Scattered across the Pacific are islands huge and small, and a continent, linked by the ocean that gives this region its name: Oceania. Oceania is made up of Australasia, Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia, and some of the most diverse cultural and linguistic groups in the world.

Although the first human settlers arrived in some areas (such as Australia) as far back as 70,000 and 50,000 years ago, Polynesia did not see human colonisation until about 3,000 years ago. These early explorers had to built sophisticated boats to navigate the ocean and settle its islands. Boats then became vital in establishing trade networks between different groups, whose economies are some of the oldest in the world.

When European colonists arrived in the 16th century, many took a great interest in Oceanic “art” – although this western concept cannot be easily applied to traditional Oceanic works as many objects had practical, social, or religious functions. During the colonial period, many indigenous items were stolen and ended up in European museums, stripped from their original contexts and stories. Numerous objects remain in collections that have no clear provenance or any information about the original creator(s).

However, in recent decades, Western museums have tried to reverse this trend, and are making an effort to involve indigenous groups in the telling of their own stories and recognising their own colonial legacy. 

Oceania at the Royal Academy brings together around 200 exceptional works from public collections worldwide, and spans over 500 years. From shell, greenstone and ceramic ornaments, to huge canoes and stunning god images, we explore important themes of voyaging, place making and encounter. The exhibition draws from rich historic ethnographic collections dating from the 18th century to the present, and includes seminal works produced by contemporary artists exploring history, identity and climate change.

Entry to the exhibition is free for New Zealand and Pacific Island passport holders. Open until 10 December 2018.

Blog post by Jessica Edney

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