Historians' Watch

Counter-Narratives of Empire and the ‘Oceania’ Exhibition

At the Royal Academy of Arts in London, an exhibition opened on the 29th of September last year entitled Oceania. The curators intended to ‘Mark… 250 years since Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific’ and ‘celebrate the dazzling and diverse art of the region of Oceania, from the historic to the contemporary’.

Walking through the show’s interconnected galleries at the Royal Academy, it was easy to be blown away by the sheer size and striking aesthetic of many of the objects on display. On entering the exhibition, you were struck by an enormous, ‘light-duty blue tarpaulin that… [was] folded, stitched and slashed’, cascading down from the ceiling. This 30-foot-long installation, Kiko Moana, was created by the Mata Aho Collective of four Maori women artists who used traditional Maori sewing techniques to bring the piece together.

This contemporary artwork was in the minority, as most of the 190 objects on display consisted of historical pieces such as spears, Indigenous navigation charts, sculptures of deities and depictions of ceremonial attire.

Alongside the strategically lit glass cases and carefully placed historical artefacts, however, were also small objects. There were Monsteria fronds, Birds of Paradise, flower petals, woven garlands, rocks, shells and flags adorning the display cases. To the museum goer, it was not immediately clear whether these were a part of the exhibition. They were not evenly spread throughout the galleries, and when I visited the exhibition on the 7th of December, the colour from some of the plants was beginning to fade.

An example of some of the additions to the Oceania exhibition. All photographs are the author’s own.
Moai Hava, originating from Rapa Nui, c. 1100-1600.

Most of these additions were small and easily overlooked. However, there was one offering that contained words. A Rapa Nui basalt sculpture called Moai Hava had a letter next to it, that read:

‘We wonder…when was the last time you felt the sun on your face? Felt the cool breeze brush across your body? Heard the songs of your people?’

And below this message in English, there was an additional paragraph. The words appear similar to those of a Māori ‘karakia‘, a chanted or sung prayer used to communicate with the Gods.

Letter and drawing laid out in front of the Moai Hava statue.

This sculpture was of an ancestral figure who watched over burial sites. According to the official exhibition plaque:

‘By the time this moai was collected, smallpox and slavers had decimated the island’s population and indigenous religion was all but lost.’

But as the letter and accompanying tokens indicated, the spiritual and cultural meanings of these objects are not lost. They are still felt by the Indigenous people of these areas, so much so that they added a new layer to this exhibition, inserting subtle but material reminders of their connection to these objects. To these people, they are clearly more than art.

While the curators appear to have tried to situate the objects in historical context, there is something incongruous with placing items of deep spiritual and cultural resonance in the Royal Academy of Art. While the detail and artistry of these works is beyond doubt, their placement in an institution that encourages aesthetic engagement does not necessarily lend itself well to cross-cultural understanding.

References to colonialism, and the violence and destruction connected to it, were often veiled and overshadowed by the predominant narrative of ‘gift giving’ between Indigenous and European peoples. According to their official labels, these objects were ‘collected by’ men such as Captain Cook. This benign choice of words overlooks the deep connection that ‘Oceanic’ people feel to these items today and obscures the fact that these objects were often stolen. Europeans plundered many Indigenous people’s cultural artefacts throughout ‘Oceania’ and beyond for reasons ranging from their own self-aggrandisement through to intellectual curiosity. The exhibition’s narrative of ‘gift-giving’ and ‘collection’ similarly overlooked the issues involved with these objects being on loan from major European institutions, such as the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and the British Museum, as opposed to the Indigenous people whose ancestors created these pieces.

Solomon Islanders have voiced their discontent that one particular artefact, a carved trough that was looted by Captain Edward Davis in 1891, was on display in Oceania instead of repatriated back to its people. As Dr Tony Heorake, director of the Solomon Islands National Museum reported to The Times:

‘I think that if the item was taken by force and/or looted then they [European museums] should take the appropriate action and have the item returned to its kastom [traditional] owners… The Solomon Islands government and people know and understand that a large number of the country’s authentic cultural artefacts, both sacred and artistic, are held overseas in museums, private collections and exhibition houses… Their gradual or systematic repatriation would help restock and restore the country’s cultural treasure.’

These issues are not new. In early December, elders from Rapa Nui came to the British Museum requesting the repatriation of one of their statues, Hoa Hakananai’a, while on the 8th of December, activists staged a ‘Stolen Goods’ tour of the British Museum to call for the repatriation of various cultural artefacts to their communities of origin. The Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology also has ongoing repatriation claims, with Rodney Kelly ‘seeking the return of four spears…on behalf of the Gweagal people, who traditionally inhabited southern parts of Sydney, Australia.’ Alice Proctor of University College London undertakes regular ‘Uncomfortable Art Tours’ to show how ‘major institutions came into being against a backdrop of imperialism’ and to situate artworks in their broader context. Despite Oceania’s curators including some Indigenous voices in their exhibition (most strikingly through contemporary art), others clearly felt the need to engage with the exhibition in another way to make their voices heard.

For an ‘art’ exhibition, there was very little recognition of the ‘artists’, the people who created these works, in Oceania. But Indigenous people who visited the gallery made their mark on the space when they left their tributes to these pieces. Although their tokens did not reveal their individual identities, through their small gestures they illustrated that these items still hold power and meaning for the communities that they originated from. And, they gave these ‘artworks’ a vitality and resonance that indicates that for many Indigenous people, they never were, and never will be, just ‘objects’.

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