BACK in the 1920s and 1930s, the situation was very different. Oceania was the region championed by the Surrealists and the coolest creatives that Paris had to offer – and Paris was everything avant-garde at the time. Even Picasso took a break from promoting African art to experiment with the Pacific instead. Since then, it has been bypassed in the rush to make the most of the Asian part of the Asia-Pacific entity.
Now, for the first time in the UK’s lengthy museum history, there’s a major exhibition about Oceania. More than that, it was launched by the country’s newest and most glamorous royal. Meghan Markle, former Suits actress and now Duchess of Sussex, was given her first solo engagement since marrying Prince Harry. Partly as an induction course for their forthcoming tour of the Pacific, this half of the royal couple was at the Royal Academy to see the art and, inevitably, be pressed into some cultural performances and Maori nose-rubbing.
The Royal Academy of Arts in London is celebrating its 250th anniversary. It’s no coincidence that this venerable institution is also turning its attention to a place far from Piccadilly, two and a half centuries ago, when Captain Cook made his first journey to the Pacific.
As a geographical entity, there is no region of the world as large as Oceania. The distances between are simply bewildering, extending from Papua New Guinea in the west, to Easter Island in the east. The curators of the exhibition ‘Oceania’ have courageously taken on the geographical enormity. The exhibits are, at the most, 500 years old and are from established collections, in some cases going back to the earliest days of European exploration.
There are two Maori paddles collected by Captain Cook during the first year of his first voyage. He went on to undertake two more journeys. The last of these ended tragically for the captain when he was clubbed and then stabbed to death in what’s now called Hawaii and was then named the Sandwich Islands in honour of the English earl with a penchant for food on the go while he was gambling.
The Pacific Islanders have also been people on the go. The range of their travels was astonishing, rivalled by few, although an earlier exhibition at the Royal Academy (‘Africa: Art of a Continent’ in 1995) showed how the people of the Indonesian Archipelago had reached Madagascar long before mariners from Europe and continental Asia.
With the extraordinary seafaring abilities of Oceanic peoples, it was inevitable that the latest exhibition would make a feature of this. It is the first of three main themes. ‘Voyaging’ sets the scene with emphasis on how navigation shaped the visual culture of the region. Canoes became a vehicle for more than just travel; aesthetic expression included prows and paddles that have the vigour of a Viking longboat combined with a strong spiritual dimension.
Among the highlights of the ‘Oceania’ exhibition is the sort of vigorous spiritual item that has put off many viewers over the years. The head of a deity (akua hulu manu) from late 18th century Hawai’i has everything that the Easter Island statues do not: it has a lot of colour and very little weight as it’s made principally from fibre and feathers. It has none of the enigmatic serenity of the famous stone statues, creating instead an air of menace with the addition of miscellaneous recyclables such as human hair and dog’s teeth.
Another star attraction from Hawaii also includes feathers, without the more alarming material of the deity above. An early 19th century feather cloak is an object of huge rarity and significance that could only be worn by a leader of exceptional power. This example belonged to just such a man, the second King of Hawaii, Liholoho, Kamehameha II. A great changer of conventions, he made the unfortunate decision to visit a disease-infested London in 1824 and died as a consequence. It is fitting that his cape should now be on display there. If he had worn it on his travels to England, instead of the English clothing that he adopted, the cloak might have protected him from a very early death at 26 years of age.
The taboo-breaking policies of King Liholoho, Kamehameha II had included breaking down the old religious practices and images. A survivor of his Christian-inspired iconoclasm is another highlight of the exhibition. At more than two and half metres in height, this temple statue would have been the type of graven image most disapproved of by the mainly Protestant missionaries who travelled to Hawaii. Representing a fearsome-looking god known as the ‘island snatcher’, it shows the florid imagination of the islanders and their skill with carving wood.
The regional ability with wood could be turned to many different purposes, with canoes turning up more frequently than most. A prow ornament from the Solomon Islands would have been fixed to a war canoe. The accomplished use of nautilus-shell inlay is something that local carvers had perfected. In addition to their technical proficiency, the way in which the two different media have been combined makes for a masterwork of design. The charm of the subject is far from the bellicose look of much Pacific imagery and is embellished by the addition of a pigeon as a symbol of navigational skill – an attribute much admired in Oceania,
Also greatly admired was food, or to be more precise, feasting. There are few receptacles anywhere that could match this seven-metre-long item, also from the Solomon Islands. This so-called ‘bowl’ has never been exhibited before, perhaps because there aren’t many venues large enough to accommodate it.
Social and environmental issues are very much a part of this exhibition, as they should be for a region that is under more threat than most. There surely won’t be a more comprehensive look at Oceania for decades to come. The one ingredient that has, as always, been left out is Borneo. As the world’s third largest island is not part of Melanesia, Polynesia or Micronesia, this was inevitable. It would already have been difficult enough for the curators to cram in as many cultures as they have. It looks like the tribal art of Borneo, magnificent as it is, will never receive the recognition that has been given to Africa and Oceania.
Oceania – The Exhibition
Where: Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, Mayfair, London W1J 0BD, UK
When: Until Dec 10, 2018