Living Treasures: Oceania At The Royal Academy

Jude Cowan Montague dives deep into the Royal Academy's exhibition of art from the region of Oceania

Oceania. Courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts

Most ideas come from living things. The best ideas come from where I come from.” – Niuean artist, John Pule

Unusually, a poet stands at the entrance to this visual arts exhibition. Kathy Jetnil-Kijner, poet and climate change activist, greets you on video. She reads her poem, ‘Tell Them’, to us from the screen, giving visitors three minutes of powerful expression about the pride of coming from the Marshall Islands.

She’s focusing on the art of the islands. The subject of the poem is the pair of earrings she is sending to friends in America. She posts a package containing the woven “’half moons black pearls glinting like an eye in a storm of tight spirals”. The making conveys not only the message but possibly even the spirit of the Marshall Islands. The made object will be the method by which her people will communicate.

It’s a good choice as these are not conventional works of art. They are religious artefacts and more. It is hard to feel enough deference even though I know I am encountering important, essentially spiritual pieces. The Royal Academy is taking on a difficult project here. Hard to get this right. It’s bold and brave for the curators.

A note says: “This exhibition includes many objects that Pacific Islanders consider living treasures.” Some may pay their respects and make offerings through the duration of the exhibition. All I see is standard visitor behaviour, but it is respectful, hushed, and it feels appropriate.

We begin by being washed over with the sound of sea water, immersed in deep blue. The watery induction prepares us with the simulated voyage. But really, nothing can summon up the salty expanse of the Pacific in which these small islands are astral dots in the waves. On these precious pieces of land, with their valuable rocks and trees out of which humans and gods have been carved, culture has been embedded and developed. It’s a marvel that cannot be communicated with a few bells and whistles.

Kū, the god of war, glares through seed and pearl eyes, snarls with legions of dog-teeth, clad in tiny features, demonstrating the great craft that has produced these arresting forms. His spirit feels human and yet intensely inhuman. There is Lono nearby, the Hawaiian god of peace. I read this for the first time and start my induction into a pantheon strange to me. Who are the Tiki Gods? I realise this must be the meaning of Kon Tiki, a word I have known since my progressive primary school showed me Thor Heyerdahl’s experimental film with that name, where he rode on a balsa wood raft through the Pacific to test his archaeological theories against the waves and wind.

Looking up the etymology on Google, I see that Kon Tiki was said to be an old name of the Inca sun god, Viracocha. Heyerdahl was testing his (now discounted) hypothesis that migration to Polynesia had its origins in South America.

The aura is not dissipated by the cold alien environment of an art gallery yet the contrast is disconcerting. These objects, one cannot help, should not be here. They should not be in London. They should not be in an art gallery. Yet here they are, voyaging, speaking for themselves. Each one is different.

This is a huge exhibition, and cannot be taken lightly. With a sketch that even has a malevolent stare in the pages of my notebook, I tried to capture a face that should not be captured.

Unexpectedly, the heart of the process is the huge contemporary panorama which occurs towards the end. Lisa Reihana’s video installation In pursuit of Venus [infected] (2015–2017) was created over ten years and is a huge spectacle, a twenty-one-metre display officially opening at the 2017 Venice Biennale and which has appeared at various other exhibitions in Australasia. It presents the landing of Captain Cook’s ship Endeavour in Tahiti in 1769, and how he and the ship’s astronomer observed and recorded the astronomical phenomenon known as ‘the transit of Venus’. But covertly, Cook had been charged with discovering and claiming a previously uncharted southern continent for the British king.

The panorama reimagines the pre-colonisation encounters in the Pacific, using diary entries and other accounts. The vignettes displayed include violence, dance, and episodes of trade. Characters include historical figures – a Tahitian navigator, the Ra’itean adventurer Omai, Joseph Banks and James Cook (played alternatively by a man and a woman). The soundtrack includes traditional songs, Hawaiian drumming, European music of the time, the sound of the ocean. It’s vivid and a roomful of visitors continued to watch intensely as I weaved in and out trying to make my own sense of the power of the static galleries.

The piece was inspired by a scenic wallpaper from 1805, Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique inspired by Cook’s accounts of his voyages. It’s a romantic version of the colonial gaze. Reihana pushed her reworking of the pice over ten years, self-funding it for the most part.

One of the most troubling seeds was to do with the aftermath of the death of Captain Cook. I did not recognise this at the time yet the oddness of the scene drew me in. After he died in Hawaii, his body was cut into thirty-six pieces. These were distributed through the island. His hat and his thighbone were returned to his boat, respectfully wrapped. This was the scene that confused me, just as it shocks the European sailor in Reihana’s representation.

The scene is complex and has expanded to take on board many viewpoints. Reihana has been generous with her intellect, setting on many complex and physical aspects of the story. We read that venereal disease is essential to her titling. Venus has been infected. In the scene when a British crew member is being flogged for having sex with a native the discoloured blooms on his chest indicate syphilis.

On the way out, I am impressed by another large-scale modern piece: the five panel storyboard by the Niuean artist John Pule, blue and black on white canvas, telling tales of what has happened to his people in enamel, oil, pencil, pastel, oilstick and ink. Another storyteller, he has described his writing as a means of decolonising his own mind. A way of writing and painting himself back into the picture.

The rain of feeling falls out of the picture from the blue-black enamel clouds in Kehe tau hauaga foou (To all new arrivals) (2007). Niue, the tiny island in the Pacific, one of earth’s largest raised coral atolls, is remembered in blue. I feel less uncomfortable staring at Pule’s representation than at gods that I don’t know. This is art I understand, and is meant to be in an art gallery, is meant for my eyes, is to tell me to think about an island I have never heard of and to make me think of its culture and what has happened to the people.

And what about climate change? Niue (among the other islands) is highly vulnerable. Any rise in the sea level would threaten the underground freshwater supplies. Are policy frameworks and community-based adaptation measures really going to make any kind of difference or are we pissing in the wind? The small objectives of reducing water supply shortages by improving household rainwater harvesting seem slim. But of course, this is what we have to do, work at a small local level to combat the destruction of corporations and nations in their greed to merge, own and gobble up the world like a god with a mouth far more monstrous than the multi-toothed mighty Ku.

Oceania is at the Royal Academy until 10 December

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