The Royal Academy’s new exhibition Oceania is as big as the subject deserves. It’s a happy coincidence for this neglected field that 2018 marks both the 250th anniversary of the Royal Academy and of Captain Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific.
This is the first major exhibition of Oceanic art in London. Maybe it will cause the same kind of stir that Oceanic art did in early 20th-century Paris, when the Surrealist André Breton hailed it as “one of the great lock-keepers of our heart”. African art may have banged a bigger drum in avant-garde Paris at the time – especially chez Picasso – but the Pacific brimmed with primeval mysticism.
Christianity made a huge impression on much of Oceania when it arrived, and the region overflowed with missionaries. They are not the focus of the exhibition, though there is plenty of material acquired by mainly Protestant proselytisers.
There was no better proof of newfound Christian piety to despatch to supporters back home than the natives rejecting their idolatrous ways. Sometimes these conversions went to the very top. The Hawaiian king Kamehameha II (1797-1824) was a great breaker of taboos, targeting ancient religious practices and images. One survivor of his Christian-inspired iconoclasm is a highlight of the exhibition. Representing a wrathful-looking god known as the “island snatcher”, this 8ft statue demonstrates the fearsome imagination of the islanders as well as their skill at woodcarving.
Kamehameha II was all ready to convert from his ancestral practices – until he was informed that he would need to limit himself to just one wife and no alcohol. And perhaps he should have stuck with his feather cape, rather than the Regency dandy attire he favoured when visiting London in 1824. It might have given him better protection from the disease-ridden city in which he died, aged a mere 26.
A few pockets of Oceania welcomed both the Catholic missionaries and their devotional images. The exhibition, however, focuses on earlier local traditions, such as the imposing head of a deity from late 18th-century Hawaii. Made principally from fibre and feathers, its quotient of menace is topped up by the addition of miscellaneous recyclables, including human hair and dog teeth.
There’s not much in the canon of Christian iconography that can match this, although a Maori artist created a memorable reworking of the Madonna and Child. Their heavily tattooed presence and confrontational posture provide an unmistakably Oceanic flavour.
It doesn’t have the pre-contact purity the Surrealists were seeking, but modern visitors should enjoy the drama. They will, no doubt, also feel inspired by the large number of exhibits that relate to getting inked up.
Lucien de Guise is a writer, editor and curator. Oceania is at the Royal Academy of Arts until December 10