At six in the morning of 20 July 1888, Robert Louis Stevenson first set eyes on a Pacific Island. As the sun rose, the land ‘heaved up in peaks and rising vales’. The colours of the scene ‘ran through fifty modulations in a scale of pearl and rose and olive’, rising into ‘opalescent clouds’. The whole effect was a ‘suffusion of vague hues’ shimmering so that mountain slopes were hard to distinguish from the cloud canopy above. Oceania, the new exhibition at the Royal Academy devoted to the region’s arts and cultures, is almost as beautiful as that dawn landscape, and just about as difficult to make out with any precision.
Nonetheless, it is full of the most marvellous things to see. One of the most spectacular is a ‘soul canoe’ from New Guinea, some nine metres long, containing a cargo, or perhaps crew, of crouching turtles, birds and human beings: a sculpture as powerful as any by Brancusi. A superb array of textiles includes — to choose an example almost at random — an early 19th-century feather cloak from the Hawaiian Islands, as densely coloured and powerfully patterned as any abstract painting but with the soft, rich texture of plumage. There are many more remarkable carvings, artefacts and adornments, far too many to list.
Interspersed here and there among them are works of contemporary art. Some, admittedly, are a bit dud, but they include a minor masterpiece of video art. ‘In Pursuit of Venus [Infected]’, 2015–17, by Lisa Reihana fills the largest gallery at the RA, and does so with aplomb. It takes the form of an enormously wide panorama, through which the camera pans, passing various groups of Pacific islanders and Europeans in 18th-century costume, whose voices can be distantly heard.
This is a restaging of the vignettes on some early 19th-century French wallpaper of episodes from Captain Cook’s voyages, including the Captain’s death and the investigations of the naturalist Joseph Banks. The result is a novel kind of picture, at least in my experience: a moving narrative taking place not sequentially, in time, but simultaneously, dotted about in space.
Another striking exhibit is a series of photographs by another artist from New Zealand, Fiona Pardington. These are studies of life casts of Pacific Islanders made by an anatomist named Pierre-Marie Alexandre Dumoutier. A member of a French expedition led by Jules Dumont d’Urville in 1837, Dumoutier made some 50 life casts of individuals. Pardington’s photographs are skilfully lit and presented, but the interest is as much in the original casts: an extraordinary type of sculptural portraiture in which people alive 180 years ago seem to have been summoned back to life.
You might ask what more could be expected of any exhibition than such an array of fabulous things to look at. What is lacking in Oceania is intellectual clarity. The splendour of the exhibits seems to disguise an uncertainty on the part of the curators as to what they are actually showing us.
Theirs is a widespread doubt. Once upon a time, objects like the ‘soul canoe’ were categorised as ‘primitive art’ and relegated to ethnographical museums. Nowadays more polite terms are preferred, but we are still not sure what to call this stuff — nor really where to put it. Sometimes works such as these find a place alongside ancient Greece and the Renaissance in giant, encyclopaedic museums like the Met or the BM, but they are also corralled into what are, in effect, updated ethnographical displays such as the Musée du quai Branly in Paris (which is the partner of the RA in organising this show).
More than 20 years ago, the Royal Academy mounted a fine survey of the arts of Africa, treated systematically, region by region, people by people. Oceania could have done the same for the Pacific, but for various reasons it doesn’t. One is that the organisers are hyper-aware of that crucial — or fatal — encounter with Europeans, starting with Cook and his companions 250 years ago.
They point out that many of the objects on show were actually made to be traded. Stevenson, shortly after landing, was greeted by numerous locals, who came aboard offering ‘curios’. Other objects were presented as gifts rather than simply being removed by grasping colonial types (as also happened). After a while, local wood carvers began to tackle Christian themes in a Pacific idiom (a crucifixion and Madonna and Child are on show).
All this is true. Nonetheless, the division into vague thematic sections — ‘Making Place’, ‘The Spirit of the Gift’ — and the sparseness of explanation left me bemused. After his first landfall, Stevenson worried that, not knowing the history or languages of its peoples, his exploration of the South Seas would be like looking at ‘a picture book without a text’. I felt rather like that after viewing Oceania.