Caroline Phillips reviews the Royal Academy’s Oceania Exhibition.
Imagine a wood, fish skin and coconut fibre drum and not far away a red classical piano transformed from a colonial symbol into a Maori one. Then picture a feather headdress and coconut fibre armour and a decorated beam from a bai (chief’s meeting house). Or a façade sculpture of a Dilukai young woman with her genitals clearly on display to ward away evil spirits. Then see in your mind’s eye a feast trough in the form of a crocodile. Or textiles and barkcloth with spiritual significance. And then a Wuvulu decorated shark-fishing canoe that looks like its prey. From delicate shell ornaments to meeting houses, this extraordinary range of art forms is among the spectacular objects on display at the Royal Academy’s Oceania exhibition.Oceania is the first ever major exhibition of Oceanic art to be held in Britain. Oceania, where’s that, did you say? As a big map at the entrance of the exhibition shows, it includes Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia —encompassing the mega Pacific region from New Guinea to Easter Island, Hawaii to New Zealand. (To those of us, such as myself, who are geographically challenged….that’s Australia and New Zealand at the bottom left to Hawaii at the top and the Pitcairns at the other bottom.) Nearly a third of the world’s surface, in other words, and home to some of the most culturally diverse populations on the planet.
These 10,000 far-flung islands and archipelagos have one thing in common: water, water, water. It’s clear from the outset that Oceania is an evolving culture and one forever linked with the ocean waters surrounding the islands. (It’s the only continent linked by water.) Waterways that were for voyages, trade, migration, war and fishing; that were symbolic routes for the passage of the dead; and from which many Pacific Islanders believe that their islands were dredged up by gods or spirits: tricky entities that needed to be appeased. There’s a sense throughout the exhibition of the islands’ relatedness and connectivity through water.
The exhibition marks 1768 —yes, the founding of the Royal Academy but also the date on which Captain James Cook set sail on his first expedition to the Pacific on the Endeavour. But this show won’t just appeal to those interested in Cook. It’s made up of 200 works from public collections worldwide —many drawn from the great European collections obtained by colonial powers who appropriated entire groups of islands in the 18thand 19thcenturies — and spans over 500 years. It’s a humdinger of an exhibition.
It focuses on work made by Pacific Islanders and is organised around three main themes rather than regions. Voyaging looks at life on water (including canoe accoutrements such as carved prows and paddles); Place Making explores settlement and the creation of communities (including Oceanic ceremonies and the works made for them, and the giving of gifts); and Encounter focuses on trade and exchange in Pacific cultures (including encounters with Europe and Empire).
The exhibition starts off with a cotton and polythene textile entitled Kiko Moana from the Mata Aho Collective. It’s er, a hanging blue fabric. What else to say about it? Er, it’s 400 cm by 1100 cm. There’s also an annoying TV screen nearby which was competing loudly with the curator’s introductory words; but, even if it hadn’t been, it is a California-educated Marshall Islander telling us that the islands were dropped from a basket carried by a giant. I’d have rather had that snippet from someone more indigenous. But after that, the exhibition goes from strength to strength with pieces that inspired Gaugin to Henry Moore and are made inventively from wood, soot, lime, shell, plant fibre, feathers to painted barkcloth.
One of the highlights is the 14thcentury wooden Kaitaia carving (a door arch with a god image) which was excavated in 1920 from a bog, and is one of the oldest known objects to have been found in New Zealand. There are also pieces collected during Cook’s first voyage, including Maori hoe and canoe paddles (taken just after the crew encountered Maori for the first time); drawings of the first Cook voyage by the Tahitian priest and expert navigator, Tupaia; and a memorable and striking 18thcentury Heva tupapau, known at the Costume of the First Chief Mourner, and laden with pearl shells. There’s also a rare Fijian late 18thor early 19thcentury double headed whale ivory hook.
A room of deities and ancestor figures is wondrous — the presence of this incredibly varied cast of idols from Easter to Caroline islanders palpable and powerful against a cream backdrop. Then there’s the room of gifts —ceremonial exchanges designed to ensure everything from peace to the exchange of land —that is alone worth the visit too.
The aforementioned grand piano looks like the sort of ornate piece you’d get if Elton John decorated a piano with pillar-box red lacquerwork and a mask with a tongue sticking out: not my cuppa, but interesting nonetheless. The Mark Adams portrait of Jim Atofinu’u’s backside — dressed just in tatoos —is one of the works that I’d steal. But then the feather god image (akua hulu manu) late 18thcentury from the Hawaiin Islands (and made of feather, fibre, human hair, pearl shell and dog teeth) is memorable too. It’s like a child’s rendition of a scary man with teeth in a wide mouth and bulbous eyes: comically frightening and primitive. And there’s the beautiful canoe prow figure nguzunguzu such as the one from the Soloman Islands (wood, pigments, resin, shell) with its serene face. Each piece worth a gawp.
The one piece I’d definitely nick if it weren’t so bloody big is the vast panoramic video In Pursuit of Venus (infected), 2015-17 by the New Zealand multi-media artist, Lisa Reihana. It’s a work of near genius. It was inspired by Sauvages de la Mer Pacificique —a 20-panel, luxurious and romanticised wallpaper in turn inspired by aspects of Cook’s voyage —a European imagining of Oceania that was shown in Paris in 1806.
Reihana has re-appropriated (that’s the current vogueish term, isn’t it?) the above idealised view of Oceania with her 64-minute, multi-layered, digital panorama that is 22.5 metres wide (see what I mean, you can’t easily pocket it). It tells the story of the Pacific Islanders before, up to and after the arrival of Cook, and reveals the drama and cruelty of contact between the islanders and early Europeans. It’s part re-enactment (with historic and imagined scenes featuring indigenous actors), part animation and part enlargement of the original.
In it, there’s a man pretending to give birth and an indigenous person pulling down Cook’s breeches. Plus depictions of men wrestling, a kava-drinking ceremony, floggings, trading of sexual favours and Cook’s violent death. The ‘infected’ in the title refers to the spread of diseases such as STDs and measles by Cook’s crew.
The exhibition is presented only partly through Western eyes, and it’s clear that there’s a load of post-colonial guilt going on. The older works reflect the history, ritual and ceremony of the region; and the more recent ones address history and identity. Oceania, it’s clear, isn’t just a geographical region —it’s also an imagination. This is a powerful exploration and about the past, present and future. You can’t offer a broader appeal than that, can you?
www.royalacademy.org.uk tel 020 7300 8027 tickets £20 full price. Main Galleries 29 Sept to 10 December 2018