Oceania. Art in everyday life
Updated: Oct 26, 2018
In the beginning of his book, Sebastian Smee writes: ‘if you travel long distances to see single works of art, it’s unrealistically high hopes. You set out on the trip with the piety and anticipation of a pilgrim. And when you reach your destination and the longed-for encounter takes place, you feel obliged to whip up a level of excitement that justifies all the mental preparation, the time, the expense. It’s either that, or crashing anti-climax.’
It is not that I was aware of Oceanian art or that I googled the Oceania exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts before going there. Just the idea somewhere back in my mind suggested that this exhibition could be huge, unique and unexpected. Especially, when so many great artists, including Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore, were inspired by the works from the world of the Pacific Ocean.
Two hundred and fifty years ago, in 1768, Lieutenant (later Captain) James Cook and his crew started their scientific expedition to explore the Southern Hemisphere. This was the first of Cook’s three voyages across the Pacific Ocean that was largely unknown to Europeans at the time. Cultural artefacts, specimens of intellectual curiosity were acquired by Cook and other early explorers, colonial officers as gifts or exchanged willingly. These days collaboration between museum ethnographers based in Europe and living in Pacific has opened new possibilities and better understanding of the different parts of the world including traditions and history. However, customary traditions and protocols of giving remain strict and powerfully alive in the Pacific region. Many of the major loans for ‘Oceania’ are accompanied by tribal elders who have been overseeing appropriate cultural protocols of these ancestral treasures when they are installed at the RA.
The exhibition is divided into three main topics.
- VOYAGING. Rooms, including geographical Introduction, Voyaging and Navigation, Expanding horizons, present the arts associated with ocean travel: decorated paddles, carved canoes, fishhooks.
- MAKING PLACE. Rooms of Place and community, Gods and ancestors, The spirit of the gift, and Performance and ceremony, show facades of ceremonial houses, masks, clothes, musical instruments and artworks dedicated to sacred sites where the natives might interact with god.
- ENCOUNTER. Rooms, including Encounter and empire, In pursuit of venus, and Memory, explore a dramatic new epoch of encounter between the Oceanic cultures and the Europeans. Although Europeans may have brought novel material, technologies, religions and ideas, they also brought diseases to which there was no natural resistance. Misunderstanding, violence and tragedy as well as sharing and mutual curiosity marked the age and people still have to tackle these issues these days, not mentioning the environmental degradation of the islands and the ocean.
The exhibition presents objects completely different from anything in Europe. While in this side of the world, traditions of philosophy and science flourish, there people are focused on their relationship to nature and they cherish the environment. It looks that everything is dedicated to nature with all the artworks made with extreme care and devotion. The art in everyday life and objects has a purpose to remind the history, and preserve the traditions in the worlds globalisation.
The line between history/archaeology/anthropology museum and ‘Oceania’ at the RA completely disappears. However, the issue of history related exhibitions is that you have to have a background of any particular topic before entering. Then you support knowledge you already have. Otherwise, it is very difficult to catch ideas. You have to read notes what attract the attention from the objects.
In the first room a massive blue wave-looking fabric was hanging, and it was chilly, and water ripples were projected on the walls in other rooms, making me felt somewhere very close to water. But I missed the key artwork in the exhibition. I couldn’t find a proper postcard representing Oceania. Though, plenty of scarves, cushions (!) and jewellery are at the Gallery to buy. I doubt these goods are made by Pacific peoples or the money spent will be used for their support.
However, the curators did the thorough job of bringing different Oceanic artworks to one places from all over the world. A tremendous part of the work is done in representing the exhibition.
- watch the opening performances <the part almost in the middle of the video is really catchy!
The first meeting with Oceania left me with the idea that somewhere in thirty-hours flight there is completely different world. Sometimes knowing does not mean understanding. Thus, it would be wonderful to see Pacific art with all my senses.
Royal Academy of Arts
Burlington House, Piccadilly, Mayfair, London W1J 0BD
29 Sep 2018 - 10 Dec 2018