Graham Greenfield was back at Bell House to guide us through the Royal Academy’s unique exhibition of art from the region of Oceania. This is the first time there has been an exhibition without any European art and it commemorates Captain Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific 250 years ago.
The year is 1768, a year after Bell House was commissioned by Thomas Wright for his family in Dulwich. The Royal Academy is founded by a group of artists and Captain James Cook sets off on his first voyage to the as yet unknown southern continent – the terra australis incognita. This “aquatic continent” was vast, with the ocean surrounding hundreds of island civilizations and covering almost a third of the world’s surface. Papua New Guinea was occupied 60,000 years ago whilst New Zealand is a relative newcomer, being populated in the 1200s. Each island developed its own language and customs but the artefacts displayed in the Oceania exhibition have the same themes linking them.
Over 200 works have been brought together for this Royal Academy exhibition from around the world. Rather topically all the items in the Oceania exhibition have been gifted, traded or bought except one that had been looted. But when is a gift a gift? When a gift is given there is some expectation that a return gift will be given in due course. Many of the islanders thought that Cook was a god – his boat was likened to half a Nautilus shell which as legend would have it was how one of their gods would appear. Some of the Oceania exhibits are still considered to be sacred and visitors are encouraged to give offerings to the exhibits in the Royal Academy’s Gallery of the Gods.
In Oceanic art, red feathers were considered to be even more valuable than gold. Cook was given five heads of gods of war made of feathers and dogs’ teeth. These now form part of the collection of the British Museum but have not been seen before. Gifts present a dilemma: can you give a gift back to its country of origin? Surely that goes against the intentions of the gifter?
The grand finale of the Royal Academy’s Oceania exhibition is a modern piece, Lisa Reihana’s panoramic video installation based on a 19th century wallpaper depicting the three expeditions made by Captain Cook. She has created a 23 metre visual and aural digital wallpaper that brings to life Cook’s encounters with inhabitants of the islands but also depicts the misunderstanding between the two cultures. At least we know Lisa’s installation wasn’t looted: it was paid for in cash (or maybe red feathers!).