Oceania is vast. Hundreds of islands spread out across thousands of square miles of ocean, each filled with countless cultures that lap and overlap. Trying to sum up the whole artistic production of a single culture, let alone multiple, is a stupid, insurmountable task. But here we are, doing just that at the Royal Academy.
Let’s get this out of the way quick: a lot of what you’ll see here is totally breathtaking. A billowing sheet of woven tarpaulin flows down towards you as you walk in, a contemporary art entrance to an otherwise very old-fashioned show. There’s a mourning costume from Tahiti covered in pearlescent shells, a faceless male deity from the Caroline Islands, a brutally vicious Hawaiian island-snatching god, an amazing basalt Moai statue – all properly stunning, all with countless features that have helped shape the course of modern art. By the time Lisa Reihana’s enormous scrolling screen animates a popular old wallpaper depiction of Cook’s arrival in Oceania, injecting it with rape, fighting and theft, you start to build a strong picture of Oceanic life. That work is critical, strong and very, very necessary in amongst all of this.
The icky, sticky past of colonial loot hangs over the show, but many of these objects were gifted or traded – though obviously lots weren’t. It’s tricky, but what strikes you is that under each object you can see how it was acquired and where it now lives: a pair of decorated Maori oars were gifted to Captain James Cook in 1769 and now belong to the University of Cambridge. A Papuan ancestral figure collected by Captain Karl Nauer in 1913 is now in a museum in Dresden, etc etc. The point is that everything you see here has a complicated, layered history: it has its origins, its collection, its voyage and its current home. These are stories of trade, commerce, colonialism and the constant collapsing of the world’s cultural borders.
There could be a bit more effort made to contextualise the contemporary works here, but as you walk through these rooms, you’re surrounded by history. The past looms over you, a whole narrative of pride, colonialism, independence, resilience and violence embracing or intimidating you. Oceania really is vast, and this show just skims the surface, but it really makes you want to dive in.