Oceania unveiled

Senior lecturer in Art History Dr Peter Brunt describes himself as a “student and a lover of art”, but as co-curator of the United Kingdom’s first major show to explore Oceanic art, he may be being modest.

Lisa Reihana, In Pursuit of Venus [infected], 2015–2017 (detail). Single-channel video, HD, colour, 7.1 sound. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of the Patrons of the Auckland Art Gallery, 2014 Copyright image courtesy of the artist and ARTPROJECTS.

Currently on show at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Arts, Oceania celebrates the art of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia, encompassing the vast Pacific region from New Guinea to Easter Island, Hawaii to New Zealand.

The exhibition brings together around 200 exceptional works from public collections in British, European, and New Zealand museums, and spans more than 500 years of art. Some of the historic objects in the show have remained unseen in the stores of European museums for more than a century.

The art of Oceania is Peter’s area of expertise, and he has been working on the exhibition with Professor Nicholas Thomas, director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, since 2013.

“Nicholas is one of the most eminent scholars of Oceanic art and history in the world, so the opportunity to create this exhibition with him is an extraordinary privilege. We have worked together on a number of projects in the past, including the Marsden-funded Art in Oceania project, which came out as a major multiauthored book, Art in Oceania: A New History, in 2012,” he says.

“I’ve visited dozens of museums and storerooms in Europe, which hold amazing treasures from our region. What you realise is that they are not only carriers of our stories from the past, but remain meaningful for our relationships with Britain and Europe, now and in the future.”

Highlights of the exhibition include the fourteenth-century wooden Kaitaia carving, excavated in 1920, one of the oldest known objects to have been found in New Zealand; an eighteenth-century heva tupapau (chief mourner’s costume) from Tahiti, one of only six known examples in existence; as well as one of the hits of the 2017 Venice Biennale— the large-scale panoramic video In Pursuit of Venus [infected], by New Zealand multimedia artist Lisa Reihana, charting the arrival of the British in the South Pacific and its consequences.

The exhibition also includes previously unseen cultural treasures from the British Museum, including an enormous wooden feast bowl crafted in Solomon Islands, which features a crocodile holding a carved human head in its teeth.

Oceania opened in September, 250 years after the Royal Academy of Arts was founded in 1768—the same year Captain James Cook set out on his first Endeavour expedition. Following its run at the Royal Academy of Arts, the exhibition will travel to the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, in February 2019.