Philip hen­sher show of the week

The Mail on Sunday - Event - - THEATRE -

Royal Academy of Arts, Lon­don Un­til Dec 10

From the first mo­ment Western ex­plor­ers en­coun­tered the peo­ple of the Pa­cific is­lands in the late 18th cen­tury, they recog­nised they were deal­ing with some­thing spe­cial. It’s a vast re­gion of the world but thinly pop­u­lated, and still few of us have vis­ited it. The is­lands are scat­tered over a liq­uid third of the world’s area like pep­per on a table­cloth.

It’s prob­a­bly the last part of the hab­it­able world to be set­tled. A vast mi­gra­tion ex­plored and set up home across the re­gion from about 1350 BC up un­til 1200AD, when a few hun­dred in­trepid voy­agers reached New Zealand. (Com­pared to Aus­tralian Abo­rig­ines, who have lived there for tens of thou­sands of years, New Zealand Maoris are re­cent in­hab­i­tants of their coun­try.)

What im­pressed Cap­tain Cook and other Western ex­plor­ers was that these colos­sal jour­neys had been un­der­taken in small ves­sels, with no means of guid­ance other than the stars. What they found were im­mensely am­bi­tious na­tions de­voted to trade, nav­i­ga­tion, ex­plo­ration and, of­ten, ex­trav­a­gant dis­play. No won­der they en­tered with gusto into the Oceanic cul­ture of ex­chang­ing lav­ish gifts. In their gilt frock-coats, they recog­nised a kin­dred cul­ture.

Western mu­se­ums have, as a con­se­quence, been filled with mag­nif­i­cent ac­qui­si­tions from Pa­cific cul­tures al­most from the be­gin­ning. The Royal Academy’s thrillingly showy Ocea­nia ex­hi­bi­tion has ri­fled through Ger­man col­lec­tions, es­pe­cially, to great ef­fect. Many of the things that West­ern­ers brought to the is­lands had a cat­a­strophic ef­fect, such as syphilis, which are ex­plored in the con­tem­po­rary art in­cluded here.

What the ex­plor­ers took away in re­turn is stun­ning, trea­sures of fan­tasy and op­u­lence that con­tinue to amaze. It’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that most of these is­lands had very lit­tle to work with – the moai, or heads fa­mil­iar from Easter Is­land, are un­usual in be­ing worked from stone. (A com­pa­ra­ble one in basalt is here.) There are won­der­ful works made of carved wood, adorned with feath­ers, mother-of-pearl, an­i­mal teeth and bones, some­times fish skins, and not re­ally much else. Liv­ing on is­lands, you learn to make do with what you have. The hu­man face and fig­ure pre­dom­i­nate – mag­nif­i­cent masks and head­dresses, some­times so huge that they must, like the fans

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