Endeavours of the mind: the soft power of Oceania: Rita Ricketts reviews an exhibition that has recently been held in London and Paris.

AuthorRicketts, Rita

The much-acclaimed Oceania exhibition at London's Royal Academy of Arts celebrates the ancestral treasures--taonga--of the Pacific region. It not only celebrates the mana of New Zealand and its Pacific Islands neighbours but also sounds a solemn warning to those who continue to ignore the catastrophic effects global warming will have on the region. Artists have always warned and criticised; Oceania's artists are no exception. In New York in the same week the exhibition opened, New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made an impassioned plea in the UN General Assembly for urgent multilateral action to combat climate change.


Oceania could be 'read' simply as a celebration of the bicentenary of the founding of the Royal Academy and, serendipitously, the first voyage of the then Lieutenant James Cook. (1) But judging by the reception given to Pacific Islanders who accompanied their ancestral treasures and modern works of art to London, it is also an acknowledgment of their mana. We have been treated right royally, explained Matariki Williams, curator of Maturanga Maori at New Zealand's Te Papa, 'rather better than at home'. The attention given to them by London's early risers and commuters, too, was remarkable.

They were almost reverential as they witnessed the pilgrimage of Pacific Islands' government representatives, artists, their supporters and members of the Pacific diaspora, thronging their way on foot to the Royal Academy. On arrival they were given a ceremonial welcome (powhiri) from Ngati Ranana, the London Maori Club, who represented the Royal Academy as the tangata whenua (hosts). While a private blessing of the exhibition took place inside the galleries, outside the usually sedate courtyard was transformed.

Ablaze with colour, vibrating to the music and dancing of Pacific Islanders, and ringed around with well-wishers, the Royal Academy's courtyard was reminiscent of the Turbine Hall, at London's Tate Modern: the co-called people's palace' because of the sheer size and mix of visitors, or New Zealand's Te Papa, or the foyer of its National Library. Given the physical distance of the Pacific, and, for many, the cost of travel, the exhibition provides a rare opportunity for a wider, European, audience to view more than 250 works of art, in a variety of media. They are able to feel the physical hand of the Islands craftsmen who made them and discover the extent of their intellectual property. In their senior partner statement, the New Zealand organisers described the exhibition as a celebration of Maori and Pacific art that 'highlights the common threads of history and society and our many shared interests in the region'.

Maia Jessop Nuku, curator at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote of the 'timely opportunity to reframe and revitalise our relationship with this most majestic of oceans [which is] a vital connector of our intersecting worlds'. James Fox, in his BBC programme, Oceans Apart, describes this connection as an alchemy shaped by conflict and collaboration'. (2) Step over the threshold of the Royal Academy's hallowed halls, and this is manifest. You will be immediately engulfed in a cascading tidal wave of intense blue: Kiko Moana. A textile drop made from tarpaulin by Mata Aho, a collective of four Maori women, its resonance could hardly be missed in a week when an horrendous tsunami engulfed the coastal city of Palu. This was registered by Alistair Snook, in a review in the Daily Telegraph. 'Woven out of pieces of ordinary tarpaulin, it [Kiko Moana] offers a frightening vision of a plastic ocean, clogged with human junk, threatening to overwhelm us as sea-levels continue to rise'. (3)

Art's debt

Contemporary work such as Kiko Moana (body of water) sounds a warning, but equally bearing on the viewer is the sheer scale of modern art's debt to the Pacific. At the turn of the 20th century 'Oceanic art was eagerly consumed by a host of European avant-garde artists'. Pablo Picasso, Jacob Epstein, Andre Derain, Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin were among those 'inspired and delighted in its [Pacific Art's] radical aesthetics and bold interpretation of form'. (4) 'Imagine how dreary' Victoriana, 'cleaving to notions of verisimilitude established four centuries earlier', must have looked beside the glowering, pulsing statue of the Hawaiian god Ki'i, 'the island snatcher', when this masterpiece entered the collection of the British Museum in 1839. (5) Matariki Williams sees the...

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