by Michael Martin
The Royal Academy in London is holding a major exhibition of the art of the Pacific from the 29th September to the 10th December 2018. Entitled “Oceania”, it is the first major exhibition of its type to ever be held in London and marks the 250th anniversary of the establishment of the Royal Academy and the simultaneous 250th anniversary of Captain James Cook’s departure from England for the Pacific in 1768.
It is a landmark exhibition in many ways. There are many major classics: A’a and the two headed figure, Ti’I, from the British Museum; the wonderful Nukuoro figure from the Museum fur Volkerkunde in Hamburg, and the amazing Mawa (Torres Strait Islands) mask from The National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, that are either never on public exhibition or would require a special trip to see. To be able to enjoy so many wonderful pieces all displayed together is a very special opportunity that should not be missed by anyone fortunate enough to be in London before 10 December.The video installation, In Pursuit of Venus (infected), by Lisa Reihana deserves special mention. This is displayed in the largest room and takes up a whole (and very long) wall. It runs for 64 minutes and creates a unique introduction to the whole exhibition. It takes as its basis the imagery displayed in an incredible series of 20 wallpaper panels created in France in 1804-06 by Jean-Gabriel Charvet. These panels display a panorama of the peoples, customs and environments of the Pacific at the time of first European contact. Lisa Reihana has then used animation and digital recreation with real performers to allow the viewer to walk into the world of the Pacific at this time and to see the way in which the local people lived; the arrival of Europeans, and the way that the two cultures interacted. It makes the remainder of the exhibition much more comprehensible for the average visitor who may know very little about this period of history and the art of Oceania. The video format is also a very appealing way of getting young people involved.
Now for the negatives. The works are generally of a very high quality; many are unique masterpieces, but amongst them are several very disappointing pieces that should have been replaced with much better examples. The mother and child Sepik hook from the mid-20th century, some of the New Guinea shields and some of the clubs are out of place. Why have such average pieces when there are so many better examples available in collections?
The biggest problem with the exhibition, however, is the overall display of the pieces. In some rooms small pieces have been placed in little cubicles way above head level, making it almost impossible to see. As an example in one room there is an average Austral Island paddle at eye level and above this, in a little box and impossible to see, is a Moai papa figure from Easter Island. This makes no sense whatsoever. In another room with all the god figures several are well displayed on one wall and the rest are all crowded together in the centre instead of putting some on the opposite wall and then putting the others on plinths in the middle of the room. This would have allowed a much better appreciation of all pieces. One is forced to wonder how this came about.
Despite these negatives the exhibition is, over-all, a wonderful display of Oceanic art with many unique pieces that will be hard to see again once they return to their storage homes. It is a landmark exhibition which will be talked about for many years. Try and see it if you can.
Oceania will travel to Paris next year and be on display at the Musee du Quai Branly from 12 March to 7 July 2019.