Celebrating its 250th anniversary this year, the Royal Academy of Arts has been showcasing an impressive programme of events and exhibitions, from Renzo Piano to Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. This autumn, Oceania is one of the Royal Academy’s star attractions. It’s an absorbing exploration of life in the Pacific Ocean, beginning with Captain James Cook’s first voyage to the region in the mid-18th century up until the present day. Here, the exhibition’s co-curator Peter Brunt gives us a glimpse inside the show.
How did the idea for the Royal Academy’s Oceania exhibition come about?
“The idea originally came from the Royal Academy’s former artistic director Kathleen Soriano in 2012 as a show that would fit within its ‘civilisation’ or ‘world culture’ series. But it was the coincidence of two commemorations – the founding of the Royal Academy in 1768 and the sailing of Captain Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific the same year – that really cemented Oceania’s place in the Royal Academy’s 2018 anniversary programme.”
The exhibition contains around 200 objects from Oceania. Can you tell us a bit about how you sourced these?
“Most of the works in the exhibition come from British, European and New Zealand museums (the exceptions are a few of the contemporary works). The process of selection entailed many museum visits and conversations with museum directors, curators, cultural advisors and in some cases tribal leaders.”
What can audiences today learn from the 18th-century travels of Captain James Cook?
“That’s a good question and one asked by the exhibition itself, in works collected by Captain Cook and in contemporary works like Lisa Reihana’s In Pursuit of Venus (infected). I think one of the main lessons is that islanders were interested in engaging with Cook and the world he represented, despite the mishaps and tragedies that occurred. But the question of what we can learn is one that needs to be answered by contemporary audiences for themselves.”
How much influence has the culture and creativity of Oceania had on European art?
“The cultures of Oceania have fascinated European artists from the beginning, exemplified in the work of Cook’s own artists like William Hodges and John Webber. And of course we all know the influential role of Oceanic art in the work of early modernists, like Gauguin, Picasso and many others. But the influence is not limited to the past. Pacific artists are now serious players in today’s contemporary art world. Lisa Reihana’s In Pursuit of Venus (infected) was a standout in last year’s Venice Biennale and Kiko Moana by the Mata Aho collective was included in Documenta 14.”
What are some of your personal highlights in the exhibition?
“I have to give a plug for the fish hooks. Originally, I was sceptical when my co-curator wanted to include them: ‘Fish hooks – really?’ But if you see them, they’re incredibly beautiful. No wonder they were effective!”
How has modern life affected the culture and lifestyle of the South Pacific islands?
“Modernity has radically changed the lives of Pacific Islanders, but there’s no need for nostalgia or regret about it. Lamenting the loss of ‘pure’ cultures is a Western thing. Islanders have been modern for a long time in most of the Pacific. But modern life doesn’t mean their cultures have been obliterated; rather, they have changed and adapted.”
Image credits: lead image © Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology University of Cambridge. Tene Waitere Ta Moko panel © The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Tooi [Tuai] drawing of Korokoros moko © Sir George Grey Special Collections Auckland Libraries. Canoe prow figure © Derek Li Wan Po.