Philip hensher show of the week
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