Oceanic Art

The arts of the Pacific vary by virtue of ecological situations, social structure, and impact of external influences, such as commerce, colonialism, and missionary activity.  Created in a variety of media, Pacific arts are distinguished by the virtuosity with which materials are used and presented.

9-1a: The Pacific region- including over 25,000 islands, about 1,500 of which are inhabited- is defined by its location within the Pacific Ocean, which comprises one third of the Earth’s surface.  Pacific arts are objects and events created from fibers, pigments, bone, sea ivory and shell, tortoise shell, as well as wood, coral, and stone, which are carried, exchanged, and used by peoples of the region.

9-1b: Geological and archaeological evidence indicates that Papuan-speaking peoples traveled across a land bridge that connected Asia and present-day Australia about 30,000 years ago.  Lapita people migrated eastward across the region beginning 4,000 years ago.  The region was explored by Europeans as early as the 16th century and most extensively from the 2nd half of the 18th century.  By the beginning of the 19th century, Dumont d’Urville had divided the region into three units: micro (small), poly (many), and mela (black) nesia (island).  The lands are continental, volcanic, and atollian.  Each supports distinct ecologies that exist in relation to the migrations and sociocultural systems that were transported across the region.

9-1c: Objects such as shields, ancestral representations, and family treasures were and continue to be constructed to give form to the preserve human history and social continuity.  Other art forms are constructed to be displayed and performed to remind people of their heritage and shared bonds (such as the significance of an ancestor or leader) and are intended to be destroyed once the memory is created.

The sea is ubiquitous as a theme of Pacific art and as a presence in the daily lives of a large portion of Oceania, as the sea both connects and separates the lands and peoples of the Pacific.

9-2a: In the last 4,000 years, populations sailed from Vanuatu eastward, and carried plants, animals, and pottery that now demonstrate a pattern of migration and connection from what was the Lapita culture.  By 800 CE the distribution that has come to be described as Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia was established.

9-2b: Ships and devices of navigation and sailing expertise were build and used to promote exploration, migration, and the exchange of objects and cultural patterns across the Pacific.  Navigators created personal charts or expressions of the truths of their experience of the sea and other objects intended to protect and ensure the success of sailing.  Ocean-going vessels carried families, and often communities across vast distances; passengers could also return to their place of departure.

The arts of the Pacific are expressions of beliefs, social relations, essential truths, and compendia of information held by designated members of society.  Pacific arts are objects, acts, and events that are forces in social life.

9-3a: Arts of the Pacific involve the power and forces of deities, ancestors, founders, and hereditary leaders, as well as symbols of primal principles, which are protected by wrapping, sheathing, and other forms of covering to prevent human access.  Ritual dress, forms of armor, and tattoos encase and shield the focus of power from human interaction.  One’s vital force, identity, or strength (mana) is expressed and protected by rules and prohibitions, as well as by wrapping or shielding practices, or tapu.  Mana is also associated with communities and leaders who represent their peoples.  Objects that project status and sustain structure hold and become mana.  These objects are made secure through tapu or behaviors that limit access to protect the objects.

9-3b: Rulers of the Sayudeleur Dyansty commanded construction of Nan Madol in Micronesia, a residential and ceremonial complex of numerous human-made islets.  Rulers of Hawaii were clothed in feather capes that announce their status and shield them from contact.  Societies of Polynesia in New Zealand, Rapa Nui, and Samoa create sacred ceremonial spaces that both announce and contain their legitimacy, power, and life force.  In Melanesia, individuals and clans earn status and power and sustain social balance in a set of relationships marked by the exchange of objects.  Masks, and the performance of masks, are a recital and commemoration of ancestors’ histories and wisdom.

Pacific arts are performed (danced, sung, recited, displayed) in an array of colors, scents, textures, and movements that enact narratives and proclaim primordial truths.  Belief in the use of costumes, cosmetics, and constructions assembled to enact epics of human history and experience is central to the creation of and participation in Pacific arts.

9-4a: Objects and behaviors in the cultures of the Pacific are often designed and presented to stimulate a particular response.  Rare and precious materials are used to demonstrate wealth, status, and particular circumstance.  Ritual settings are structured with elements that address all of the senses.  Physical combat and warfare are announced and preceded by display of ferocity in dress, dance, verbal aggression, and gestural threats.

9-4b: The acts of creation, performance, and even destruction of a mask, costume, or installation often carry the meaning of the work of art (instead of the object itself carrying the meaning).  Meaning is communicated at the time of the work’s appearance, as well as in the future when the work, or the context of its appearance, is recalled.  This sort of memory is evoked through the presentation of primordial forms such as cultural heroes, founding ancestors, or totemic animals in order to reaffirm shared values and important truths.  In some instances the memory is created and performed, and then the objects that appeared in those processes are destroyed, leaving a new iteration of the memory.

9-4c: Reciprocity is demonstrated by cycles of exchange in which designated people and communities provide specific items and in exchange receive equally predictable items.  The process of exchange is complex and prescribed.  Chants, dances, scents, costumes, and people of particular lineage and social position are called into play to create a performance that engages all of the senses and expands the form and significance of the exchange.

9-4d: Duality and complementarity are aspects of social relations that are often characterized by opposing forces or circumstances and express the balance of relations necessary between those seemingly divergent forces.  Gender, for example, is the basis for inclusion in some societies but is understood in the context of complement rather than opposition.  Spatial organization, shared spaces, and exclusive or rarified spaces are created and used to reinforce social order.

Oceanic Art Presentation


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s