Triple juxtaposition in the courtyard of Burlington House, Piccadilly, London: American house (as observed in my last blog), Sir Joshua Reynolds in statuesque form, and the huge poster for ‘Oceania’, the Royal Academy’s blockbuster exhibition this winter. And, in my untutored opinion, blockbuster it truly is. You should see it.
It’s a tremendous exhibition in two major respects: the large amount of original material culled from the southern Pacific and various collections in other parts of the world; and the display of it. Although many of the individual objects were new to me, in general I was familiar with the sort of material on display, having travelled a bit in those parts and also having spent a day in the Branly Quay Museum in Paris soon after it opened. So I was ready to be impressed by the display itself, and that in no way disappointed.
The first main gallery illustrates the point:
Look at the canoes, fairly basic to life in Oceania, and note too the lighting – strong and blue. The row of turtles in the further canoe and the decoration both on it and the middle one anticipate delights – beliefs and intentional art and decoration – yet to comes in what is also a very large exhibition.
In fact it is far too large for me to do justice to so I have made a selection within a selection. I focus on human faces and bodies, and ignore practically everything else except for a few images at the end. The running order is that of the exhibition, linked in a series of themes such as communication, encounter and gift culture.
This sculpture in Ficus wood of two double figures and a quadruped, comes from Tahiti in the Society Islands. It is dated about 1700, and was collected by Captain Cook himself between April and July, 1769. This was at the beginning of the ‘Encounter’ between the many different indigenous peoples and the West, a controversial theme that runs through the exhibition.
Unfortunately I cannot identify this object from my notes but I am reluctant to discard it because it is so striking – and not a bad photograph either! I’ll find out what it is and add the details later.
Below is a life-sized ‘suit’ of armour (of coconut fibre and human hair) with helmet (fish skin) and trident (coconut palm wood, shark teeth, human hair, palm fibre and palm leaf). It is of late 19th century date:
I thought this one of the most striking ‘faces’ in the exhibition. It is a wooden facade sculpture representing Dilukai, a popular goddess with many mythical powers. It was collected from Palau in 1910-11.
The equally-stunning wooden face below is on a house-post from Doyo village on the north coast of West Papua. Again c 1900 in date, it was collected in 1952.
And this third striking face below, despite being at least 500 years older than the previous two images, is perhaps in more familiar style since it is indeed from Easter Island, Rapa Nui. Like the other moai there, it is carved from basalt, an ancestral figure which probably overlooked a sacred precinct and/or burial site. The accompanying caption in the exhibition is at pains to point out that ‘By the time this moai was collected, smallpox and slavers had decimated the island’s population and the indigenous religion was all but lost.’ Personally I found it a healthy strand throughout the exhibition that an emphasis was placed upon the impact of the West on ‘Oceania’ following it’s ‘discovery’. Basically it was a catastrophe.
I include this wooden female figure from Samoa, left. for its dramatic shell eyes. It is of the early 19th century, collected in 1839. The wonderful double-headed wooden god-image on the right is of similar date, collected in 1822 from Tahiti.
Akua hulu manu, a feathered god image, also consists of fibre, human hair, pearl shell and dog teeth: a fearsome combination of the late 18th century from the Hawaiian Islands.
Much less fearsome is this headcrest ornament from Papua New Guinea. It is made of wood and – to my eyes – a lovely selection of paints. Of the mid 20th century, it is nearly contemporary with an image coincidentally using a similar palette which I have recently illustrated (see my post of 26 November).
Towards the end of the exhibition is an astonishing coup d’oeuil: not another indigenous cultural object but a panoramic video installation in which a continuous procession of oceanic landscape moves slowly from right to left displaying a series of scenarios. These show people engaged in various activities, entirely indigenous, in various aspects of ‘the Encounter’ and, with a ship in the background and a bell-tent on land, white scientists going about their business of recording and surveying. Each scenario comes to life, as it were, as it approaches the centre of the display. Below are two of these scenarios, respectively of native and of incomer, though I stress that they are meant to be viewed as moving parts of a continuous visual narrative, not as static scenes:
Another and much older representation of island life is this drawing of a Tahitian scene in the Society Islands. It is in pencil and watercolour on paper. It was created between April and July 1769. Nothing very remarkable in all that, you may think. But its artist was Tupaia, a priest and navigator, who joined Cook’s first voyage in 1769. He became the first islander to draw on European paper and, significantly, in a Western naturalistic style which was fundamentally different from that of the region. He depicted key aspects of of Tahitian life including, as here, a large house, native plants and canoes bearing warriors. And of course his viewpoint was that of an islander, not that of Cook’s colleagues making the official record. Yet the irony is that Tupaia was himself diminished in the official record and has only been recognised for his artistic and navigational achievements by recent scholarship.
My last two images are also ‘conscious art’. The first is Hiapo, painted barkcloth from Niue (New Zealand) of c 1890. From geometric patterns to the female figure naturalistically depicted in the lower centre the cloth displays a wide range of illustrations, some of which look distinctly archaeological – though that must be in the eye of this viewer, not intentional:
My last image is of one panel among five making up a large hanging in an artwork this time by a named artist, John Pule. He completed the work in 2007 in New Zealand. It is of enamel, oil, pencil, oil stick and ink on canvas. Its purpose is to welcome all new arrivals: