At the start of “Oceania”, an expansive display of art from the Pacific Islands at the Royal Academy in London, a 30-foot-long waterfall of ultramarine cloth, embroidered with zigzagging ripples, flows from the domed, sky-lit ceiling down to the gallery floor. The work, “Kiko Moana” (blue water), by a collective of contemporary Maori artists named Mata Aho, is an impressive introduction to the exhibition’s central theme. However diverse the thousands of island cultures scattered across the Pacific may be, they have always been united by the ocean.
Over a period of many millennia, these seafaring peoples explored and settled a region that stretches a third of the way across the globe. The first gallery features a display of three sleek canoes, with ornate prows depicting figures of humans, birds and crocodiles, along with a series of paddles. The size and precision of the craftsmanship invites you to imagine the epic voyages of maritime discovery that these devices enabled. Nearby, there are two navigational charts from the Marshall Islands, made of threaded sticks and shells, which map the currents of the ocean between islands thousands of miles apart.
Wars were waged, trade was conducted and ideas were exchanged over these vast waterways. In one room of the exhibition, a display of sumptuous gifts – painstakingly prepared barkcloth rugs painted with symbols of fecundity, exquisite necklaces adorned with carved whale-ivory figures – shows the spectacular ceremonial exchanges by which island chiefs managed their relationships with one another. Captain James Cook, who led the first European voyage to the South Seas exactly 250 years ago, was astounded by the extent of interconnection between the islanders.
Unsurprisingly, Cook’s presence can be felt throughout this exhibition, which aims with its panoply of 190 objects to chart Oceanic history from the 14th century to the present. The explorer’s arrival heralded an era of tumultuous change for Oceania. New opportunities were presented for trading and for the acquisition of knowledge and technology. There are a number of drawings on display by Tupaia, the Tahitian priest who accompanied Cook on his search for terra australis incognita, the fabled southern continent, and who is acknowledged as the first Islander to create artworks on European paper. But with the introduction of new diseases, colonial conflicts and famines caused by European misuse of the land, the islands suffered dramatic depopulation, exodus and the loss of many cultural traditions tied to the ancestral homelands.
The exhibition navigates this history with compassion and skill, not least through its installations by contemporary Islanders which confront questions of loss, mourning and cultural memory. Lisa Reihana’s 20-metre-wide video installation, “In Pursuit of Venus [Infected]”, repurposes the exoticising imagery of a colonial-era French painting. On one level, it is a lament for a lost world of imagined innocence – the title refers to the sexually transmitted diseases carried over from the West. However, like the exhibition itself, the work also encourages us to reimagine the colonial encounter not as a straightforward clash between “civilised” and “savage” man, but as a complex meeting of civilisations.
Feather god image (akua hulu manu), late 18th century, Hawaiian Islands. Fibre, feathers, human hair, pearl shell, seed, dog teeth
In January 1779, James Cook arrived at Kealakekua Bay for a formal meeting with the Hawaiian chief Kalani’opu’u. During a ceremony devoted to Lono, god of peace and prosperity, Cook was presented with a great number of prestigious gifts – 17 cloaks and 16 helmets, made with with tens of thousands of exquisitely soft feathers, as well as seven feathered busts of gods. The extraordinary display of generosity was intended as an act of honour. Less than a month later, after a bloody skirmish in which a British sailor shot dead a Hawaiian noble, Cook was killed.
One of the most trenchant aspects of this exhibition is the way it asks us to consider how the chequered history of colonial encounter alters the way we look at Oceanic objects. The artwork itself, with its dogtooth grimace, pearl-shell eyes and coif of real human hair, is striking in its own right. But its history invests it with a new power: as a witness to the first moments of European contact with Hawaii, it testifies to the extremes of generosity and violence this encounter would generate for centuries.
Female tattooed figure, 18th or early-19th century, Aitutaki, Cook Islands. Wood, pigment
There were many reasons why Islanders were compelled to migrate across the oceans. Fleeing the war and overpopulation ravaging the island of Tubai, the navigator Ru left by canoe. Eventually he became the first settler of Aitutaki, one of the Cook Islands, which is inhabited by descendants of Ru to this day.
This tattooed figure represents one of the first female ancestors of the Aitutaki people. Recent research by the curators of the exhibition has unlocked the complex iconographies both of the carved serrations on her torso – representations of the spine, but also of the ties of kinship – and of the tattoos. These painted patterns evoke canoes, as well as ara metua, “the ancient path of the ancestors”. They hark back to Ru’s ancient voyage but on a spiritual level, they also refer to the birth canal and the original passage to this world from the previous realm.
Canoe prow figure nguzunguzu, Solomon Islands. Wood, pigments, resin, shell
Headhunting, a form of ritualised warfare by which a chief acquired trophy heads to affirm his power, authority and the support of ancestral spirits, was practised in the Solomon Islands for thousands of years, and was especially widespread in the 19th century. This carved nguzunguzu would have adorned a tomoko, or war canoe, in which headhunting raids and trading expeditions involving scores of soldiers were conducted over the lagoons of the western Solomons. A head such as this affixed to the prow may have expressed the warriors’ grisly purpose, but what’s most arresting about the work is the exquisitely carved pigeon that the figure cradles in his hands. The bird, a species renowned for its ability to chart a true course over the seas, symbolises the Islanders’ ancient esteem for navigational skill.
Ta Moko panel by Tene Waitere (1896-99)
When Augustus Hamilton, the founding director of the National Museum of New Zealand in Wellington, began compiling his compendium of Maori arts in 1896, he commissioned Tene Waitere, a Maori sculptor, to document male and female variations of moko patterns – traditional Maori tattoo arts – in this carved panel. Waitere was a master of his day, and the panel is remarkable for its fusion of traditional geometric patterns and naturalistic Western-style portraiture.
The steady gaze of the two men is echoed in the serenity of the female head below, with her eyes closed and neck turned slightly away. Yet this sense of calm is disrupted by the febrile figure of the manaia creature – a messenger shuttling between the natural and spirit worlds, carved here in swirling relief and animated by wide eyes of pearl shell. The sculpture dramatises a dual impulse: to assimilate the new culture and to preserve the old.
Kehe tau hauaga foou (To all new arrivals) by John Pule (2017)
This monumental painting concludes the exhibition on a note of elegy and defiance. Across its ten-metre expanse, bomber planes destroy religious temples, communities in exile cross the seas, and Polynesian gods are borne aloft by throngs of the displaced. It’s a reminder of the threat that modernity poses to traditional cultures worldwide – and in that sense, it’s a fitting note on which to end an exhibition that is deeply concerned with the responsibility of museums to preserve historic forms of cultural expression and knowledge, and to present them anew to modern audiences. However, the painting also looks beyond the walls of the museum, to the role that artists must play in reimagining the cultures of the past. John Pule has explained that he “didn’t want to show our gods safe in nice, clean, dark, temperature-controlled storage rooms in world-famous museums” but rather “in the open world, as part of the conflict”.
Oceania Royal Academy of Arts, London, until December 10th