History of the Art of Oceania: Ancient Works, the West, Impacts and Collections

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Eric Kjellgren wrote: The arts of Oceania has never been static. Since remote antiquity, the region's artistic traditions have constantly changed and developed, and the art forms that existed in each culture when it was first encountered by Westerners represent just one point in that continuum. Western contact, materials and colonialism brought profound changes to Oceania's artistic traditions. As a result, a number of the art forms such as the creation of the to'o images of Tahiti, have ceased, in some cases nearly two centuries ago. Others, such as the malagan carvings of New Ireland and the manufacture of Polnesian bark cloth, continue without interruption. [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]

Much of our knowledge of the arts and cultures of Oceania as the existed at the time of Western contact and during the early historic period is based on the observations of Westerners. Although inevitably shaped by the perspectives and biases of those who recorded them, these accounts offer, that is, in certain instances, the only information available on some cultural and artistic practices. However, for more than a century a growing literature on Oceanic art has been recorded directly by indigenous authors and other cultural authorities from the region.

With a handful of exceptions, Oceania's peoples had no written languages before Western contact. Instead, nearly all of the region 's diverse cultural and artistic traditions were, and in some cases still are, kept in the collective memories of the individuals in the community and transmitted orally from generation to generation.

Origins of Oceanic Art

Eric Kjellgren wrote: The ancestors of all Oceania's peoples and artistic traditions came originally from Southeast Asia. Although the exact sequences, dates, and chronologies for the colonization of the various regions are complex and often poorly understood, owing to a lack of even basic archaeological information in some areas, the broader history of the settlement of Oceania is well established. The settlement of the Pacific essentially occurred in two major episodes, involving two quite different groups of peoples, at widely separated periods of time. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Oceania's first human inhabitants, ancestors of present-day Melanesians, Aboriginal Australians, and some Island Southeast Asian peoples, began to move southward from the Asian mainland between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago, settling Island Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Guinea. Although the islands of this region are large and closely spaced, some of these early migrations required substantial journeys across open water. From New Guinea these peoples, who in physical appearance resemble the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa, expanded eastward into Island Melanesia, reaching the northern Solomon Islands by 29,000 years ago and probably rapidly settling the remainder of the archipelago. Here, for some 25,000 years, further human expansion into the Pacific appears to have ceased, the descendants of the original settlers gradually diversifying into the hundreds of peoples that make the western Pacific by far the most culturally and artistically diverse area of Oceania.

Oceania's earliest peoples almost certainly had well-developed artistic traditions, but like artists in historical times, the first Pacific artists likely worked primarily in perishable media, such as wood and fiber, which have not survived. In Australia, however, Aboriginal peoples left an ancient and enduring artistic legacy in the form of rock art-paintings and engravings made on the walls of rock-shelters (shallow cavelike overhangs of rock) and other stone outcrops. The earliest Aboriginal rock paintings may be some 50,000 years old, nearly 20,000 years older than the painted caves of Europe and among humanity's earliest surviving forms of artistic expression. Still practiced by some groups today, Australian Aboriginal rock art is likely the longest continuous artistic tradition anywhere in the world. Elsewhere in the region, by 1500 B.C. and possibly much earlier, carvers in the mountainous highlands of New Guinea started to create a variety of figures and other objects in stone. These enigmatic works are the oldest surviving examples of Oceanic sculpture.

The second great era of the exploration and settlement of the Pacific began only about five thousand years ago, when a series of peoples sharing a common ancestry with the contemporary populations of Southeast Asia started to move outward from the Asian mainland to colonize Island Southeast Asia, where they displaced or mixed with the region 's earlier inhabitants. They later expanded eastward along the northern coast of New Guinea and into Island Melanesia.

Lapita Culture

The Lapita culture is the name given to a Neolithic Austronesian people and their material culture, who settled Island Melanesia via a seaborne migration at around 1600 to 500 B.C.. The ''Lapita Culture'' is named after a site in New Caledonia. The Lapita intermarried with the Papuan populations to various degrees, and are the direct ancestors of the Austronesian peoples of Polynesia, eastern Micronesia, and Island Melanesia. [Source: Wikipedia]

The term 'Lapita' was coined by archaeologists after mishearing a word in the local Haveke language, xapeta'a, which means 'to dig a hole' or 'the place where one digs', during a 1952 excavation in the Foué peninsula on Grande Terre, the main island of New Caledonia. The excavation was carried out by American archaeologists Edward W. Gifford and Richard Shulter Jr at 'Site 13'. The settlement and pottery sherds were later dated to 800 B.C.. More than 200 Lapita sites have since been uncovered, ranging more than 4,000 km from coastal and island Melanesia to Fiji and Tonga with its most eastern limit so far in Samoa.

Lapita Culture people appear to have been village-dwelling horticulturalists with a tool kit that, like their ornamentation, emphasized the use of shells. They clearly had impressive navigational and sailing skills, enabling them to engage in extensive interisland trade and to spread out well into the central Pacific. Relics from Papuans that lived in Melanesia beginning between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago are far less diverse than the relics dating from after the Lapita culture arrived in the region. The older material culture appears to have contributed only a few elements to the later Lapita material culture: some crops and some tools.

Examples of Lapita art that exist today include a figure from the site of Talepakemalai, Mussau Islands, Papua New Guinea, dated to 1500-700 B.C., and the Reconstruction of a Lapita face design based on vessel fragments recovered from the Nenumbo Site, Reef Islands, Solomon Islands, A.D. 1000-900; and a porpoise bone, measuring 10.2 centimeters (4 inches) in height.

Lapita Pottery

According to Metropolitan Museum of Art: Lapita art is best known for its ceramics, which feature intricate repeating geometric patterns that occasionally include anthropomorphic faces and figures. The patterns were incised into the pots before firing with a comblike tool used to stamp designs into the wet clay. Each stamp consisted of a single design element that was combined with others to form elaborate patterns. Many Lapita ceramics are large vessels thought to have been used for cooking, serving, or storing food. Some of the designs found on Lapita pottery may be related to patterns seen in modern Polynesian tattoos and barkcloth. In addition to vessels, a number of freestanding pottery figures depicting anthropomorphic and zoomorphic subjects have been unearthed at Lapita sites, as well as a single bone image representing a stylized human figure.

Pottery whose detailed decorative designs suggest Lapita influence was made from a variety of materials, depending on what was available, and their crafters used a variety of techniques, depending on the tools they had. But, typically, the pottery consisted of low-fired earthenware, tempered with shells or sand, and decorated using a toothed (“dentate”) stamp. It has been theorized that these decorations may have been transferred from less hardy material, such as bark cloth (“tapa”) or mats, or from tattoos, onto the pottery — or transferred from the pottery onto those materials. Other important parts of the Lapita repertoire were: undecorated ("plain-ware") pottery, including beakers, cooking pots, and bowls; shell artifacts; ground-stone adzes; and flaked-stone tools made of obsidian, chert, or other available kinds of rock.

Researchers from Monash University in Australia and Kwantlen Polytechnic University reported in World Archaeology: Lapita peoples produced a highly recognizable ceramic assemblage rendered iconic by its dentate-stamped designs banded across the external walls of a range of vessel types and their equally iconic collared and carinated pots, bowls, flat-based dishes and cylinder stands. Other decorative techniques were also present, including incisions, shell impressions (restricted to Late Lapita), red slipping, burnishing and lime infilling. Plainwares typically make up a majority of assemblages, but it is the highly recognizable dentate stamping, coupled with a range of well-defined banded designs, that make Lapita ceramics so readily identifiable wherever they occur. [Source: Bruno David, Ian Mcniven, Thomas Richards from Monash University (Australia)and Sean P. Connaughton, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, World Archaeology, December 2011]

The commonest and most iconic items of Lapita material culture are the ceramics, in particular dentate-stamped pottery consisting of a range of needlepoint to coarser-tined-dentate-stamped designs banded around bowls, collared and carinated pots, jars, dishes, globular pots and pedestals in repeated geometric designs. Many attempts at characterizing Lapita decoration have followed Mead et al.’s (1973) language of design at the expense of analysing complete motifs for themselves, some of which are highly complex constructions; Anson’s (1983) later, influential work was based on motifs and alloforms.

While non-figurative decorations of repeated pattern are the norm, some figurative form Lapita sites also exist, including highly abstract but relatively rare faces constructed of geometric design elements and even rarer three-dimension al faces. These predominantly comb dentate-stamped, incised andshell-impressed decorations have come to be recognized from the westernmost to easternmost edges of Lapita’s distribution, with some conventions such as shell impressions occurring only in Late Lapita and post-Lapita assemblages.

Spread of the Lapita Culture

Eventually, the Lapita Culture further expanded across the more remote islands. At around the same time, art began circulating in New Guinea, including the earliest known examples of sculpture. From about 1000 BC, the Lapita people began to venture further out and settle in the Pacific islands, though little is known of that period besides trade relations. [Source: barnebys.com]

Lapita peoples and their descendants were the most accomplished navigators and voyagers in the ancient world. After reaching the Solomon Islands, then humanity's most distant outpost in Oceania, Lapita peoples ventured outward into the vastness of the Pacific, colonizing islands and archipelagoes that had previously been uninhabited. From western Island Melanesia, Lapita peoples moved southeast to settle the Santa Cruz Islands Vanuatu, and New Caledonia and later northward into eastern Micronesia. About 1000 B.C., Lapita peoples reached Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa, where, by the middle of the first millennium B.C., their successors developed the first distinctively Polynesian cultures.

Beginning sometime between 200 B.C. and A.D. 100, the Polynesians began to colonize the widely scattered archipelagoes of the eastern Pacific, from which they eventually discovered and settled the remote islands of Hawai 'i (ca. A.D. 500), Rapa Nui (Easter Island, ca. A.D. 600) and Aotearoa (New Zealand, ca. A.D. 1100).

Drawing of stylized human or animal forms, as well as from a handful of surviving examples of figural sculpture. The aesthetic legacy of the Lapita culture is wholly or partially ancestral to the artistic traditions of all the lands the Lapita peoples settled, and it is evident in places as disparate as Fiji, Hawai 'i, and the northern coast of New Guinea.

After the Lapita Culture

Until A.D. 1000, records continue to be scarce, but as far as visual culture, New Guinea sculpture and Australian rock art are well documented, and we know that from about 1100, the people of Easter Island would begin to construct around 900 moai, the famous megalithic human figures that populate the island. By 1500, the first European colonizers began to reach Oceania, and though some artistic traditions were continued, the regions would start to diverge and become more closed-off.

Eric Kjellgren wrote: As the earliest vestiges of artistic expression in the Pacific amply demonstrate, Oceanic art has a deep and ancient history. But owing to the perishable nature of the materials in which most artists worked, the vast majority of surviving works date from the eighteenth through the twentieth century. With the exception of rock art, our knowledge of the development of Oceanic art in the centuries between the first flowerings of artistic expression in the Pacific and the hundreds of artistic traditions that exist, or existed, in historical times remains fragmentary. However, in those cases in which artists worked in stone and other durable materials or local conditions allowed for the preservation of wood, portions of this history survive, offering tantalizing glimpses of the region 's rich but largely vanished artistic past. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

These rare survivals include, most famously, the nearly nine hundred colossal stone figures (moai) of Rapa Nui, created between roughly A.D. 1100 and 1650, and a variety of smaller stone images from elsewhere in Polynesia, such as the distinctive stone sculptures of Mokumanamana, in the Hawaiian Islands.14 Among the Maori people of Aotearoa, the practice of concealing important carvings during times of unrest by immersing them in swamps has resulted in the survival of wood sculptures dating from as early as the thirteenth century. 15 Some examples of New Guinea wood sculpture, kept in dry rock-shelters or preserved for generations as sacred objects, are also several centuries old.

Arrival of Westerners in Oceania

Eric Kjellgren wrote: Western exploration and colonialism had a profound, though by no means fatal, impact on the arts of Oceania. Much of the early exploration of the Pacific was driven by two obsessions, the search for the best routes to the spice-rich islands of the Moluccas, in what is today eastern Indonesia, and the idea that a large, undiscovered continent lay somewhere in the southern Pacific. The first European explorers in the region were the Spanish and the Portuguese. By the late sixteenth century the Spanish, sailing westward from the Americas, had colonized the Philippines and the Mariana Islands and made brief visits to parts of the Caroline Islands, the Solomon Islands, and the Marquesas. Portuguese vessels, sailing east around the Cape of Good Hope to reach the Moluccas, explored eastern Indonesia and briefly encountered New Guinea. However, by 1600, the vast majority of the Pacific still lay unexplored by Europeans.[Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

In the early seventeenth century the Dutch seized control of the Moluccas from the Portuguese and, as a result of both intentional expeditions and chance encounters by spice traders blown off course, began to chart the northern and western coasts of Australia. The Dutch exploration of the Pacific culminated with the voyage of Abel Janszoon Tasman (1603?-?1659) from 1642 to 1643. Sailing south of Australia, Tasman encountered Tasmania and Aotearoa. He later visited Tonga and Fiji, as well as New Ireland and other parts of Island Melanesia. Tasman 's journal includes an illustration of three New Ireland men in a canoe, whose openwork prow and stern ornaments, though somewhat fancifully rendered, are similar to historical examples. This illustration is among the earliest images of Oceanic art to be seen in the West.

In the eighteenth century the exploration of Oceania was dominated by Britain and France. Starting in the mid-1700s, the rival nations began to send out scientific expeditions to explore and chart the islands of the Pacific. By far the most wide-ranging of these explorers was the British navigator Captain James Cook (1728-1779), who made three separate voyages to the Pacific. Cook's voyages witnessed the first encounter between Europeans and many Pacific peoples, and Cook and other expedition members brought the first substantial collections of Oceanic objects back to Europe. The sketches and paintings made by the artists on Cook's expeditions many of which were later engraved and published in the widely popular accounts of his voyages, offered many Europeans their first glimpses of the peoples and arts of Oceania.

Westerners in Oceania in the 1800s

Eric Kjellgren wrote: In 1788 the first British convicts and settlers arrived in Australia. Spanish missionaries had been active in the Philippines and Mariana Islands since the mid-1500s, but the closing years of the eighteenth century marked the first arrival of Christian missionaries in Polynesia. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

The nineteenth century saw the conclusion of the Western exploration of the Pacific and the annexation and division of its islands by European and American colonial powers. In the early 1800s, through the combined efforts of official exploring expeditions and chance discoveries by whalers and other commercial vessels, European and American ships explored and surveyed the region 's remaining uncharted islands.

In Polynesia, the first half of the century witnessed a marked increase in missionary activity. The first missionaries began to arrive in most of Micronesia as well as Melanesia in the mid-1800s. During the second half of the nineteenth century European and American colonial powers eventually claimed and partitioned nearly the whole of Oceania. While colonial authority over many islands and archipelagoes shifted repeatedly over the ensuing decades, the peoples of the Pacific did not begin to regain political autonomy until after the Second World War.

Impact of Westerners on the Art of Oceania

Eric Kjellgren wrote: The arrival of Western explorers, colonists, and missionaries had devastating and far-reaching consequences for the peoples and arts of Oceania. In addition to manufactured goods, such as cloth, metal, boats, and containers, which often quickly supplanted earlier indigenous art forms, the crews of European and American vessels introduced previously unknown diseases, which in some areas killed as much as ninety percent of the population. At a time when virtually all cultural and artistic knowledge was still transmitted orally, the massive depopulation of many areas of the Pacific threatened or interrupted the continuity of many cultural and artistic traditions. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

The arrival of missionaries and the ensuing conversion of nearly all of Oceania's peoples to various forms of Christianity resulted in a widespread and, in some areas, continuing iconoclasm in which countless sacred images and objects were destroyed. Ironically, many of Polynesia's most magnificent works of sculpture were preserved by the very missionaries who ordered their destruction. The images saved from the iconoclasm were sent back to Europe by the churchmen as evidence of their evangelical success.

The enforced pacification of all parts of the region under the various colonial authorities also effectively ended warfare, along with practices such as headhunting, resulting in the decline or disappearance of its associated ceremonies and art forms. As a consequence of these and other factors, by the mid-twentieth century many of Oceania's artistic traditions had been abandoned or neglected, although some traditions, particularly in the fiber arts, endured.

Art of Oceania Today

Eric Kjellgren wrote: Over the past several decades, however, the arts and cultures of Oceania have undergone a profound and far-reaching renaissance. With the independence of many Pacific nations in the latter half of the twentieth century, many artistic and cultural traditions, often denigrated or banned by the colonial authorities, have been revived or revitalized, becoming powerful symbols of ethnic and national identity and of the resurgence of cultural pride. Among those groups, such as the Maori, Hawaiians, and Aboriginal Australians, who live amid majority-settler societies, this artistic renaissance bears witness to their enduring identity and vitality as Pacific peoples and to their continuing political resistance to assimilation and the alienation of their homelands. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Across the Pacific, many artists continue to perpetuate and, increasingly, revive the artistic traditions of their ancestors, including both sacred and secular sculpture, masking traditions, canoe building, and the fiber arts. In many areas of the Pacific there are also burgeoning contemporary-art movements. These include a variety of contemporary schools of Aboriginal painting in Australia, some of whose artists, such as Rover Thomas (ca. 1925-1998; fig. 12) and Emily Kame Kngwarreye (ca. 1910-1996), are gaining increasing recognition in the international art world. The cities of Australia and Aotearoa are also home to an ever-growing number of urban Oceanic artists.

Although they employ the same techniques and media as their Western counterparts, their works remain distinctive. Many are subtly, or overtly, political, addressing issues such as land rights, sovereignty, and social injustice. Despite centuries of Western contact, the arts of Oceania today are arguably more diverse and vital than at any point in the past. Contemporary Pacific artists are as likely to work with video, plastics, or the Internet as they are to use wood, shell, or bark cloth. These new media and techniques, however, represent not a rupture but a continuation of the millennia-long history of Oceanic art, whose traditions are continually evolving and whose artists, both before and after Western contact, have always readily adopted novel objects, materials, and ideas and made them their own.

Impact of Oceania in Western Art and Culture

Eric Kjellgren wrote: If the West has had a profound effect on the arts and cultures of Oceania, the opposite has also been true. Since the late eighteenth century the Pacific has held a continuing fascination for Western intellectuals, writers, and artists that has left an indelible mark on Western art and culture. Besides their influence on fine art and literature, however, the arts and cultures of Oceania have been the source of many aspects of contemporary popular culture, including tattooing, surfing, and bungee jumping. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

In the 1770s explorers' accounts of Tahiti had a central influence on the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and the philosophers of the Romantic movement, who idealized the Tahitians and other Oceanic peoples as "Noble Savages," living unencumbered by the restrictive conventions of Western society. The conception of Pacific peoples as the inhabitants of an earthly paradise of languid sensual pleasures continues to this day. But it is countered by a second and far more negative view of Pacific cultures, usually reserved for the peoples of New Guinea and other parts of Melanesia, which portrays the region 's inhabitants as brutal and cruel, obsessed with activities such as warfare and headhunting. Both of these stereotypes, however, are false and demeaning, denying the essential humanity of Pacific peoples and obscuring the true complexity and sophistication of their cultures and artistic traditions.

In the nineteenth century, the romanticized conceptions of Pacific peoples in artistic and intellectual circles lured a succession of writers and artists to Oceania. In 1842 the author Herman Melville (1819-1891) jumped ship from a whaling vessel in the Marquesas. He subsequently wrote popular, if highly fictionalized, accounts of his experiences in the Marquesas and Tahiti in his three early novels Typee, Omoo, and Mardi. Melville was followed some thirty years later by another writer-sailor, the French artist and author Louis-Marie-Julien Viaud (1850-1923), who worked under the pseudonym Pierre Loti.

Entranced by the islands and peoples he encountered, Loti wrote exotic descriptions of his experiences and painted fanciful depictions of Oceanic scenes, including the stone figures of Rapa Nui. In the late 1880s the author Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), seeking a milder climate in hopes of improving his failing health, traveled and wrote extensively in the Pacific, eventually settling in Samoa, which became his final home and resting place. Stevenson also owned a number of works of Oceanic art.

Polynesia, Paul Gauguin and Modern Western Art

Eric Kjellgren wrote: The year 1891 witnessed the arrival of Oceania's most famous expatriate resident, Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), whose obsessive quest to find what he described as a simple, "savage" life free of the confines of Western civilization brought him first to Tahiti and later to the Marquesas, where he died and was buried at Atuona on the island of Hiva Oa. and is unclear how much exposure Gauguin had to Oceanic works before he arrived in the Pacific, but once there he avidly sought out examples in local collections and made sketches of a variety of Oceanic objects. 22 Gauguin rapidly assimilated this imagery into his own artistic language, incorporating elements and motifs inspired by Oceanic prototypes into many of his paintings, prints, watercolors, and sculptures. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Gaugin's 1893 canvas The Ancestors of Tehamana or Tehamana Has Many Parents (Merahi metua no Tehamana), for example, depicts the artist's Polynesian lover seated before a beam embellished with motifs inspired by rongorongo, the indigenous script of Rapa Nui. In addition to his paintings, Gauguin 's posthumously published Tahitian journal, Noa Noa, did much to establish his romantic vision of the Pacific as a fixture of Western art and culture.

Pacific objects that served as essential sources of artistic inspiration for Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and other members of the Modernist movement. Picasso's personal collection contained a variety of Oceanic works, including a large figure from the Marquesas, Kanak sculptures from New Caledonia, and a female effigy mask from Vanuatu given to him later in life by fellow artist Henri Matisse (1869-1954). Oceanic works were also admired by many of the German Expressionists, including Emil Nolde (1867-1956), Erich Heckel (1883-1970), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), and Karl Schmidt-Rotluff (1884-1976), who frequently included examples of Pacific sculpture in their still lites and incorporated elements of Oceanic imagery into their broader artistic vocabulary.

Oceanic art, however, had perhaps its most profound impact on the Surrealists. In the fanciful geography of the famous "Surrealist Map of the World," published in 1929, the greatly enlarged archipelagoes of the Pacific occupy a central position, reflecting the crucial role of Oceanic art in the movement. Many prominent Surrealists, including Andre Breton (1896-1966), Wolfgang Paalen (1905 or 1907-1959), Max Ernst (1891-1976), and Matta (Roberto Matta Echaurren; 1911-2002) owned Oceanic works, from which they drew both philosophical and artistic inspiration. The attenuated, cagelike bodies of the figures in Matta's monumental 1946 canvas “Being With Etre Avec”, for example, were almost certainly inspired by the malagan carvings of New Ireland, of which the artist owned a number of examples. The art of Rapa Nui played a central role in the life and work of Max Ernst, whose compositions frequently incorporate avian beings inspired by the island 's rock art, as well as the faces of its distinctive stone figures.

Art of Oceania Collections

Eric Kjellgren wrote: In the early years of the twentieth century Oceanic works became part of the broader group of African, Native American, Precolumbian, and the Pacific objects. Pioneered by the artists and intellectuals of the avant-garde, the appreciation of African, Oceanic, and other indigenous works as fine art gradually spread among European collectors and connoisseurs. [Source: Eric Kjellgren, “Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in The Metropolitan Museum of Art”, 2007]

Emerging from their earlier contexts as "curiosities" or ethnographic specimens, in the 1920s and 1930s, African and Oceanic sculptures began to appear in the fashionable salons and galleries of Europe, where they were frequently displayed alongside the Modernist painting and sculpture their imagery had helped to inspire. The artistic and intellectual climate that fostered this new appreciation of Oceanic art, however, largely disappeared with the outbreak of the Second World War. It was not until the second half of the twentieth century that the achievements of Oceanic, African, Precolumbian, and Native American artists became fully recognized in the West and were accorded their rightful place alongside humanity's other great artistic traditions.

The British Museum, University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology have superb collections of Oceanic art, as do the Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac in Paris, The Ethnological Museum of Berlin, The Tropen Museum in Amsterdam, The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in New Zealand.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Oceanic galleries reopened in 2007 after being closed for three years for redesign and refurbishment and for conservation work on the art itself. After the spectacular, beautifully reinstalled rooms reopened, the New York Times reported:. Occupying 17,000 square feet in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing, most in a great hallway open to natural light through a slanting glass wall, the New Galleries for Oceanic Art present more than 400 works of art and craft from a vast, watery realm of more than 25,000 islands, including those of Melanesia, Polynesia, Micronesia and Southeast Asia, as well as from Australia. It is a wonderfully expansive, soul-stirring display.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art,’s greatest Oceanic masterworks were originally acquired by Nelson Rockefeller. These include exquisite examples of Polynesian sculpture, such as the museum's renowned Mangarevan figure, Tongan ivory image, and Austral Islands drum, as well as an ivory fly-whisk handle that once belonged to King Pomare II of Tahiti. The Museum of Primitive Art's greatest strength, however, was in the sculpt re of Melanesia, including iconic works from New Guinea such as a spectacular ancestor figure and malu board from the Sawos people, a monumental skull hook (agiba) from the Papuan Gulf, a rare crocodile effigy and hook figures from the Karawari River region, and a massive effigy from a Kambot house post, together with works from Island Melanesia including a lustrous overmodeled shield from the Solomon Islands, malagan carvings from New Ireland, and a towering bark-cloth effigy from New Britiain. Also prominent among the Melanesian holdings were more than six hundred works from the Asmat people of New Guinea collected by Nelson Rockefeller's son Michael C. Rockefeller in 1961. Important works from other areas included two superb masks from the Torres Strait and a rare female gable figure (dilukai) from Belau.

Collecting Art of Oceania

According to Christies’s: Today, the market for Oceanic art is primarily concerned with works that were originally conceived for ceremonial use. The artist-makers of Oceanic art are usually unknown, so its market value is greatly influenced by provenance, condition and rarity.

The market for Oceanic art was established in the late 18th to early 19th century when the first explorers, traders and missionaries returned to Europe with ethnographic artefacts. These artefacts were initially collected and exhibited as ‘curiosities’ across Europe, and later acquired by museums and private collectors. By the beginning of the 20th century, avant-garde artists and dealers in Berlin and Paris — including Matisse, Picasso, André Derain, Paul Guillaume, Charles Ratton, William Oldman and Guillaume Apollinaire — had become keen collectors of ethnographic objects, regarding them as aesthetic works in their own right. The influence of ethnographic art on their style has become known as Primitivism.

A large proportion of the Oceanic art brought back to Europe by explorers is well documented in public archives. ‘These traceable histories inspire many people to collect, as well as helping new collectors to understand what is old and what is new,’ explains Oceania art expert Victor Teodorescu. But Oceanic art is relatively scarce to market, so new collectors are advised to research, visit exhibitions and train themselves to recognise the multitude of different styles.

In June 2013, a dedicated Oceanic sale at Christie’s in Paris saw a ceremonial roof figure from the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea (pre 1890) realise €2.5 million, more than twice its high estimate. More recently, in 2017, the Vérité Collection achieved €16.7 million at Christie’s Paris — the highest performing single-owner sale in Paris in a decade. The Hawaiian god statue shown below was the highlight lot of that sale, realising €6.3 million — a world record for the most expensive Oceanic art object sold at auction. Another highlight, a very rare black Uli statue from New Ireland, sold for circa €2.9 million.

According to Teodorescu, this recent rise in the market can be attributed to four primary factors: the rarity of pieces in exceptional condition to market; the availability of documentary provenance; a widening trend for cross-category collecting; and a growing enthusiasm among both public institutions and private collectors to re-evaluate the overlooked. ‘Oceanic art has remained under the radar for many years,’ he says, ‘but collectors are now beginning to realise that good quality pieces are generally rarer than African works and that their estimates still lag behind African works at auction.’

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.com; “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Volume 2: Oceania,” edited by Terence E. Hays, 1991, Wikipedia, Encyclopedia.com, 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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