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Oceanic Art

Updated on July 7, 2010

Also called the South Seas, Oceania covers all the islands of the South Pacific, including New Guinea, New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island. Oceanic art is divided into three subdivisions corresponding to the three physical and cultural divisions of the natives of the area: Micronesian art, Melanesian art and Polynesian art.

Micronesian Art

Micronesia is the area in the north-west Pacific comprising the Mariana, Caroline, Marshall and Gilbert islands. The people of Micronesia form a link in language, geography and appearance between the Malay peoples of the Philippines and the Polynesian peoples of the Central Pacific.

The most marked characteristic of Micronesian art is its functional simplicity, even though it is extraordinarily diverse and reflects complex levels of influence and a long history of contact with the outside world.

The Micronesians inhabit small coral atolls which lack the rich vegetation of other Pacific islands. They seem to have approached the problem of living with an intelligent and scientific attitude. The boat-builders and navigators had achieved a high level of technical expertise long before European colonization. Everything from their boats to furniture has a streamlined, high quality finish and is fashioned to be strictly appropriate to its mode of use.

Surface decoration is rare. There are very few surviving cult objects and little is known of the ancient religious system. Figure sculpture, once thought to be almost nonexistent in the area, dates from the second millennium BC and provides information on Micronesian prehistory.

A typical example of Micronesian art is that of Nukuoro in the eastern Caroline Islands. Here they developed a startlingly simplified interpretation of the human figure. The sculptures, from lifesize to 20 cm tall, show elegant, streamlined planes and geometric shapes. A few Nukuoro figures depict facial features but mainly it is an abstract art of pure sculptural value.

These figures, with their arms hanging free, were first thought to be purely local products and later to be products of west-ward migration from Polynesia. In fact, the figures seem to be a blend of two cultures. The arms-free posture indicates a close affinity with prehistoric Japan and the sleek surfaces, abstract head and softer concept of the lower body assure a definite link with Indo-Austronesian contacts coming from Indonesia.

Melanesian Art

Melanesia includes the island of New Guinea as well as islands to the north and east, such as the Admiralty Islands, New Ireland, New Britain, the Solomon Islands, the New Hebrides, New Caledonia and Fiji. In some areas tribal cultures still exist close to their traditional form and so the tribal art can be studied within the society that produced it.

Melanesians are technically primitive. Until European colonization they possessed no metal and used stone or shell for cutting. Pottery was coarse and fragile. Mats were the only product of weaving, although bark-cloth was made in some areas. Costumes for festive occasions were spectacular and colorful, put together with grass, feathers and face paint in rather stereotyped designs. The woodcarvings and ritual masks were colorful objects of festivity but were somehow rather brutal with a disturbing frankness. Especially when compared with the art of Micronesia, Melanesian art is passionate, reckless and ecstatic.

Melanesians did not produce works of art that were made to last for ever and seldom treated their art objects as treasures, despite the great care taken in their construction. They were casual decorations of the moment, stage costumes to be discarded after the festival.

Although sharing many common characteristics, the art of Melanesia varies enormously from one region to another. From Geelvinck Bay on the north coast of New Guinea come woodcarvings, the predominant motif of which is the human figure. The influence of Indonesian art is obvious here.

The Sepik River area further east produces a great variety of objects: carved figures, masks, baskets and pottery with deeply incised polychrome decoration. These objects may be both utilitarian and symbolic and are some of the most outstanding and original of all Oceanic art. The emotional power of the objects probably derives from the implied sexuality and cannibalism in the designs. The free-standing figures and masks of this area are remarkable for their individuality.

Much of the impact of Melanesian art is lost to those who do not understand the religious significance of the symbols and the ethnographic context in which the object is made. For example, along the northern coast of the Gulf of Papua there is a recurring motif- a distorted human face within an oval frame. Here what looks like a mere convention ultimately refers to a ritual in which boy initiates are 'devoured' and then 'reborn' through the jaws, which also represents the vagina, of a monster. The complexities of Melanesian mythical thought are often represented by what appears to be simply decorative patterns or shapes.

The art of the Massim area of south-east New Guinea portrays a more severe and disciplined style. Bird forms and spiral patterns suggest a remote link with New Zealand Maori art. Their handicrafts show high technical ability but are limited and stereotyped. The prows of their canoes are objects of great importance, often portraying the human figure.

The woodcarving of the Solomon and Admiralty islands is similarly severe and is concerned mainly with secular ceremonial objects such as canoes, shields and drinking bowls, although some cult objects do exist.

The art of the Admiralties shows certain links with the north and also with the people of the coastal Sepik and Tami regions of New Guinea. Despite this blend, it is inconsistent, comparatively dull and limited as to shape and colouring. Occasionally, the aesthetic standard is raised by elegantly carved wooden bowls, finely carved lime spatulas and stately wooden beds. In the past, both the Admiralty and the Solomon islands produced intricate mother-of-pearl inlay work.

Nearby, New Ireland is still celebrated for its extraordinary artistic works. The creation of works of art is a highly developed professional activity and such works as colored compositions of carved wood and fiber, stone sculpture and kapkaps (ornaments using sea clams and turtle shells) are produced. The symbolism used is very complex, based on myths and strictly defined by tradition but the artist is allowed great freedom in the combination of these symbols. New

In New Britain and the New Hebrides the exotic furnishings of ritual drama are made from such ephemeral materials as tree ferns and palm leaves covered with clay. Kapkaps are also produced here.

Geographically speaking, Fiji is in Melanesia but culturally it is marginal to Polynesia and Melanesia. Rugged figures carved from tree ferns are reminiscent of similar objects in the New Hebrides (Melanesia) while elegant ivory figurines are similar to those of Tonga (Polynesia). The poses of many wood figures resemble those from New Caledonia. Fijian art is similar to that from Polynesian Samoa.

Photo by Melodi T
Photo by Melodi T

Polynesian Art

Polynesia covers a vast triangular area of the Pacific Ocean. Stretching from Hawaii in the north to New Zealand in the south and Easter Island in the east, it also includes Tonga, Samoa, the Marquesas Islands and Tahiti.

Unlike the continuing tradition of art in some parts of Melanesia, Polynesian art scarcely survives today apart from on the. shelves of ethnological museums and in the handicraft shops for tourists. This is mainly due to Christian missionaries who destroyed or mutilated the objects they regarded as obscene idols and also to the depredations of European colonizers.

Until the eighteenth century there had been a strong tradition of carving, using both wood and stone. Many of the surviving objects are the work of craftsmen rather than artists: elaborate featherwork from Hawaii, finely woven mats from Samoa, pottery from Fiji and carved jadeite pendants from New Zealand.

Certain general characteristics of Polynesian art are evident. Carvings were produced as a work of art to be valued and to endure. Local conventions were rigid and adhered to strictly. This produced a formal art, lacking the emotionalism of Melanesian art. Now mostly devoid of color, most Polynesian objects were originally decorated with colorful feathers or red earth washes.

As with other Oceanic art, Polynesian art has been influenced by a variety of religious and mythological ideas of which we now only have vague indications. The significance of the finer details of symbolism is largely lost beyond recovery.

Little traditional work survives from Hawaii but there are some ancient stone sculptures and, dating from the twelfth century onwards, there are sculptured woodcarvings. Very little surface patterning is evident, unlike most other parts of Polynesia. The images were naturalistic, perhaps portraits of kings, and represented various gods in melodramatic and aggressive poses.

In New Zealand, Maori designs are almost always covered in a double spiral pattern, sometimes so complex as to appear to be a freely flowing line. Maoris felt that surface ornamentation was an essential quality of beauty and even covered their faces with tattooed spirals.

The carved decorations for their canoes and meeting houses are the most elaborate examples of Maori art and are still created today although with less originality. Small objects carved in materials such as jadeite displayed high technical proficiency but were rather stereotyped. The art of the Marquesas Islands is similarly graphic with tattooing also common. Their sculpture was simple relief work on natural shapes.

Easter Island developed a style of art all its own, with certain Polynesian affiliations. Wood, being scarce, was carved with great precision and the skeletal wooden figures are unique in Polynesian art.

Some of the well known monumental stone heads and half figures of Easter Island are over 20 m high and weigh 20 tonnes. Representing human figures, they were carved to a stereotyped design but are still remarkably expressive. The elongated ears portrayed there seem to imply that people from Indo-Austronesia brought the tradition of carving wood and stone to the island.


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    • MarkMAllen15 profile image


      7 years ago

      Fascinating article. Thanks for sharing.


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