph Banks, a naturalist and botanist, who funded two other naturalists, two artists, and a scientific secretary to accompany him on the voyage. Cook and the other members of the expedition were the first to bring substantial collections of Oceanic objects back to Europe.
For many, Oceanic art is novel and unfamiliar territory, but it has had direct influence on many important Western artists, such as Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), who reintroduced the visual ‘exoticism’ of Oceania to a Western audience. This exhibition plans to present the culture of the Pacific countries represented in a more natural light, allowing the visitor to discover the true culture and artistic traditions of this region that also has a contemporary twist to its tail.
It has been nearly 40 years since the last major exhibition, held at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC (The Art of the Pacific Islands, 1979), which presented an overview of the entire region of Oceania, showing more than 400 figures, masks, canoe ornaments, shields and weapons, ceremonial implements, carved house posts, shell ornaments, and feather capes from Polynesia, Micronesia, Melanesia, and New Guinea – it attracted an audience of nearly 400,000 people. However, over time, Oceanic art has been re-imagined by curators, art historians, anthropologists and artists creating new dialogues and deepening awareness both of past history and present-day issues. This exhibition also offers the chance to view seminal works produced by contemporary artists exploring history, identity and climate change of the region.
In 1768, Captain James Cook left Plymouth on HMS Endeavour on what was the first of three voyages. Across the Pacific he encountered a world that was both highly sophisticated and, thanks to ocean-going canoes and navigational aids, interconnected despite the significant distances between islands. Oceania draws on rich and well-documented historic collections to explore this history and, in so doing, presents new contexts in which these objects can be better understood and appreciated.
With a focus on art made in the Oceanic region by Pacific Islanders, the exhibition is organised around three main themes: ‘Voyaging’ looks at life on the water as revealed through the extraordinary stories of indigenous navigation and the arts of the canoe and canoe accoutrements such as carved prows and paddles. ‘Place-making’ explores the settlement of communities; and ‘Encounter’ focuses on trade and exchange in Pacific cultures. Highlights of the exhibition include a 14th-century wooden Kaitaia carving (from the Auckland War Memorial Museum, Auckland), which was excavated in 1920. This is one of the oldest known objects to have been found in New Zealand to date.
Objects gifted, or collected, during the 18th-century voyages include two Maori hoe, canoe paddles, (Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge) collected on 12 October 1769, during the first voyage of Captain James Cook, just three days after the Endeavour’s crew encountered Maori for the first time; drawings made on the first Cook voyage, by the Tahitian priest and expert navigator Tupaia (circa 1725-1770) who, after joining the Endeavour in Tahiti, took to the unfamiliar medium of ink and paper to produce fascinating depictions of his culture including Dancing Girl and Chief Mourner, June-August 1769 (British Library, London), an 18th-century Heva tupapau, known as ‘the Costume of the Chief Mourner’, from Tahiti, Society Islands (Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter). This is one of only six known examples still in existence and was obtained in Tahiti in 1791 by Francis Godolphin Bond, first lieutenant on the Providence, the ship commanded by William Bligh; and a late 18th-century feather god image (akua hulu manu) from the Hawaiian Islands (British Museum), likely to have been collected on Cook’s third voyage (1776-1780) on HMS Resolution.
Further highlights include a rare Fijian, late 18th/early 19th-century, double-headed whale ivory hook, (Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge), just one of three known representations known of these sacred and powerful female deities. Also on show is Tuai’s Drawing of Korokoro’s moko (face tattoo), 1818 (Auckland Libraries, Auckland). Tuai travelled to Britain in 1818 and this drawing, which represents the facial tattoo of his elder brother, Korokoro, was most likely made to illustrate Maori customs and culture. Other objects include a 19th-century Solomon Islands Nguzunguzu, a prow ornament for a war canoe (Museum der Kulturen, Basel) featuring a pigeon, an expression of navigational virtuosity; Tene Waitere’s, Ta Moko panel, 1896-99, (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington) a sculptural illustration of male and female tattoos. Tene Waitere (1854-1931) was arguably the most important Maori sculptor of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Finally, there is an extraordinary 19th-century ceremonial feast bowl from the Solomon Islands (British Museum) that measures nearly 7 metres in length – this bowl has never been exhibited before.
For the first time, contemporary art also sits alongside the older traditions of Oceania, with modern artworks that speak of the salience of the past as well as the challenges of the present. Contemporary work in the exhibition includes the vast panoramic video In Pursuit of Venus [infected], 2015-17, by the New Zealand multi-media artist, Lisa Reihana (b 1964) (Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki) – see interview with the artist on page 10. And John Pule’s (b 1962), Kehe tau hauaga foou (To All New Arrivals), 2007 (Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki).This work addresses global turbulence from an explicitly Pacific viewpoint. Of mural size, the work combines scenes of conflict with many images of human relationships in order to reveal a world that is living in confusion. For example, bombs and nuclear testing are contrasted with pollution and global warming. The painting gathers contemporary and historical narratives that express stories about the world by inviting us to visually ‘read’ what the visitor is seeing. Oceania is being revealed in a new light with new interpretations of its importance in global history.
Oceania, 29 September to 10 December, Royal Academy of Arts, London, royalacademy.org.uk.
A catalogue accompanies the exhibition, edited by Peter Brunt and Nicholas Thomas, with contributions by Noelle Kahanu, Emmanuel Kasarhérou, Sean Mallon, Michael Mel and Anne Salmond