Of God and Ancestors: Masterpieces of Oceanic Art

Oceania – the name conjures images of paradise on Earth, scattered in sunny far-flung islands on the Pacific Ocean. Adding to the allure is the fact that many were virtually untouched by modernity until the 19th century. While most of the islands that make up Oceania are small, the distances that separate them are vast, with a distance of nearly 11,000 km from Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea in the west to the Easter Islands in the east (see map below).

Yet, it is the remoteness of Oceania that has left us with a stunning legacy of unique “tribal” art, ranging from dance masks and figural sculptures to exquisite bark paintings. To the untrained eye, the tribal art of Oceania seems crude, but refinement is generally not the point of tribal art, whether African or Oceanic. The central purpose of Oceanic art is to create objects of power to venerate gods and ancestors in time-honoured rituals and ceremonies. This being the goal, the objects must embody a sense of other-worldly power, and they do, as you will see in the following exhibition of Oceanic art masterpieces, now in world-renowned museums and private collections.

Canoe Figurehead (Nguzu Nguzu, Musu Musu, or Toto Isu), Solomon Islands, late 19th–early 20th century, H: 13.3 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This iconic figure from the Solomon Islands is a canoe-prow ornament attached to the bow of a traditional canoe. As a sculpture, it is impressive, starting with the large head (representing an ancestor), and the effective use of shell inlay to delineate the main features, particularly the eyes set against an intense black background that seem to project an expression of determination.

Early photograph of Solomon Islanders with their canoes. Note the distinctive high curving prows. Taken in 1908 in Marau island, Solomon Islands chain.

Figural stopper from a flute, Yuat River, Biwat, Papua New Guinea, wood, cassowary feathers, shell, wild boar teeth, late 19th century. H: 50 cm. Bisseling Collection, The Hauge, Belgium.

Bird-shaped pestle, Western province of Papua New Guinea, c. 3,000 – 8,000 years old. Stone, H: 30 cm. Australian National Museum, Sydney.

Stone pestles and mortars have been found widely in New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago. These artefacts were made between about 8,000 and 3,000 years ago, and are always found in areas where taro, a staple food crop for the Papuans, are grown. The pestles were used to pound cooked taro and local nut products into a rich edible paste or ‘pudding’. Most pestles are undecorated, but some, like this one, are carved in the form of a stylized bird with small flapping wings.

Anthromorphic pestle, Madang province, Papua New Guinea, c. 8,000 – 3,000 years old. Stone, H: 44 cm. Australian National Museum, Sydney.

A limited number of pestles from New Guinea are carved in the form of humans. The facial features of this anthropomorphic pestle such as the hooked nose and stylized beard remained as the stylistic features of New Guinean art down the centuries.

Zoomorphic stone figure, c. 1500 B.C.E., greywacke,
20 x 7.5 x 14 cm, Ambum Valley, Enga Province, Papua New Guinea (Australia National Gallery, Canberra)

This zoomorphic sculpture known, as the Ambum Stone, is a masterfully crafted zoomorphic stone carving that was created around 3,500 years ago in the highlands of New Guinea. It is carved in the shape of the embryo of a long-beaked echidna or spiny ant-eater, and could possibly have been used as a ritual object for a very long time before becoming an aesthetically admired icon of Oceanic art.

Figure of a god of war, Hawaii, wood. Circa 18th century. H: 53 cm. Private collection.

This figure was executed in a highly expressionistic style called Kona, here exemplified by the figure-eight-shaped mouth, distended eyes, and a head crest, elements which are combined in a single sculpture that bespeaks great power as befits the subject portrayed.

Deity figure, A’a, Rurutu, Austral Islands, ca early 19th century. Wood. H: 117 cm. British Museum, London.

A’a is an icon of Polynesian sculpture, a great and imaginative work that has been recontextualized not once but several times over the last two hundred years. It was probably made around 1800 on the island of Rurutu in the Austral Islands, and then given to John Williams of the London Missionary Society in 1822. Described as the ‘national god’ and founding ancestor of Rurutu, the figure’s identification has been much debated. The most arresting feature of the figure is the proliferation of subordinate figures over the body of the main figure, representing regeneration.

Pair of male and female figures, Purari delta, Papuan Gulf, Papua New Guinea, 19th century. Wood, 156-187 cm in height. Collected by Paul Wirz. Museum der Kulteren, Basel.

This pair of figures showing a pregnant woman, is one of its kind in Papuan tribal art. The smiling demeanour of the couple makes this unique artwork resonate well with a modern audience.

Double-figure sculpture, Lake Sentani, West Papua, 19th century. Wood, dredged from lake in 1929.

Lake Sentani in West Papua New Guinea is home to some of the most charismatic figural sculptures in Oceania, like this double figure which would have stood on the lake outside houses raised on stilts. The figural sculptures in the area are distinguished by their austerity and relative to other New Guinea art, degree of naturalism. The area is also known for painted bark cloth that are decorated with highly dreamlike mages of animals and plants that caught the attention of western abstract artists such as Joan Miro. See next example.

Painted bark cloth (maro), Lake Sentani, West Papua, 19th century. Dallas Museum of Art.

Uli figure, New Ireland, painted wood, fibre, and shell, 19th century. H: 132 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

New Ireland, situated off the northeastern coast of Papua New Guinea, is renowned for funerary ritual sculptures that are visually complex. Prominent examples include Uli figures which were displayed during the long cycles of ceremonies that accompanied the exhumation and subsequent reburial of the skulls of prominent men. Feasting, including the consumption of dozens of pigs, was an important activity on these occasions. Having both a phallus and prominent breasts, uli figures are hermaphroditic, a feature that may symbolize the fertility of people, animals, and gardens, and represent the powers of a chief to bring success in warfare.

Dance shield or paddle, Bouganville, Western Solomon Islands, 19th century. Wood, L: 100 cm. British Museum, London.

On Buka and Bouganville islands at the westernmost ends of the Solomon Islands chain, objects such as dance shields were used in ceremonial dances. The staves of such shields often depict a head which represent young men wearing headgear that marks their status as initiates.

Large feasting bowl with spiral handles, Admiralty Islands, 19th century, wood. L: 148 cm. Museum der Kulteren, Basel.

The natives of Admiralty Islands made a range of wooden bowls for important community feasts. These included small bird and animal-shaped bowls as well as very large bowls with spiral handles such as this one. With the onset of colonial influence, such bowls were no longer made since the 1930s.

Figure of a god, Nukuoro Atoll, Caroline Islands. Wood, 18th century, 40 cm, Musee du Quai Branly, Paris.

European artists at the turn of the 20th century were the first to acknowledge Pacific objects as exemplars of design. In their quest for new interpretations of the human body, artists such as Picasso and Matisse looked to tribal art from Africa and Oceania for inspiration. This elegant sculpture of a god comes from the remote Caroline Islands in Micronesia. They belong to a small group of thirty-seven sculptures from the Nukuoro Atoll of the Caroline Islands that were acquired by Western museum collections from the 1870s onwards. The purity of the human representation in these rare sculptures greatly influenced the work of modern sculptors like Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) and Henry Moore (1898-1986).

Lintel of a chief’s house, Maori people, New Zealand, wood, inlaid shells, W: 98 cm, 19th century. British Museum, London.

This is a large and complete example of a type of carved panel known as pare or korupe fitted above the doorway of a chief’s house and later, a sacred meeting house. Lintels often have a central female figure as here, which performs the function of fending off malevolent spirits for those entering a house.

Hei tiki, Maori people, New Zealand, nephrite jade, shell, pigment, and wax, H: 15.5 cm, 19th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The distinctive green jade pendant known as tiki are a symbol of fertility and considered a treasure by the Māori people. Usually carved of green nephrite or a jadelike stone called pounamu that is found along the western coast of the South Island, hei-tikis normally are worn only by women. The object is believed to possess magical powers that increase as it is passed on from generation to generation.

Stone tiki (deity) figure, Marquesas Islands, basalt, H: 16 cm, 19th century. Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University.

The traditional artists of the Marquesas Islands were among the most accomplished in the Pacific. Their work was fashioned from a diversity of materials, ranging from delicate feather work to imposing figural sculptures generically called tiki-tiki, in wood, stone, and bone. A distinctive feature of these figures is the humanoid form with large eyes that represent the islanders’ concept of gods and deified ancestors.

Small tiki ornament, Marquesas Islands, bone, H: 4 cm, 18th-19th century. Formerly in the Jacob Epstein Collection.
Canoe figure, Marquesas Islands, wood, pre-contact, stone-carved, circa 18th century. Private collection.

Only 37 canoe figures are known, of which 7 are in private collections. Each figure has areas of distinct rippled tool marks, most obvious on the side and back of the head as in the case of this figure. The smooth patina on this figure suggests an extensive ritual life well after its function of decorating a canoe.

Ceremonial shield, Solomon Islands, wood with mother-of-pearl inlays, H: 86.2 cm, early to mid-19th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The Solomon Islands form a double chain of large and small islands, situated east of New Guinea. As in the art of other Oceanic cultures, the central motif of art from the Solomon Islands is the human figure, rendered in an abstract and expressive style. This rare war shield is clearly the work of a master artist who managed to work within the tight constraints of an elliptical shape to present an elongated human figure surrounded by decorative borders. Two disembodied faces peek from the wide band beneath the figure. It is hard to imagine that this fragile shield could have provided much protection in combat. In fact, such shields were probably used as ceremonial objects or as status symbols for men of high rank.

Anthropomorphic platter, Fiji, wood, early 19th century. H: 32.4 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This remarkable sculptural vessel is exceptionally elegant in its design and ingenious for its formal inventiveness. It is not simply a work of decorative art; it is a vessel conceived as a vehicle to elicit contact with ancestral gods. Fijian priests used them to hold small amounts of sacred oil as a libation to enter into communion with gods and spirits. In a radical reinterpretation of form, the master carver who created it has fused the bold abstraction of a powerful ancestral figure with the delicate contours of a receptacle. Despite its intimate scale, the looming ancestral figure exudes a powerful presence embodying the deep lineage of relations that were activated during its ritual use.

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