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Oceania: Royal Academy voyages through 500 years of Pacific culture

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Papua New Guinea launch-day greeting.

Oceania: Royal Academy voyages through 500 years of Pacific culture

By James Brewer

In 1768, Lieutenant (later Captain) James Cook left Plymouth on HMS Endeavour on the first of three voyages to search for the fabled Terra Australis Incognita and to map the southern oceans. To Europeans, this made him a hero and discoverer – but he was far from being a pioneer. People living in the Pacific had for centuries been highly sophisticated, capable mariners. Thanks to ocean-going canoes and their traditional navigational aids, they had already mastered vast distances between islands.

Bonito fishing canoe lent by Übersee Museum, Bremen

Local populations had since settlement began more than 30,000 years ago developed viable maritime-based economies across a huge chunk of planet ocean. They had become great navigators, learning to use currents, prevailing winds, the sun and stars, and the movement of whales and birds, for their voyages. They had no need for paper documents: knowledge of their environs was carved into stick charts.

“Their adventures embraced the sea in a fashion unprecedented in human experience,” say the curators of Oceania, the huge new exhibition at the Royal Academy.

Oceania charts rich and now well-documented historic collections to explore this history and present contexts in which objects often impressive in scale can be better understood and appreciated.

Pre-1900 canoe from Wuvulu Island.

With its canvas an area covering one third of the world’s surface, the London institution is hosting what it says is the first major survey of Oceanic art organised in the UK.

The thread that connects this cornucopia of exhibits is navigational skills. The first Europeans in the region were quick to recognise this, hiring islanders to crew their ships which took them to ports in Asia and the northern hemisphere. Such seafarers often returned to their region to settle on islands that were other than their own.

Oceanic islanders had earlier engaged in extensive voyaging and trade, which stimulated artistic innovation. Europeans, from their first incursions, eagerly collected artefacts, although the offer of some intricate fabrics presented as welcoming gifts to the newcomers had been spurned as supposedly just cheap cloth.

Some 200 works from public and private collections and spanning half a millennium are brought together for the ambitious exhibition celebrating the art of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia, encompassing the vast Pacific region from New Guinea to Easter Island, from Hawaii to New Zealand. The exhibition marks the 250th anniversary of the Royal Academy, founded in the year Cook set sail on his first expedition to the Pacific.

Oceania makes a splash.

A lively troupe of a dozen dancers from Papua New Guinea enlivened the first morning of the show, and later that day the Duchess of Sussex attended the opening reception which included a performance by Ngāti Rānana, a Māori cultural group.

It is nearly 40 years since the last major exhibition, which was at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, presented an overview of the entire region of Oceania.

The Royal Academy’s focus is on art made by Pacific islanders and is organised with three main themes. Voyaging looks at life on the water as revealed through the extraordinary stories of indigenous navigation and the arts of the canoe and canoe accoutrements such as carved prows and paddles. Place-making explores the settlement of communities and Encounter focuses on trade and exchange in Pacific cultures.

Ceremonial welcome.

Highlights of the exhibition include the 14th century wooden Kaitaia carving (in the collection of Auckland War Memorial Museum) which was excavated in 1920. This is one of the oldest known objects found in New Zealand.

Objects from the 18th century voyages include two Māori hoe, canoe paddles, (held by the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge) collected in October 1769 during the first voyage of Cook, just three days after the crew of the Endeavour encountered Māori for the first time.

There are drawings made on the first Cook voyage by the Tahitian priest and expert navigator Tupaia (c 1725-1770) who, after joining the Endeavour in Tahiti, took to the unfamiliar medium of ink and paper to produce fascinating depictions of his culture including Dancing girl and Chief mourner (British Library, London).

Canoe prow figure from Solomon Islands;. Collection Eugen Paravicini 1929.

An 18th century Heva tupapau, known as “the costume of the Chief Mourner” from Tahiti (Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter) is one of only six known examples in existence. It was obtained in Tahiti in 1791 by Francis Godolphin Bond, first lieutenant on the Providence, the ship commanded by William Bligh. A late 18th century Feather-god image (akua hulu manu) from the Hawaiian Islands (kept by the British Museum) is thought to have been collected on Cook’s third voyage.

Visitors will admire the graceful lines of a late 19th century bonito fishing canoe in wood, pearly shell and fibre from Makira (San Cristobal), Solomon Islands, lent by the Übersee Museum, Bremen. A pre-1900 canoe from Wuvulu Island, Bismarck Archipelago, a group of islands off the northeast coast of New Guinea, is lent by the Museums für Völkerkunde, Hamburg.

There is a “soul canoe” carved with figures of turtles, birds and humans.

Further highlights include: a rare Fijian late 18th or early 19th century double-headed whale ivory hook (Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge) representing the sacred and powerful doubled female deities; and Tuai’s drawing of his elder brother Korokoro’s moko (face tattoo) (Auckland Libraries). Tuai travelled to Britain in 1818 and the drawing was made to illustrate Maori customs and culture.

Tene Waitere, Tā Moko panel, 1896-99. © Image courtesy of Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

There is a 19th century Solomon Islands Nguzunguzu, a prow ornament for a war canoe (Museum der Kulturen, Basel) featuring a pigeon, an expression of navigational virtuosity. Tene Waitere’s Ta Moko panel, 1896-99, (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington) is a sculptural illustration of male and female tattoos. Tene Waitere (1854-1931) was arguably the most important Maori sculptor of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The British Museum loans a 19th century ceremonial feast bowl from the Solomon Islands. Measuring nearly 7 m in length, this bowl has never been in a public exhibition before.

Coming right up to date,  we see but unfortunately do not hear a gloriously sculpted in local materials a full-sized grand piano called by a Maori title (He Korero Purakau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu) which translates as “story of a New Zealand river.” Executed by Michael Parekowhai, its materials are described as “piano, wood, ivory, brass, lacquer, steel, ebony, pāua shell, mother of pearl, upholstery.” Made in 2011, it sits in the collection of the Museum of New Zealand, Wellington. Pāua shell is a highly coloured sea shell, sometimes called abalone and sometimes marine opal.

Hook, 1870 (detail). Whale ivory, glass beads, fibre,. Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge University.

This is his Michael Parekowhai’s sixth piano sculpture and took more than 10 years to create. Aside from being a spectacular sculpture it is said to be a perfectly tuned instrument – a Steinway concert grand, no less. The title bestowed by the author refers to a 1920s New Zealand novel, which inspired Jane Campion’s 1993 film The Piano. A Christchurch art curator, Justin Paton, has said that in this way “no longer is ‘culture’ imported from Europe. In transforming the piano, Parekowhai shifts the perspective, boldly making New Zealand the source.”

Other contemporary work in the exhibition includes the panoramic video In Pursuit of Venus [infected] from 2015-17 by the New Zealand multi-media artist Lisa Reihana (Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki) and from the same Auckland gallery John Pule’s Kehe tau hauaga foou (To all new arrivals), 2007.

Oceania is organised by the Royal Academy and Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, Paris, with the participation of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge.

The challenging task of curation has been fulfilled brilliantly by Professor Nicholas Thomas, director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge, and Dr Peter Brunt of Victoria University of Wellington in conjunction with Dr Adrian Locke, senior curator at the Royal Academy.

Oceania on a grand scale.

Oceania is at the Royal Academy from September 29 to December 10, 2018, 10am-6pm daily, with late nights on Fridays until 10pm.

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