Pacific art on the world stage, Ian Lochhead

Art in Oceania: A New History 
Peter Brunt and Nicholas Thomas (eds)
Thames and Hudson, $130.00,
ISBN 9780500239018

When New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) opened its landmark exhibition Arts of the South Seas in 1946, the war in the Pacific was still a fresh and, for many, a raw memory. The museum clearly anticipated a high level of interest, printing 23,500 copies of the accompanying book, although in reality new copies could still be purchased in the 1970s. The exhibition, drawn mainly from American collections, challenged perceptions of the status of Pacific art by relocating works from museums of natural history and ethnography to a mainstream art museum.

That this happened at MOMA was no accident, since the impact on what was still referred to as “primitive art” on modernism was by then well established. As the exhibition curators noted “Oceanic art was among the last of the primitive arts to be ‘discovered’ ”. They linked this to the more recent “interest in the dream world and the subconscious … [that] made us aware of the Magic art from Oceania”.

It is also worth remembering that by 1946 the New York artists who were soon to be known as abstract expressionists also had a strong interest in the hidden meanings of the arts of Oceania. Visitors to MOMA in 1946 would have encountered a world of art remote from the Pacific that GIs had so recently experienced; the works on show perpetuated a remote and ideal Pacific paradise of the western imagination rather than contemporary reality.

Over 30 years later Pacific art returned to a major east coast American museum with the 1979 Art of the Pacific Islands exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The list of lenders was now international, reflecting the dispersal of Pacific art throughout the globe since European navigators invaded the Pacific in the 18th century, but the fundamental premise behind the exhibition remained unchanged.

As the National Gallery’s director, J Carter Brown explained in the catalogue, the “aim has been to choose those objects which were made before or collected at the earliest contact by Westerners, and which therefore reflect the most pristine state of the cultures”. It would be hard to find a more explicit statement of the belief that Pacific art had had its day and that since western contact it had entered into a long and steady decline, contaminated through ongoing contact with “civilisation”. By 1979 such a view was itself already in decline and just five years later the exhibition that was to transform attitudes to art in the Pacific, Te Maori, opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. From that time on it was no longer possible to divorce works of art from the living cultures to which they belonged. As with so much else, it is possible to date the emergence of a new Pacific art history to that event.

The publication of Art in Oceania: A New History marks not so much the emergence of a new approach to the art produced across almost a third of the world’s surface, but its consolidation in a single volume for an international audience. The fact that the majority of the authors and the two editors come from the Pacific region is also indicative of this changed perspective on world art. The book owes its origin to the challenge from a director of Thames and Hudson to produce a book that countered the pervasive scholarly attitude that art since 1900 was essentially a product of western culture, a view enshrined in Hal Foster’s Art Since 1900 (2004).

What distinguishes Art in Oceania: A New History from most previous studies is its focus on Pacific art produced since 1900, and especially since 1940. The authors’ rejection of the belief that Pacific art of the last century and a half is less authentic or less meaningful than the art of the ancient Pacific allows them to challenge old orthodoxies and present readers with a more diverse, complex and exciting view of the subject than has ever before been available in a single volume.

The Oceania of the book’s title extends from New Guinea in the west to Rapa Nui in the east, and the Hawaiian islands in the north to New Zealand in the south, encompassing the island groupings of Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia. Part one traces the early human settlement of Western Oceania and the emergence of Lapita culture. This is followed by an account of early voyages into the wider Pacific, its settlement and the emergence of distinctive architectural forms and landscapes up to around 1700. This was surely one of the most remarkable migrations in human history, as voyagers set out across vast oceans with only their knowledge of swells and currents, weather and the night sky and the flight paths of seabirds as guides. Pacific navigation is one of many subjects covered in illustrated, double-page “features” inserted throughout the main text. These cover a diverse range of specialised topics in greater detail than might otherwise be possible in such a broad survey of a vast field of knowledge.

Parts two to four survey developments from the early 18th century through to the middle of the 20th century across the geographical and cultural regions of New Guinea, Island Melanesia and Eastern and Northern Oceania. Inevitably in a book that attempts to survey such a wide sweep of human history, the focus of these sections is selective rather than comprehensive. Thus we find a discussion of the emergence of the carved whare whakiro and other developments in Maori architecture, but scant mention of Maori carving as such. This selectivity reflects both the specific interests of individual authors but also an emphasis on the way in which works of art and architecture functioned in the societies that produced them rather than on purely aesthetic considerations. Rather than producing a survey of “masterpieces of Oceanic art”, the authors have sought to explore themes, pose questions and challenge readers’ assumptions.

This is particularly the case in parts five and six, which examine artists’ responses to war, decolonisation and tourism, and the emergence of contemporary Oceanic art. WWII brought Pacific peoples into more direct and brutal contact with western culture and technology than at any time in their history and initiated a phase of sustained interaction with the wider world that still continues.

The expanding market for works of art, in which an object made for everyday use could equally well find a buyer in a souvenir-store has raised questions of authenticity, vexing museum curators seeking works that best represent a particular culture. The debased currency of mass-produced souvenirs, most notoriously the plastic tikis produced for Air New Zealand in the 1970s, now forms part of the background and meaning of contemporary works of art, such as the sophisticated Corian tikis of Rangi Kipa.

When contemporary Pacific artists make choices between traditional or industrial materials, found objects or the cast-offs of contemporary society when making their works, one can be sure that these are informed decisions that contribute to the meaning of their art. Popular culture, digital technology and graffiti all form part of the language of contemporary Pacific art which is as much the product of urban as of island environments. It has also found an international audience, with exhibitions such as the ironically titled Paradise Now being shown at the Asia Society Gallery in New York in 2004. Pressing concerns for Pacific artists, such as the impacts of mass tourism, resource depletion, environmental degradation and rising sea levels, are now issues faced by the entire world, giving their works added relevance.

For New Zealand readers who have witnessed the development of contemporary Pacific art over recent decades, Art in Oceania: A New History offers fresh perspectives on a familiar subject. For readers living beyond the region covered by this handsomely designed and sumptuously illustrated book, it should be a revelation. As governments around the world cut budgets for arts and culture, this new history also serves as a timely reminder of the ways in which the arts can reflect, transform and revitalise societies. Bearing the imprint of one of the world’s leading art publishers, Art in Oceania places the arts of the Pacific firmly on the global stage; the government funding that assisted its production was surely money well spent.


Ian Lochhead is Associate Professor of Art History in the School of Humanities at the University of Canterbury.


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Posted in Art, Non-fiction, Pacific, Review
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