Oceania at the Royal Academy

15th October 2018

According to the show’s press release, this blockbuster show at the newly redeveloped Royal Academy of Arts in London is the first of its kind in the UK to explore Oceanic art, and once you step inside the space, you are struck by how much you don’t know. As a museum-style exhibition, richly painted walls and dramatic lighting set the scene to the point that Oceania still feels like an ancient mythical world. Whether this is another chapter of fetishization or the intrigue of a new culture is certainly open to interpretation.

Feather god image (akua hulu manu), Late 18th century, Hawaiian Islands. Fibre, feathers, human hair, pearl shell, seed, dog teeth, 62 x 30 cm. Photo: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

The first room contains contemporary works with a curious angle of curation; truthfully these surely are not the best examples of contemporary practitioners from the region. Spoken word by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner from the Marshall Islands as a video is a nice contemporary take on oral traditions, albeit before we have seen any older works. In the same opening space, the Royal Academy has a written historical introduction to Oceania, clearly outlining the problematic colonial ties. Realistically, any reference, or lack thereof, of colonial rule and pillaging is going to be difficult to tackle from the stance of the institution; but this isn’t the British Museum, and the way that the Royal Academy handles it throughout is tactful yet matter-of-fact in addressing how objects were acquired and cultures and communities violently fractured.

With bold navy and green walls from the start, there is never any doubt that Oceania is a big-budget exhibition, and it balances its duty as being the first Oceanic art exhibition of its size and its moral responsibility to provide a thorough history lesson. Each room has a theme, including ‘Voyaging and Navigation’, ‘Expanding Horizons’ and ‘Gods and Ancestors’, but there is great overlap between them; it is also the blurring of sculpture and functional object which makes for an interesting viewing.

Ahu ula (feather cloak) belonging to Liholoho, Kamehameha II, early 19th century. Photograph: Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Canoes, shields and masks all stunningly, almost unfathomably, preserved before being softly lit and displayed create a fraught experience; it is hard to believe that in 2018 this is the first survey of Oceanic art, yet the viewer finds themselves wondering if such objects should be viewed as ‘art’ given their primary utility function. Despite this, many of the objects render the viewer so awe-struck that the boundaries of art, design and culture are placed secondary to the desire to learn more about these overlooked cultures.

Lisa Reihana in Pursuit of Venus [infected], 2015–17 (detail). Photograph: © Image courtesy of the artist and ARTPROJECTS
While it would have been bizarre to omit contemporary works, the majestic scale and narratives presented by the eighteenth and nineteenth century ‘artefacts’ certainly do dim the shine of newer artists’ endeavours. This predicament is certainly not the case for Lisa Reihana’s ‘The Pursuit of Venus (Infected)’ video, a thirty-minute long epic piece based on an early nineteenth century panelled wallpaper piece, ‘Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique’ by Joseph Dufour. Some will remember Reihana’s incredible work from last year’s Venice Biennale; those who had seen it in Italy will be thrilled to see it again, those who hadn’t will be equally transfixed. The joy of the work is its investment in demystifying and celebrating the stories of Polynesian culture before James Cook’s arrival. A truly fitting and enthralling element to a show with cinematic grip throughout.
Issues surrounding cultural sensitivity are inevitable in an exhibition like Oceania, yet the fusion of history, violence, humour, craft and total awe makes this worth seeing. It is also impeccably researched; you truly leave feeling inspired, educated and with your curiosity piqued.
Words by Issey Scott
Oceania is on at the Royal Academy in London until 10 December 2018

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