One of the many extraordinary exhibits I found myself longing over in this spectacular show was a solid two-foot high image of a god from the Hawaiian Islands. The piece is over 200 years old, but it is in remarkable condition – especially when you appreciate the solid figure is not made from wood or stone, but feathers, human hair, pearl shells and dog teeth.
The god grimaces out at you, its dark brown eyes menacing and fierce, yet instead my jaw dropped with the work that creating such a stunning piece must have taken. There must have been thousands – thousands! – of feathers in this assemblage. And such a large number of feathers do not fall off birds in matter of weeks. A collection of such size must have taken years to build up. Then there’s the months of delicate yet concentrated labour and skill that evidently brought this piece to fruition.
The result is a marvel, as is every single piece on display.
Such layering of feathers can also be found in other pieces too, such as a glorious feather cloak from the Hawaiian Islands. Despite being over 100 years old, its reds and yellows remain as vivid and bright as ever. But what is as fascinating as the works on display is the omission – few of the artworks on display, if any, are drawings or paintings.
This landmark exhibition on Oceanic art clearly demonstrates how Pacific islanders developed their own styles and approaches, with their own ideas on themes and representation, and – critically – how this artwork consists more of objects such as woven textiles, elaborate wicker assemblages, carved wood and whale ivory, and elegantly sculpted vessels.
Creating art from the world around them was the universal approach for these culturally diverse islanders – and the result is a collection of artwork that is powerful in its difference, and in its evident influence on European Modern artists, who saw these works as they were ‘acquired’ by white Western explorers and shipped back to Europe. And, on seeing these revolutionary and awesome works, the modernists promptly incorporated the forms, or should we say, appropriated, them into their own works and declaring their works ground-breaking.
Indeed, you can see reflections of Picasso and Matisse wherever you turn in this exhibition, most notably in a wood carving of the goddess Dilukai from Palau. Here, a naked woman is carved not in soft lines but hard angles – sharp chin and chiselled hips, and her legs are spread wide to reveal a sharp triangle as her genitalia. A symbol of fertility probably but this looks like it has been lifted straight out of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Or rather, Picasso lifted this figure, or one like it, and stuck it straight into his own painting.
And it’s this theme of reclaiming the narrative that has you brimming with joy as you wander around these galleries where extraordinary antique headpieces share space with contemporary art. Picasso’s painting would go on to be declared the work that created modern art, so where does that leave these and the African artworks that inspired him?
Well, they certainly challenge our understanding of modernity. There are many figures and figurines in this show, ones that are detailed with distinctive Maori tattoos and ink designs, and similar distinctive demonstration of local cultural and traditional beliefs. One, however that caught my eye was a far more minimalist figure.
A full-size male deity figure, carved from wood, stands proudly at the end of a display. It dates from the nineteenth century from Nukuoro in the Caroline Islands yet, I swear, it could so easily have been carved today. A simplistic form, similar to a Gormley figure. No details or features are apparent. Yet such a comparison is reductive as where Gormley has curves and little else, this figure has all the straight lines and angles of a modernist great. This figure has heft, presence, dignity… You can sense its power in the way it looms over you, its head straight and regal, its sharp-edged chin jutting down into a point so sharp it could cut you.
And though the card tells you it’s a male deity, you look back up to the figure and see their chest form into two sharp points. Are these male pecs or female breasts? It’s another interesting provocation in a revelatory show that gives us so many
Royal Academy of Arts, to December 10, 2018.
Admission from £18.
1. Feather god image (akua hulu manu), Late 18th century, Hawaiian Islands. Fibre, feathers, human hair, pearl shell, seed, dog teeth, 62 x 30 cm. Photo: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum
2.Hook, 1870 (detail), Whale ivory, glass beads, fibre, 12.2 cm. Accession no. 1955.247, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge
3.Ahu ula (feather cloak) belonging to Liholoho, Kamehameha II., Early 19th century
Feathers, fibre, painted barkcloth (on reverse). 207 cm Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge