What is Oceanic
In the arts, the rather wide term "Oceanic Art" describes artworks (arts and crafts) produced by indigenous native peoples within the huge geographical zone - nearly 10,000 kilometres (6,000 miles) from north to south and some 14,500 kilometres (9,000 miles) from east to west - of the Pacific Ocean.
Diversity of Pacific Art
The zone encompasses a continent (Australia), the second largest island in the world (New Guinea), several other large islands such as those of New Zealand - and a host of smaller islands littering the huge surface of the Pacific between New Guinea and South America. Not surprisingly, the native tribal art produced in such a vast area is very diverse in form, and for ethnic as well as geographical reasons. Its creators are the descendants of successive settlings by migrants from the west of mixed origins, some Mongoloid, some Melanotic or dark-skinned. Anthropologists and ethnologists usually identify three separate areas in Oceania - namely, Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia. There are frequent affinities with the art and culture of the tribes of South-East Asia.
ANCIENT ARTS AND
ART OF ISLAM
DIFFERENT FORMS OF ARTS
MEANING OF ART
Similar to indigenous African art including African sculpture, Oceanic artifacts were not made with any notion of their being "art" as the word is used in the West. Oceanic painting, sculpture and wood-carving were conceived as an integral part of the religious and social ceremony of everyday island life, and were aspects of the various prevalent forms of ancestor-worship and spirit-worship. The focus on fertility is recurrent and there are also more sinister signs of occasional headhunting and ritual cannibalism.
Masks and ornamented skulls as well as ancestor statues, abound. Traditional motifs are incised, carved or painted on canoes, paddles, shields, pottery, stools and vessels. Representational art is not usually prized; individual features ar subordinated to a strong formal rhythm of drawing or modelling, tending towards exaggeration or abstraction. The objects or patterns designed were often conceived to impart some mana, or supernatural power, and usually reflect the imagery of local ceremonies. In addition to these types of religious art, various forms of "living" body art were also practised, like body painting, tattooing and face-painting.
There is archeological evidence of human settlement in Oceania as early as the Upper Palaeolithic period of the Stone Age, but little rock art of any great antiquity survives since with a few exceptions, like the monumental lava-stone statues on Easter Island the materials used are not especially long-lasting: painted and carved wood, bark-cloth, vegetable fibres, feathers and bone. Once made, few artifacts were conserved as treasures or enduring memorials; most were abandoned or sometimes destroyed once their immediate purpose had been fulfilled. However, because foreign intrusion into parts of the region is relatively recent, the traditions in which they were conceived have often remained unadulterated and stable well into this century. For one of the best collections of ethnographic artifacts from Oceania, see: the British Museum, in London.
The Pacific Ocean harbours innumerable islands where a relatively isolated archaic civilization has perpetuated itself down to our own time, without its variety destroying its fundamental unity. In it we find confirmation of the magical and symbolical meaning of primitivism/primitive art. The artists of Oceania were very imaginative in the creation of unusual forms and shapes. They expressed themselves most completely in sculpture, and sometimes in drawing. The Oceanians carved figures in relief or in the round, masks and a mass of other objects decorated with chiselling or inlays. The Melanesians added colour to them. Oceanic drawing is revealed in tattooing (strictly a Polynesian art), in the designs on tapas made of bark, in figurines engraved on wood and in rock carvings. At first sight, Oceanic sculpture and drawing exhibit an extreme variety of styles. A closer scrutiny modifies this opinion, which, however, certain authors still hold.
Unity of Style in
the Oceanic Arts
Works of art, by bringing the myths into everyday life, ensure the balance of society, but the chieftain is the link between this world and the supernatutal world. His power is based on a genealogy which goes back to the creating gods, as well as on a freely spent and widely distributed fortune. This tradition is well suited to encourage creation, for the abundance of works of art and their brilliance are evidence of the same generosity with regard to the dead (whom these works celebrate) as with regard to the living (who extract from them an additional amount of magical protection).
The great works of art are accomplished
in a holiday atmosphere. The rich man who commissions them maintains the
artists and sees to it that they are amply supplied with both necessities
and luxuries. Parsimony over the cost would risk compromising the completion
of the works and would put their mystical value in danger.
in the Style of Oceanic Art
The Style of Heads
The Two-Dimensional Convention
The art historian Maurice Leenhardt has
analysed the aesthetic mentality of the Oceanians to perfection; he emphasises
the difficulty the New Caledonians have in conceiving of a world of more
than two dimensions. This explains the door-frames of this region. The
guardians of the entrance are ancestors stylised into a magnified flattened
mask and a trunk reduced to a few geometrical signs. The same formula
is applied to ridge-pole figures. These 'two-dimensional' characteristics
recur elsewhere: in the New Hebrides, in the masks from Ambrym, at Malekula,
in the trunks of trees made into drums booming with the voices of the
ancestors whose faces they bear. In the Gulf of Papua, among the Abelam,
in New Guinea, images of ancestors look like cut-out drawings. Other figures
from Ambrym are carved more deeply, cut, over-modelled (and painted) in
the trunks of ferns. These figures have large discs for eyes, a characteristic
recurring in the equally 'two-dimensional' statuary of the Marquesas Islands
and New Zealand.
The most "aesthetic" art comes from Melanesia, which includes New Guinea and the fringes of smaller islands to the north and east. Stone Age art is probably best represented by the Karawari Caves in Papua New Guinea which has the best examples of hand stencils and other types of parietal art in Melanesia. For a comparison with Australian aboriginal finger markings, please see: Koonalda Cave Art (18,000 BCE).
There is enormous variety, even within
small but fairly populous regions such as the Sepik River in New Guinea.
Melanesia is also the area nearest to Indonesia, where there is a tradition
of decorative brilliance and fanciful ornament. Wood
carving, often in colour, predominates, and the ancestor figure and
the human head are recurrent themes, both in woven or carved and brightly
painted masks and in pattern form, as decoration on all types of surface.
To a Western art-lover, unfamiliar with their symbolism, the visual intensity
of these crafts - sometimes
horrific - can be haunting. In parts of Papua New Guinea, a craftsmen's
work was prized, even collected, and specialist artists emerged.
Style of Art
The Swiss ethnologist Felix Speiser has
proposed a nomenclature for the styles of the New Guinea basin. But we
must remember that we shall often come across the primary two-dimensional
style already defined with tribal variations.
The Transitional Zone
The art of Polynesia, the widely scattered Pacific islands from New Zealand to Easter Island, may seem in comparison less vital and more decorative. Ancestor figures and masks are rare; not least because early Christian missionaries completed a thorough and widespread destruction or mutilation of sculpted ancestral deities. But Polynesian joy in creating complex rhythms of surface-patterning finds expression in many different media: from the spectacular featherwork of Hawaii, to the intricately carved wood and greenstone of the New Zealand Maoris - including the "living art" of tattoo. The Maori fascination with curvilinear surface ornamentation was almost obsessive; complex linear patterning is found in the canoed decoration of canoes and of the doorposts and lintels of meeting-houses, and still persists,even if the original vitality appears only rarely in modern work.
Let us approach the heart of the Polynesian triangle, from which sailed the tribes who colonised the islands of the South Seas. The Society Islands, the Cook Islands and the Austral Islands, all once in close relationship, provide evidence of related arts.
Here the masters are the carvers of stones
for the sacred enclosures for the altars and also for the embankments
on which some of the houses stand. Big stone statues are rare. The most
massive are those from Raia-vavae.
At the southern extremity of this region is Easter Island, the Rapa-Nui of modern Tahitians. Its quantities of enormous statues of volcanic breccia were the first revelation of Polynesian megalithic art. Using this material, which is easily carved with stone burins, the Easter Islanders erected more than five hundred images of their dead, with heights varying from nine to forty-eight feet. In the past they stood on the altar of the sanctuaries, which also served as tombs. Teams of specialists worked feverishly to carve these megaliths in a record time of three or four weeks. Brought down the slopes from the workshops, they were dragged to the edge of the ocean by hundreds of men and women.
The artists contributed very few variations
to this 'mass-produced type'. They derive from the stele, and only their
great narrow masks framed by long ears are more than two-dimensional.
The bust, cut off at the navel, bears arms in bas-relief. The face occupies
two-sevenths of the height. Shadows contrast strongly with the angular
surfaces lit up by the ocean light.
In addition to numerous island heritage centres and museums across the Pacific, many museums in Indonesia and Australia contain examples of Oceanic arts and crafts. Such venues include: Fine Art and Ceramic Museum (Museum Seni Rupa dan Keramik) in Jakarta; the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra; the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne; the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) in Adelaide; the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) in Sydney; the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) in Brisbane; and the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) in Perth.
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