by Marina Garlick
Oceania is the title of the catalogue of the eponymous exhibition held at the Royal Academy of Arts in London to mark 250 years since James Cook set out on his first voyage. It also celebrates 250 years since the founding of the Royal Academy. The exhibition was organised by the Royal Academy with the collaboration of the Musée du quai Branly with the participation of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge. Principal partners are New Zealand, the Kingdom of Tonga and Papua New Guinea. There is no mention of any Australian involvement. (For those interested it was opened by the Duchess of Sussex, her first solo engagement.) It was at the Royal Academy from 24 September to 10 December, 2018 and is at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris from 12 March to 7 July, 2019.
The catalogue is edited by Peter Brunt, Senior Lecturer in Art History at Victoria University of Wellington and Nicholas Thomas, Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology of Cambridge, the curators of the exhibition who also wrote the introductory essay, “Oceania Redux”. It comprises splendid large plates of 169 of some 200 items from the exhibition, some with enlargement of details, a number of illustrated scholarly articles plus a map, detailed list of catalogue entries and a select bibliography. The objects are grouped under six headings: Voyaging and Navigation; Making Place; The Spirit of the Gift; Performance and Ceremony; Encounter and Empire, and Memory.
The exhibition includes the work of ten contemporary Pacific artists but most items are late nineteenth/early-twentieth century. Major lenders include the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge; the British Museum; Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen; Netherlands, with a wide range of other contributors – Musée du quai Branly, Paris; Museum der Kulturen, Basel; Museum fuer Voelkerkunde, Dresden, plus others from U.K, Germany, Ireland, Denmark and New Zealand. There are no items from any Australian Museum.
The introductory essay, “Oceania Redux”, presents a detailed overview of the concept and history of Oceania, its constituent parts and the variety of its art, much too complex to be summarised here. It emphasises the importance of water in this and in the context of climate change. It is profusely illustrated with historic and current photographs and artworks including an impressive series of “Cook Sites” by Mark Adams. An essay by Dame Anne Salmond (Professor of Maori Studies, University of Auckland), “Reimagining the ocean”, provides background details of Cook’s voyage in the Society lslands and New Zealand and the role of Tupaia. Again this is well illustrated.
Specific articles by Emmanuel Kasarehou (Musée du quai Branly) “Architecture and rituals in the land of the Kanaks” and Michael Mel (Australian Museum)”Performance and the body” deal with the Kanaks in New Caledonia and the Mogei culture in the Melpa region of the New Guinea Highlands respectively, also with fascinating illustrations. In “Museum collections, colonialism and the gift: a dialogue” Peter Brunt, Nicholas Thomas, Sean Mallon (Senior Curator of Pacific Cultures, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa) and Noelle M.K.Y. Kahanu (curator, artist, film maker and scholar) discuss the role and history of museum collections in the context of colonialism and current developments particularly in relation to engagement and collaboration with Pacific communities.
Each group of plates has a useful introduction setting out the background to the section. The fifty-eight plates comprising “Voyages and Navigation” illustrate canoe prows, actual canoes, paddles (including two collected by James Cook), weather charms, navigation charts, fish hooks and drawings. Also included is a number of figures, shields, a Biwat flute stopper (illustrated), a Baining kavatmask, a set of Kiribati armour complete with helmet and trident and several contemporary pieces among them a red carved Steinway piano.