I had somewhat mediocre expectations for Art in Oceania: A New History, which felt like yet another colourful, expensive book about Pacific objects housed in museum collections far away from where I live. As a Pacific curator working at the grassroots, I find that academic literature is peripheral to my thinking.
This substantial volume is a comprehensive review of art from early Oceania to the present day. There is extensive coverage of Melanesia, undoubtedly driven by the rich documentation of these areas as well as their cultural diversity; eastern and northern Oceania, aka Polynesia and Micronesia, receive less attention.
The book does not stop at museum pieces of ethnographic art, but looks at the evolution of art under the influences of war, decolonisation, independence and tourism. The final section highlights the changes to the art of Oceania when it is removed from its context and situated in the urban diaspora in spaces as close to home as South Auckland.
I’m drawn to the final chapters dedicated to “Art in Oceania Now” from 1989-2012, not only because these chapters are closest to my lived experience but because their inclusion asserts a theory I subscribe to: that contemporary Pacific art is part of an indigenous continuum, even in diaspora.
We reflect, respond and critique our contemporary environments, in the same way our ancestors did. Despite being less integrated into ritualistic practices, contemporary art is still reflective of Pacific thinking and experience, evidence of an enduring epistemological rootedness.
Sean Mallon’s chapter, “Urban Art and Popular Culture”, comes closest to the Pacific art experience I am familiar with. The aligning of contemporary expression across the region with that occurring in places such as Otara in South Auckland is a comforting validation of the diaspora experience.
I appreciate the effort of the book’s authors to articulate the importance of Pacific people, performances and rituals in relation to collected objects. So often within museum contexts, art in Oceania and its accompanying texts can feel finite and static. Here, the objects discussed feel intricately connected to living cultures and traditions. Although there have been interruptions (colonisation, urbanisation, migration, etc) in the continuity of meaning and purpose, the understanding of cultural value is still intrinsic in Pacific people.
Indeed, the Festival of Pacific Arts that takes place every four years around the region is an example of how Pacific people still live, breath and honour our arts. Within Pacific frameworks, “arts” extends from the culinary to the healing arts, to boat building, architecture, oratory, performance and beyond. In diverse contexts and manifestations, the idea of arts in Oceania is holistic, inextricably connected and activated by Pacific people.
The authors are all accomplished academics and respected authorities in their fields. With vast knowledge and experience of Pacific art scholarship, they set out to turn the tables on positioning and approaching the subject. Refreshingly, they acknowledge the susceptibility to Eurocentricism when situating art in Oceania within established historical frameworks and even make the point that the word “art” has no literal equivalent in most indigenous languages.
Referencing the vision and ground-breaking intellectual position of the late great Epeli Hau‘ofa, the book goes some way in acknowledging Pacific ways of seeing and understanding not only ourselves but ourselves within a regional and global context. Hau‘ofa was a game-changer, whose “sea of islands” vision represented a shift in thinking. In their respectful nod to his intellectual leadership, the authors start to shift the centre and decolonise the gaze.
Despite its scholarly appearance, Art in Oceania is surprisingly accessible. Interspersed amongst weighty chapters are “feature” and “voice” pages: bite-size, digestible chunks of information easily consumed; visually and emotionally memorable. It is a compelling overview full of valuable reference material for anyone interested in the arts of Pacific people.
ART IN OCEANIA: A NEW HISTORY, by Peter Brunt, Nicholas Thomas, Sean Mallon et al (Thames & Hudson, $155).
Ema Tavola is former manager of Fresh Gallery Otara and was co-curator of Auckland Art Gallery’s Home AKL exhibition of contemporary Pacific art.