by Roderick Conway Morris

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Lisa Reihana/Auckland Art Gallery
From 'In Pursuit of Venus [infected]' by Lisa Reihana, 2015-17

Pacific Endeavour

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 5 October 2018


The Pacific Ocean covers almost a third of the surface of the globe, an area so vast that the 20,000 small islands scattered across it seem all but lost in its immensity. It was one of the last regions of the earth to be colonised by humans and the last ocean to be charted by western navigators.

The Royal Academy of Arts was founded in 1768, the same year that Captain Cook's 'Endeavour' set out on its first voyage to the Pacific, and the RA has taken the opportunity as part of the celebrations of its 250th anniversary to stage 'Oceania', curated by Peter Brunt and Nicholas Thomas, Britain's first ever major exhibition of the arts and cultures of this awe-inspiring and remote region.

Cook's primary purpose on his first voyage was to take scientists to the recently discovered island of Tahiti to observe the Transit of Venus, an astronomical event that occurs only every 243 years. However, it was not until his second and third expeditions that the full extent of the Oceania's inhabited islands became clear, culminating in Cook's landfall in Hawaii in 1778.

Art and artefacts of these many cultures, both historical and modern, are now splendidly arrayed in the RA's Main Galleries. In the first gallery are fine examples of canoes, the vessels that carried settlers from the mainland and islands of the Far East on perilous journeys to the ever-more far-flung archipelagoes of the Pacific. Two decorated canoe paddles here were presented to Cook just three days after the 'Endeavour' encountered the Maoris for the first time in 1769.

A group of seemingly insignificant objects - stick frames decorated with shells - are among the most important artefacts in the exhibition. These are 'stick charts' from the Marshall Islands, used for teaching traditional navigation and represent an entire system that uses tides, currents, swell patterns, winds, the paths of whales, birds, the sun and the stars, to reach distant islands in this wilderness of water. The Tahitian high priest and navigator Tupaia joined the 'Endeavour', and Cook and his crew were astonished at his ability to guide them with unfailing accuracy around the South Seas.

The response of islanders, themselves daring navigators, to western explorers was for the most part welcoming, although the sheer size of the 'Endeavour' at first led the Maoris to believe that the ship was a floating island, driven by ancestral power.

Gifts were of the upmost importance, and many of the statues, textiles, feathered cloaks, and decorative objects on display were presented to the visitors, often as tokens of future friendly relations and in the hope of fruitful alliances. Christianity was widely embraced, often led by the chiefs of island communities, creating a fascinating hybrid art, combining age-old skills with new symbols.

Christianity also brought peace to areas where internecine warfare and headhunting had been endemic. This is nicely illustrated by a canoe prow from the Solomon islands, which depicts a traditional figure holding a pigeon. Such prows were developed for 'peace canoes' used in mission-sponsored competitive regattas, which replaced the raiding parties of old, and this one brings together local respect for the pigeon's sure navigational instincts, the dove of peace and the story of Noah's Ark.

A particularly beautiful example of this melding of cultures is the Maori Tene Waitere's Ta Moko panel of three tattooed heads (1896-99). Productively hybrid forms of art are clearly thriving to this day.

Outstanding among the contemporary works here is the (also Maori) artist Lisa Reihana's 'In Pursuit of Venus [infected]' (2015-17): an hour-long video on a gigantic horizontal screen - the backdrop of which is provided by an exotic, early 19th-century French wallpaper design of a panoramic view of the South Seas in 20 panels - its original painted scenes now artfully animated by indigenous islanders and other actors to relate the story of Cook's encounters with the Pacific.

Oceania; Royal Academy, London; 29 September - 10 December 2018

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024