Oceania, the Royal Academy’s new survey of Pacific Art, opens with a 35 ft. cascade of polyethylene sheeting, which sweeps through the central octagonal hall like an azure wave. It’s been sewn using traditional techniques by the contemporary Māori women’s collective Mata Aho. An adjoining roomful of seagoing paraphernalia continues the watery theme; here you can marvel at the achievement of the ‘voyagers’ who set out in their double-hull outrigger canoes to colonise 20 million square miles of ocean. Objects range from the utilitarian – elaborate prows, paddles, fishing tackle – to bizarre jeux d’esprit like the extraordinary vessel crewed by carved fish and turtles, all bending to the oar. Navigation charts formed of twisted twigs and shells, beautiful in themselves (move over, Andy Goldsworthy), helped perform those feats of seamanship which suitably boggled Captain Cook in 1774.
The RA has divided the show up thematically, and after the initial scene-setting you get sections covering the role of ceremony and ritual, the importance of ‘gifting’, the first encounters with Europeans and so on. There’s a surprising congruence among the exhibits, despite the vast distances involved, so that a decorated beam from Palau, say, or a patchwork quilt from the Cook Islands, might bear remarkable similarities to examples from far-off New Zealand or Papua New Guinea. The aesthetic co-exists with the functional: battle armour may be stitched from coir, with a helmet of fish-skin that is as comical as it is conical, but things don’t get much more badass than a trident studded with shark teeth.
Wandering through the exhibition and admiring the idols, deities and ancestor figures with their stylised, geometric features feels a bit like snooping around a Modernist’s studio. I gave up bothering to tick off the endless borrowings by the likes of Picasso, Modigliani and Giacometti. At this juncture, though, you might be tempted to get a bit worked up, as I did, about the questionable blessings of Western civilisation: Captain Bligh, Paul Gauguin and STDs, Margaret Mead, mushroom clouds at Bikini Atoll, to say nothing of Rogers & Hammerstein or Elvis crooning Aloha ‘Oe. Before railing against cultural appropriation, however, it’s worth remembering that a sizeable proportion of the objects on show here – which are predominantly drawn from European collections – were, in essence, the first tourist souvenirs. Made to order by wily Islanders to satisfy the vogue for ‘artificial curiosities’, nowadays they occupy half-forgotten cabinets of regional museums in places like Maidstone or Exeter.
‘Oceania’ ends on a melancholy note, evoking memory and loss. In a short film clip, Marshallese poet and activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijine urges her fellow Islanders to ‘tell them/we don’t want to leave/we’ve never wanted to leave/and that we/are nothing without our islands’. But as a nearly caption tersely points out: ‘rising sea levels threaten to make further voyages of relocation inevitable’.
Header image: Female tattooed figure, eighteenth or early nineteenth century, Aitutaki, Cook Islands, Wood, pigment, height 58 cm. (c) Five Continents Museum, Munich; photo: Marianne Franke