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Exhibition Review : Oceania at the Royal Academy – 29th September to 10th December 2018

The Royal Academy of Arts presents Oceania, the first ever major survey of Oceanic art to be held in the United Kingdom. This exhibition celebrates the art of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia, encompassing the Pacific region from New Guinea to Easter Island, Hawaii to New Zealand.

The exhibition brings together around 200 works from public and private collections worldwide, and will span over 500 years and offers a rare opportunity to  explore the art and culture of an area that is rich in history, ritual and ceremony.

The exhibition marks the 250th anniversary of the Royal Academy, founded in 1768, the same year Captain James Cook set sail on his first expedition to the Pacific on the Endeavour. When Captain James Cook left on the first of three voyages he found in the Pacific, highly sophisticated cultures with networks of communication between islands due the skill of sailors from the various islands using ocean-going canoes and navigational aids.

People from the various Pacific islands would travel long distances which enabled an exchange of technologies and culture. The exhibition explores how new discoveries are leading historians and art experts to present many historic collections in new contexts to gain a better understanding.

The exhibition begins by focusing on the art associated with voyaging and the importance of not only the canoes and navigational aids but of the sacred designs on the carved prows and paddles. Canoes also featured in origin stories and death rituals.

As new islands were reached and settled, a complex networks of communities were established, while many islanders lived from the food of the ocean, gradually land was cultivated and political systems developed.

Along with the physical world, many communities developed a divine world with a series of gods that were represented by statues, masks and other objects.

Ceremonies were often complex and organised with precision, music was played  and elaborate dances took place with specific costumes, shields and masks. The exhibition features an extraordinary 19th century Ceremonial Feast Bowl from the Solomon Islands. Measuring nearly 7 metres in length, this bowl has never been exhibited before.

One important feature of Pacific life was gift giving and many of the items in the exhibition were freely given to Europeans when they began to explore the Pacific. The gifts given were often of great symbolic meaning, prized items like a Hawaiian feather god image or a Samoan fine mat took months to make and were very valuable items and created for the nobility of the island communities.

A late 18th century Feather god image (akua hulu manu) from the Hawaiian Islands (British Museum) is likely to have been collected on Cook’s third voyage.

The exhibition provides evidence that the rich artistic traditions in Oceania are alive and well with a modern twist, contemporary Oceanic art that speaks of the  past as well as the challenges of the present. Contemporary work in the exhibition will include the vast panoramic video In Pursuit of Venus [infected], 2015-17, by the New Zealand multi-media artist, Lisa Reihana (Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki) and John Pule’s, Kehe tau hauaga foou (To all new arrivals), 2007 (Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki).

This fascinating exhibition illustrates that artistic traditions in Oceania have a long and distinguished history before Europeans began to explore the region. Contrary to European belief, the Pacific islanders were not isolated from each other and the rest of the world but were part of a vast network made possible by the remarkable skills in boat building and navigation. The exhibition provides evidence that despite the vast distances, different artistic styles were shared as the Islanders traveled around the Pacific. For centuries, traditional art from the area was considered decorative but naïve, however recent research is beginning to challenge this misconception and exhibition like these show the rich artistic traditions from the area and some of the latest developments.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended   

For more information and tickets, visit the Royal Academy website here

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