“The Royal Academy’s “Oceania” exhibition,” writes Jenny Uglow, “is not the historical, ethnographic show that Western museum-goers might expect. At the entrance a shimmering wave of blue material cascades from the ceiling. Titled Kiko Moana, this flowing wave uses ancient techniques of weaving, embroidery, layering, and cutting, but it’s a contemporary work in polyethylene and cotton, created by four Maori women from the Mata Aho Collective in New Zealand who have also compiled an online archive of stories about the supernatural spirits of the waters. Old and new technologies meet.
A constant oscillation between tradition and modernity runs through the exhibition, organized jointly with the Musée du Quai Branly—Jacques Chirac in Paris, which brings together objects from over twenty European museums as well as from New Zealand. The curators, Peter Brunt and Nicholas Thomas, insist that the arts of the Pacific should not be seen as idealized historical objects. Instead, their “real meaning” lies in the successive transactions from the eighteenth century to today—as gifts, objects of trade, and trophies of anthropologists and collectors. If this feels like a saga of plunder, “Oceania” makes it clear that exchange is a two-way process, and although the show marks the 250thanniversary of Captain James Cook’s first voyage in 1768, its focus is not on Western expeditions but on the indigenous art of the diverse island cultures themselves.”
For more information, visit royalacademy.org.uk.