Art of Oceania: Characteristics, Types, Definitions and Categorizations

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Oceanic art embraces all the visual arts of the indigenous peoples from the Pacific Islands and Australia, including the regions of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia. Places where this art is found are locations as far apart as Hawaii, Palau, the Easter Islands, New Zealand, Tonga, Tahiti and Australia. Some of the art Oceania goes back tens of thousands of years to the first waves of human migrations. The art endures today but was strongly impacted by European civilizations that began colonizing many of the indigenous populations. in the 16th and 17th centuries. [Source:]

Bernice Akamine of the Peabody Essex Museum wrote: Oceanic artists have expressed their understanding of the world through objects drawn from the natural environment. Through ritual objects and regalia, Pacific people communicate with gods and ancestors, and affirm their divine lineage. Elaborate designs and graceful forms reveal connections between the porous boundaries of art, religion, and life. Many of these works are imbued with ha, the breath and pulse of life, and mana, supernatural or divine power. [Source: Bernice Akamine, Peabody Essex Museum]

According to Eric Kjellgren: Oceania’s diverse artistic traditions form an important part of the world 's artistic heritage. From the dense rainforests of New Guinea to the spice-rich islands of Indonesia, the widely scattered archipelagos of Polynesia and Micronesia, and the deserts of Australia, the peoples of Oceania have developed hundreds of distinct artistic traditions that encompass an astonishing variety of forms and media. Created to portray the myriad deities, ancestors, and spirits central to the region 's diverse religions, to enhance the beauty of the human body, and to adorn the objects and architecture integral to daily and religious activities, art in Oceania pervades virtually every aspect of life. The artists of Oceania, who frequently depict beings from the supernatural rather than the natural world, are remarkable for their often radical approaches to the human form, whereby they convey the otherworldly qualities of their subjects. When admiring the achievements of Oceanic artists, whose forms and imagery remain novel and unfamiliar to some observers, it is interesting to reftect that, for more than a century, the arts of these distant lands have had a direct inftuence on the works of many of the most important artists of the Western canon, from Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso to the German Expressionists and the Su rrea I ists. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007. Eric Kjellgren is a leading scholar of the arts of Oceania. Formerly curator of Oceanic Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and director of the American Museum of Asmat Art (AMAA) and Clinical Faculty in Art History at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, he has worked extensively with contemporary Indigenous Australian artists and done field research in Vanuatu]

Oceania and Art

Oceania is a big region. By some measures it covers a third of The Earth’s surfaces and comprises about 20,000 Pacific islands and 1,800 cultures and languages. It is no surprise that the art region is complex and difficult to categorize. According to the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology: Oceania is not just a huge region it is also an idea and an imagination. The region is the only part of the world humans settled by travelling over water. It is a part of the world formed out of voyages, maritime connections, migration, exchange and encounter. [Source: Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Most Oceanic art objects in museums date from the 18th century to the present and come from more than 36 Pacific island groups in Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia, with some of the most outstanding pieces from the Papua New Guinea, Austral Islands, New Britain, New Ireland and Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, the Caroline Islands (Micronesia), Aotearoa (New Zealand), the Cook Islands, Fiji, Hawai‘i, the Marquesas Islands and the Society Islands (including Tahiti) in French Polynesia, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Vanuatu (New Hebrides), the Solomon Islands, the Kingdom of Tonga and Samoa, [Source: Bernice Akamine, Peabody Essex Museum]

Encompassing the arts and cultures of the Pacific Islands, Oceania is by far the most extensive artistic region in the world. For some impression of Oceania's enormous artistic and cultural diversity, one need only look at the modern nation of Vanuatu, a single archipelago with a population of some 200,000 people, that alone is home to more than twice as many cultures and languages as the whole of Europe. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

What is Oceanic Art

Eric Kjellgren wrote: The oft-repeated statement that Pacific Islanders and other indigenous peoples have (or had) no word for "art" is true only in the narrowest sense. Although the Western conception of art as an activity undertaken solely, or primarily, for aesthetic enjoyment did not exist in the vast majority of Oceanic cultures, virtually all Pacific peoples have highly developed and clearly articulated aesthetic standards by which they evaluate the creations of their ancestors and contemporaries. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

These criteria are typically far broader than those in the West, encompassing not simply the visual characteristics of an object but also the correctness of its imagery, its relationships to the individuals who create and use it, and the contexts in which it is employed. To say that a work is "beautiful" or "correct" is often based as much on its being made in the proper form, by the appropriate person or persons, observing the necessary ceremonial protocols, and its being used in the correct manner as on its physical appearance.

These expanded conceptions of aesthetics underscore a fundamental aspect of the nature of Oceania's artistic traditions. The objects that Westerners have come to know and appreciate collectively as Oceanic art were originally created to be functional and are, or were, perceived and classified in very different ways by the peoples who made them. From sacred religious images to mundane utilitarian items, all Oceanic objects are, or were, intended to be used.

Often inseparably interwoven with dance, oratory, ritual, oral tradition, social status, and other activities, Oceanic works play, or played, integral roles in cultural and religious life. The pages that follow describe the individual roles, significance, and imagery of many of the Metropolitan Museum's most striking works of Oceanic art. As is true of all Oceanic works, each can be fully understood only in terms of its specific artistic and cultural setting. However, there are a number of major themes surrounding the contexts, art forms, and subject matter of Oceanic art that recur throughout the region.

Characteristics and Styles of Pacific Art

According to Christie’s: The sheer scale of Oceania makes stylistic categorisation of its art a complex undertaking: artefacts vary in size and form depending on the islands from which they originate, and their materiality, texture and splendour differ according to function, whether ritualistic or otherwise. Crafted for ritual purposes, a large proportion of Oceanic art is associated with spiritual properties and made from both hard and soft wood, depending on its geographic origin. It can also be ornately embellished with detailed carving, feathers, beads, or shells. Clay, sperm whale ivory and stone are among the other most commonly employed materials in Oceanic Art. ‘It’s important to find a style that resonates with you,’ says Victor Teodorescu, a specialist in African and Oceanic Art at Christie’s in Paris. ‘Some....may react to the graphic, and, at times, dream-like quality of Melanesian art, while others may react to the simple shapes and geometric forms of Polynesian art.’ [Source: Christie’s]

According to Although the visual arts of Oceania vary greatly throughout cultures and regions, the overarching themes are usually concerned with ritual, religion, the supernatural, and fertility. Its most popular artifacts are works that were originally crafted for ceremonial use and spiritual purposes. The oldest artifacts are that of the Australian Aboriginals and consists of rock art and petroglyphs that record the masters of the Dream Time, the Australians’ mystical religious view of time. [Source:]

Until the arrival of the Europeans, the majority of Oceanic cultures relied on neolithic technologies, with the only exception found in New Guinea, where certain populations managed to import small quantities of metals and created works by forging, a technique that was kept virtually as a cult secret. The greatest proportion of Oceanic art is thus made from hard and soft wood, sometimes embellished with carvings, beads, feathers, shells, and ivory. The basic tool used remained the stone blade, although at times shells, obsidian, bamboo, and boar tusks or shark teeth were used to work the wood. Clay was the rare alternative to wood, employed for sculptures and small musical instruments. Clay vessels were mainly the labour of female artisans, though it was up to the male population to decorate the pots. Painting was used to animate sculptures with religious symbols, and in Australia, rock painting was the most common. Weaving was rare and most practiced in the small islands of Polynesia.

The use of various media by the Oceanic people has been described as 'consummately opportunistic': they regarded anything that lay in the natural world as a medium through which to make art, from turtle shells to birds’ beaks, plums, animals’ teeth and so on. And spanning almost a third of the world’s surface, nature’s resources were plentiful. An interesting medium was also the human body: scarification and tattooing were known practices of Oceanic cultures, especially in New Guinea.

Exhibitions of Oceanic art have tended to present the art styles of particular regions and cultures. The Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology adopted a thematic approach, according to the museum, “ foregrounding the history of voyaging that gives the cultures of the islands their distinctness, ‘making place’, referring to the settlement of islands, their transformation into inhabited realms of culture, identity and ancestry, and encounter. For millennia and centuries, Islanders encountered each other. Over the past 250 or so years, they have also encountered Europeans. Their horizons expanded, they adopted new art forms and beliefs, they suffered a confrontation with colonialism. [Source: Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Categorizing and Dividing the Art of Oceania

On a fundamental level, Oceanic art falls into two major categories, based on the two groups that dominate the region: Australoid people and Austronesians. The Australoid people of New Guinea and Australia were the first inhabitants of the islands of Oceania and they gave birth to the Melanesians and Aborigines around 40,000 to 60,000 years ago. The Austronesian peoples from Southeast Asia first migrated in around 30,000 years after, but began have a profound impact beginning around 3,500 years ago. The early people of Oceania lacked a writing system and predominantly made works out of perishable materials, intended for everyday use. As a result few artifacts have survived our times. The art of Oceania falls can also be divided into two major categories, corresponding to the years before and after Western contact. The rock paintings and engravings of the Australian Aboriginals, thought to be more than 40,000 years old, are the oldest surviving works of Oceanic art. [Source:]

Eric Kjellgren wrote: In an attempt to come to terms intellectually with the tremendous scope and complexity of the cultural and artistic heritage of Oceania, Western observers have typically divided the area and its arts into five primary geographic and stylistic regions. These include the three main divisions of the Pacific Islands proper-Melanesia (the islands of the southwestern Pacific, often further subdivided into New Guinea and Island Melanesia), Polynesia (the islands of the central and eastern Pacific), and Micronesia (the islands of the tropical northern Pacific) — together with the adjoining regions of Australia and Island Southeast Asia, whose indigenous peoples share a common ancestry with the Pacific lslanders. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Like all such classifications, these regional divisions are oversimplifications; their boundaries are artificial and blurred, often obscuring the commonalities between Oceania's peoples as well as the continual, if at times sporadic, movement of people, objects, and ideas among the different areas. Nonetheless, the arts and cultures within each region tend to share a number of broad social, religious, and aesthetic themes that distinguish them from those of neighboring regions. Hence, although problematic, these regional distinctions remain a useful tool for organizing and understanding Oceania's diverse arts and cultures.

Views of the Art of Oceania

Ken Johnson wrote in the New York Times: As an object of Western fascination Oceanic art has come a long way. Christian missionaries tried to eradicate it. Scientific explorers anthropologized it. Modern European artists mined it for new expressive possibilities, which led Western sophisticates to revere it as real art, worthy of the same appreciative attention they would pay to Rembrandt. In the 1970s and ’80s postmodernists objected to viewing so-called “primitive” art strictly formally and, in effect, ethnocentrically. So Oceanic art was reanthropologized: reframed in accordance with what it meant to the people who produced it and how they used it.[Source: Ken Johnson, New York Times, November 16, 2007]

There are works of astounding decorative refinement and invention. Among the most impressive are Maori woodworks covered by sumptuous, intricate geometric patterns, and a perforated ceremonial board made by New Guinean Sawos people that has sinuous, viny forms carved in smooth, low relief on both sides and a big, flat human face presiding at the top. Hovering over a wide area of the main exhibition hall, the gallery for Melanesian art, is an infectiously lively, 80-by-30-foot ceiling made of more than 270 semi-abstract panels exuberantly painted by artists of the Kwoma people of New Guinea.

It is important to ponder not how we ought to view and think about Oceanic art but how we actually do experience it, which is to say — contrary to ideologically one-sided accounts favored at different points in history — complexly. Your grown-up side may act the discerning connoisseur or the dutiful student of art history and anthropology who reads all the information-rich labels, while the child in you, oblivious to politically correct prohibitions against exoticizing “the other,” thrills to the fantastic weirdness of Oceanic art. You may also have a New Ager’s attraction to the mystical dimension, as it often seems that Oceanic artists are tuned into wavelengths of intuitive consciousness that Western culture has worked for centuries to extinguish in itself.

Gods and Spirits in Oceanic Art

Eric Kjellgren wrote: In the past virtually all figural sculpture and painting in Oceania was religious in nature, and in some areas it remains so today. Like the sacred statuary and paintings of the great cathedrals of Europe, Oceanic sculpture and paintings depict the images and symbols of divine beings. However, in contrast to European religious art, whose themes and subject matter are drawn almost exclusively from a single shared religious tradition, Oceanic sculpture and painting have emerged from not one but hundreds of separate religions, each with its own distinctive aesthetics, iconography, and supernatural beings. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Gods inside, gods outside, Gods above, gods below, Gods oceanward, gods landward, Gods incarnate, gods not incarnate, Gods punishing sins, gods pardoning sins, Gods devouring men, gods slaying warriors, gods saving men Gods of darkness, gods of light, gods of the ten skies.

Can the gods all be counted? The gods cannot all be counted. The arts of Oceania portray an almost infinite variety of supernatural beings, powerful and weak, omnipresent and local, ancestral and nonancestral, benevolent, neucases take the form of real or fantastic creatures and tral, and malign. Although each culture has, or had, its who are often associated with specific sites and natuown distinctions and classifications, for the sake of ral phenomena in the landscape. Some spirits, propconvenience the beings that appear in Oceanic art can erly propitiated, can aid in human endeavors, but be divided roughly into three broad, though not others remain dangerous and unpredictable. In addimutually exclusive, categories: deities, ancestors, and tion to these three main categories, a variety of other spirits. Deities range from the powerful primordial supern atural or semidivine beings, such as culture beings who created the cosmos to more minor anti-heroes, also appear in Oceanic art.

Some deities are responsible for specific natural phenomena. The physical images of deities, ancestors, and human activities. Nonhuman in origin, and in some cases nonhuman in form, some deities, particularly in Polynesia, are nonetheless believed to be the direct ancestors of humanity or of particular families and clans.

Although some primeval ancestors may be entirely supernatural, ancestors as a category typically consist of beings who were once living people. These range from the remote progenitors of humankind to recently deceased individuals who were well known to the living members of the community. Ancestral beings are primarily benevolent, watching over and assisting their descendants, although, if not properly honored and respected, they can also cause misfortune. The final category, spirits, covers a wide and heterogeneous group of nonancestral beings, who in some spirits mediate between the human and supernatural worlds. The majority of Oceanic sculptures serve, or served, when properly activated through ritual activity, as vessels in which the powers of the beings they depict temporarily, or semipermanently, reside and through which they can be contacted, consulted, and venerated through ceremonial performances and the presentation of offerings.

Buildings with Religious Oceanic Art

Eric Kjellgren wrote: Some sacred images are, or were, kept by individuals and families in ordinary dwellings, but the majority like the sculptures and relics of European cathedrals, were housed within specially built religious edifices. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

In New Guinea and many areas of Island Melanesia, these buildings consist, or consisted, of the imposing men 's ceremonial houses, whose towering roofs often dominate the skyline of the village. Both the exteriors and the interiors of these imposing structures are often lavishly adorned with architectural carving and painting. The center of male religious and social life, men's houses serve as venues for ceremonial performances and as the primary locus where sculpture and other sacred objects are created, used, and stored. Men 's houses play an important role in daily life as well, functioning as gathering places and, in some areas, dwellings for the village men. Men's houses are also a central focus of artistic expression in Belau and some other areas of Micronesia, where they serve primarily for social rather than religious activities. Although women in both regions also lead active, though often largely separate, religious lives, women's ceremonial and social activities do not typically involve the creation of sculpture or religious architecture.

In Polynesia religious images were kept primarily at sacred sites that largely consisted of open-air compounds, often surrounded by fences, within whose confines a variety of sacred buildings, platforms, altars, and other religious structures were created. In many areas access to these sacred places was restricted to religious specialists, who in some cultures were fulltime professionals, and to high-ranking chiefs, whose own supernatural power (mana) enabled them to safely come into contact with the potentially dangerous powers of the deities and ancestors whose images were housed within. The vast majority of these sites were abandoned following the conversion of Polynesian peoples to Christianity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, many have been restored in recent decades, including the huge temple platforms (ahu) of Rapa Nui with their rows of massive stone figures, or moai. The beautifully carved and painted meetinghouses and other structures that stand in the sacred plazas (marae) of the Maori people of Aotearoa have remained in use throughout the era of Western contact.

Human Adornment, Ornaments and Art from Oceania

Eric Kjellgren wrote: In addition to religious sculpture and painting, the decorative arts in Oceania are highly developed. Although many of the finest creations are reserved for the social elite or for use at festive occasions or religious ceremonies, in Oceania even the humblest individuals and items are often beautifully adorned. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Throughout the Pacific, the human body is one of the primary venues for artistic expression. From the lavish gold jewelry of Indonesia to the spectacular dance regalia of the New Guinea Highlands and the sumptuous ornaments and accessories of Polynesia's chiefiy elite, Oceania's peoples decorate their bodies with a countless variety of objects, in materials ranging from leaves and fiowers to jade, ivory, and precious metals. One of the most widespread forms of body art was tattooing, which is, or was, practiced in every major cultural region of the Pacific except Australia.

Some forms of bodily ornament serve purely to enhance the personal appearance of the wearer. However, many types are also symbols of social status, exclusive to those individuals who have been born with, or achieved, the right to wear them. Many of the objects created by Pacific peoples are undecorated. However, in numerous instances even the most mundane items are embellished with designs of great delicacy and sophistication.

Objects, Subjects and Materials in the Art from Oceania

Ken Johnson wrote in the New York Times: Dating mostly from the 18th to the early 20th century, works in the Oceanic collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art range from miniature to monumental, and they are made of wood, stone, fiber, turtle shell, oyster shell, bone, hair and metal among other materials. Realism is nowhere to be found, and bright colors are rare, but vividly graphic, more or less abstract symbolic representations are everywhere. Human and humanoid mythic beings are most common, and they are joined by lots of animals, including crocodiles, turtles, fish and birds. [Source: Ken Johnson, New York Times, November 16, 2007]

Some works are powerfully simple. A double-ended wooden dance paddle made by the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island represents a human being with an almost purely abstract elegance that Brancusi would have died for. Elsewhere you’ll find examples of terrific expressionistic vigor like the Asmat people’s ancestor poles called bis: totemic stacks of life-size human figures roughly carved from single trees and towering up to 25 feet.

As readily engaging as all this material may be esthetically, it sometimes intimates ways of living and thinking that Western viewers may find quite foreign. Take for example the agiba, a type of object made by the Kerewa people of New Guinea. The Met’s has a cheerfully smiling, big-headed figure carved onto an oval board. Internal cutouts create prongs for hanging and displaying human skulls. Headhunting, a museum label explains, was integral to the Kerewa people’s religious practices. Even a die-hard multiculturalist might balk at that.

Eric Kjellgren wrote: In virtually all the cultures that use them canoes, essential to both local and long-distance travel, were, and remain, an important focus of artistic expression. In the past, warfare itself, which in almost all Oceanic societies was a male activity, was also associated with a wide range of art forms, including shields, clubs, and personal ornaments, some of which had supernatural properties, that protected the wearer from harm or magically hindered his enemies. In the household and community, practical items such as bowls are often beautifully designed and embellished, as are the diverse forms of personal accessories used by men and women in daily and ceremonial life. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Oceanic artists are remarkable for the richness and variety of their works in fiber, which range from sacred ceremonial textiles to mundane items such as everyday garments and sleeping mats. The peoples of Island Southeast Asia are renowned for the scale, diversity and sophistication of their often boldly colored loom-woven textiles in cotton, silk, and other materials. Although loom-weaving traditions exist in some other areas, the primary textile forms elsewhere in the Pacific are bark cloth and plaitwork. A paperlike material manufactured from the soft inner bark of certain species of trees, bark cloth is especially prominent in western Pol ynesia, where enormous and beautifully decorated bark-cloth panels are displayed and distributed as ceremonial gifts. Among the Baining people of New Britain, in Island Melanesia, bark cloth is used in the construction of spectacular ceremonial masks and effigies. Plaitwork, a technique in which the fibers are interwoven by hand without a loom, is practiced throughout the Pacific and is used to create a vast variety of practical objects as well as ceremonial and luxury items, including baskets, fans, garments, and mats.

The Artist in Oceania

Eric Kjellgren wrote: As with notions of art, conceptions of the nature and role of the artist in Oceania often differ markedly from those in the West. As is true for the whole of humanity, in any Oceanic society there exist individuals with differing levels of artistic proficiency. Throughout the Pacific, men and women with exceptional artistic talent are recognized and sought out both within, and often beyond, their home communities. Although almost any person can, for practical or religious reasons, create items for personal use, important works such as ceremonial sculpture or certain ornaments and accessories are generally commissioned from those individuals with outstanding artistic ability. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Artistic activity in Oceania is, or was, divided by gender, with the artists of each sex practicing separate, though often interdependent, art forms and employing different media. Men work in harder materials such as wood, shell, stone, and metal and create, or created, virtually all Oceanic sculpture and carving. Women excel in the fiber arts, producing an astonishing diversity of works in softer media including bark cloth, leaves, flax, cotton, and silk.

In most cases these exceptional men and women, who should be recognized as artists on equal terms with those elsewhere in the world, did not pursue their vocation full-time. When not engaged in creating works of art, for which they are, or were, typically compensated with food, goods, and services, the majority of Oceanic artists also must undertake all the ordinary tasks of life, such as hunting, fishing, and the tending of gardens. However, in a few instances artists, such as metalsmiths in parts of Island Southeast Asia and master practitioners of tattooing in some poles of the Asmat people or the huge decorated bark Polynesian societies, are, or were, essentially full-time cloths of western Polynesia, are frequently created by professionals. a number of individuals working together under the the direction of a master artist. The names of the individuals who created great majority of the works that are today in Western museums and private collections have been lost.

However, in their own societies Oceania's artists were far from anonymous. Among many Pacific peoples men and women with exceptional artistic talent are acknowledged and honored with specific names and titles which often denote proficiency in particular art forms, such as carving, oratory, and the performing arts. In some cases, the names and achievements of prominent artists are preserved and passed down for generations. Conceptions of the authorship of works of art in the Pacific, however, often differ from those in the West. In some areas, for example, the person or persons who commission a particular object, or who sponsor the ceremony in which it is employed, are honored as its primary creator or creators rather than the individual or individuals who made it.

Astonishing in the variety and visual inventiveness of their creations, the artists of Oceania, especially when measured against the region 's comparatively small population, are among the most prolific on earth. Oceanic artists work in an almost limitless variety of techniques and media. Artists employ both durable materials such as wood, stone, and, in Island Southeast Asia, metal, as well as perishable substances such as flowers, leaves, and spiderweb. Their creations range from sculpture and ornaments intended to endure for generations to ephemeral forms, such as Asmat bis poles and the malagan carvings of New Ireland, created for a single fleeting and spectacular appearance after which they are discarded or destroyed.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, William A. Lessa (1987), Jay Dobbin (2005), Encyclopedia of Religion,; “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia,, New York Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated August 2023

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