The ocean within, David Eggleton

Art in Oceania: A New History
Peter Brunt, Nicholas Thomas, Sean Mallon, Lissant Bolton, Deidre Brown, Damian Skinner and Susanne Küchler.
Peter Brunt and Nicholas Thomas (eds), assisted by Stella Ramage
Thames & Hudson, $130.00,
ISBN 9780500239018

Art in Oceania: A New History is a thumpingly large tome, befitting the territorial scope and territorial span it seeks to encompass. It’s a Pacific kaleidoscope, richly illustrated and containing texts by various hands woven out of many thematic strands. The product of seven authors – four New Zealanders working at public institutions in New Zealand and three non-New Zealand scholars based at public institutions in Great Britain – it has a glossy sheen to it, a sense of state-of-the-art scholarship and high production values. But, even with a committee-sized approach, the authors struggle to wrangle a sprawling eclectic diversity into tidy categories: early settlement, decorative arts, colonialism, modernism, the global art world.

Here, “Oceania” is the name of a geographical entity, consisting of Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia, and made up of the archipelagoes of islands and atolls that span the Pacific Ocean, from the Marshall Islands, to Aotearoa New Zealand, to Rapa Nui, to Hawai‘i. Albert Wendt proposed the need for a new way of considering Oceania back in 1976, one that took stock of emerging independence movements and postcolonialism; while, in 1993, the Tongan writer Epeli Hau‘ofa put forward his conception of Oceania as “an ocean of islands”– that is, using geography to assert an almost mystical sense of identity. This new book pays tribute to Hau’ofa’s ideological repositioning, to his metaphor of “the ocean in us”, pointing out that he did not mean a displacement of ethnic, tribal, nationalist definitions, but rather a need for local communities confronted by globalisation to assert regionalism, based both on notions of guardianship and the maritime tradition of navigators who used canoes to make Oceania a network of cultural exchange.

One of the tensions this “new history” has to deal with is that some of the early history remains speculative, something of a jigsaw puzzle with large chunks missing, the exact nature of early network interactions unknown.

As a project, the book sprang out of conversations between Peter Brunt and Sean Mallon about the need for a contemporary reappraisal of Oceanic art. This coincided with the 2005 appearance of the Thames & Hudson international publication Art Since 1900, which omitted any considered examination of the art of the Pacific Ocean region. The result is a publication which has a large anthropological component, especially about New Guinea and its surrounding islands. In some ways, this is the most fascinating section for a New Zealand audience, as we have had a plethora of books on Māori and Pacific Island contemporary art being published by Te Papa Press and others over the past two decades.

As a new history, it’s emphatically revisionist. Older books on the art of the region included Australia, but here Aboriginal arts have been excluded, as they are now considered “culturally distinct, more ancient and essentially continental.” Nicholas Thomas’s introduction, which emphasises “accomplishment”, sets the tone of affirmation; everywhere there are legacies of “agency”. Much evidence is offered to support the contention that European colonial and imperial incursions have been absorbed and transformed, so suggesting a regional vitality of interaction predating first contact. One myth thus dispelled is that of “untouched traditions”; in fact, the arts of Oceania have always been in a state of dynamic evolution, responsive to circumstances and to contexts.

Thomas further points out the turn there has been from Oceanic objects being sought out as curiosities or tourist curios by overseas collectors, to their reassessment by Pacific Islanders themselves, who have emerged as scholars, curators, cultural activists, artists and community leaders, increasingly insisting on their own perspectives and reappropriations. In essence, all the authors here are positivists, ameliorists, and their commentaries oftentimes as much hymns of praise as vignettes about the provenance of artefacts, or historical summaries, or expositions on the latest trends in theorising.

The narrative begins with prehistory and a consideration of the Lapita people, the first recorded humans to have reached the South Pacific, out of South-East Asia, and who are named for the particular kind of pottery they produced. Lapita is the site in New Caledonia where it was first excavated and dated in 1952. Yet the book also includes puzzling neolithic objects, which may predate Lapita migration.

Apart from works in stone, shell and fired clay, few examples of early artefacts have endured. The disappearance of wooden structures means speculations about early buildings are necessarily incomplete; however, Deidre Brown writes informatively about early monumental architecture – great ramparts or mounds of stone or earth – and goes on to consider how such massive structures are associated with ruling dynasties as temples or tombs. She mentions Polynesia’s most famous stone monuments, the moai or stone ancestor-statues on Rapa Nui, and also writes about the stone money of the Yap people in the Caroline Islands, used in trade. Quarried some distance away on the island of Palau and transported to the island of Yap by outrigger canoe, these giant, smoothed and polished limestone discs were just one of the forms of currency serving to allow complex sets of tribal interactions across Oceania.

Textiles, such as mats, cloth, sails and rope also had monetary exchange value and were used for barter, along with items such as live pigs, bushels of kava root and extraordinary coils of curving boar tusks, produced by removing upper teeth while the animals were still growing.

In New Guinea, such currencies were used by tribal groups to purchase intellectual property: for example, secret ways of making masks and head-dresses. New Guinea and island Melanesia (the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia) have proved areas of astounding cultural diversity. Lissant Bolton writes of Melanesia that it is impossible to generalise about anything, “including gender relations” – these could vary enormously from tribal group to tribal group. Melanesia remains the repository of the world’s largest number of different languages, along with dialects. Up until recently, many Melanesian communities in remote areas remained completely self-sufficient and richly expressive in arts and crafts. We learn about competitions in gift-giving and about the refined if macabre art of head-hunting, with its complex protocols. The art of shield-making was based around creating designs “meant to dazzle, disorient, intimidate and frighten”. All of Oceania excelled in wood-carving, but no objects were more remarkable than the spirit-effigies crafted in Melanesia.

When colonial administrations began to be set up in Oceania by the Dutch, Germans, British and French in the mid-19th century, traders and Christian missionaries had preceded them. Missionaries were the most transformative, stamping out the animist pantheon and many rituals. Yet they were also collectors, assigning value to some cultural productions, so that their iconoclasm helped shape and retell the locals’ history for them in Christian terms, something that still pertains today.

Another consequence of this meeting of worlds was the wholesale ransacking of artefacts. By the turn of the 20th century, there was an almost insatiable appetite for “primitive exotica”; the trade was supervised by ethnic art dealers. In 1908, one American anthropologist wrote that practically every German in the colony of German New Guinea was a collector. Items were shipped to every major museum in Germany. One result of this looting was that village industries sprang up, manufacturing fierce grinning masks and other “authentic” totemic objects for export, produced by indigenous craftspeople.

Today, the collecting mania which produced a surfeit of Oceanic artefacts in the museums of Europe is a matter of contention. Art in Oceania lays out the argument that “notions of repatriation are fraught with difficulties”, such as specialist care needed for preservation, access for researchers and wider public audiences, and regional political instability. If museums are now the stewards of the sacred, one of the functions of this book is to make visible the benefits, in the form of its more than 500 illustrations, most of them of objects held in museums.

Towards the end of Art in Oceania, decolonisation and cultural revival are examined, with examples of resurgence in the form of post colonial institutions, such as Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, the Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Noumea and the Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture in Suva. This imposition of “the colonial and its disintegration” is a thematic framework which only partly explains what is happening in Oceania. There are also included examples of “contemporary artworks” made using traditional materials, but then there is a struggle with the exact appellation: “we use ‘customary’ rather than ‘traditional’ because art-making incorporates adoption of change in response to the contemporary marketplace”, etc. Thus, debate about the nature of “the ethnographic” continues.

The artworks in this book are entangled in arguments of all kinds. Oceania itself is a melting pot, or else a palimpsest. Today, it’s made up of challenging blends and hybrids, of accidents of genetic mixing, which influence its peoples’ ideas of themselves and their allegiances, what they own and disown. But what matters is what has always mattered: the ocean within and the vitality of the ways this sense of regionalism is expressed, growing out of heritage and location.


David Eggleton is a Dunedin reviewer. His maternal grandmother was from Tongatapu in the Kingdom of Tonga, and his maternal grandfather was from Rotuma in the Republic of Fiji.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Art, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category