Islands of long ago and today

Oceanic Art - The Cambridge History of the Pacific Islanders
May 29, 1998

These two books reveal as much about the history of the disciplines they represent as about the Pacific islands themselves. Both are regional surveys, and both summarise the state of research in their respective fields; but while one is striding confidently ahead, the other is constantly glancing backwards. It could be argued that a history of the Pacific islands should also include a history of the region's art. In Oceanic Art Adrienne Kaeppler rightly points out the woeful neglect of art as a source of information about the culture and history of the Pacific. The Cambridge History of the Pacific Islanders includes much discussion of the trade and exchange of material objects, but little use is made of art as a source of evidence about historical processes or socio-cultural aspects of prehistoric and proto-historic Pacific island societies. Interestingly enough art and material culture are used productively as evidence in the chapters concerned with the contemporary situation and the remaking of Pacific islander societies. The study of Pacific island art will realise its full potential only when historians and anthropologists recognise its importance as a general source of information and devote the same energies to its study as they do to other sources of evidence. At present the study of Pacific island art lags a little behind. Yet ironically the contrasting production values of the two books suggest that the study of Pacific art is the wealthy discipline, and it may be that the features of Oceanic Art that I find unsatisfactory have to do with the market at which the book is aimed. The books are servants to very different masters: one is aimed for an international market of "primitive" art connoisseurs and collectors, the other at an academic and student market - though both would be of interest to a wider readership.

Oceanic Art is a massive work, richly illustrated in colour with a section of black-and-white photographs, that gives contextual information about the societies that produced the art. It is illustrated with masterpieces of Oceanic art drawn largely from European museums supplemented by some American and Pacific island collections. In its choice of illustrations, it is backward-looking, containing works drawn largely from the early stages of European colonisation or from the initial phases of anthropological fieldwork. They are very much the set of objects defined as "art" by the primitive art market. Readers looking for classic works of Oceanic art will not be disappointed. The often minimal collection history locates objects firmly in European colonial history: an exquisite Austral island flywhisk collected in Tubai by Lieutenant H. Paulding on HMS Dolphin in the 1820s and now harboured in the Peabody Museum of Natural History; the image of the God Rongo collected from Mangereva by the improbably named missionaries of the order of Picpus and now in the Pontiff's Museum in Rome.

The very richness of its illustrations may be the source of my slight dissatisfaction with Oceanic Art. The objects certainly merit lavish illustration, but the feeling remains that they may have been selected primarily for that reason, and not to illustrate the text. The text acknowledges the importance of separating European perceptions of the objects from the meaning and significance they had, or have, in their indigenous cultural contexts, and the authors are very much alive to contemporary issues in the anthropology of art. Nonetheless this book is at times an unhappy compromise between a celebration of the works as artworks seen through western eyes and an analysis of the works as sources of historical and socio-cultural information. Nearly all the objects illustrated were collected in pre-ethnographic times and there is very little information on their contexts and meanings. On the other hand the accompanying text addresses current theoretical issues and draws on relevant contemporary ethnography. This often creates a disjunction between the ethnography and anthropological discourse and the illustrated artefacts themselves. Only in a few cases where primitive art was first being collected at the same time as detailed anthropological research was being undertaken do we have contemporaneous ethnographic artefacts and theoretical discourse. Ethnography and theory can undoubtedly help in the analysis of early collections, but the absence from the book of contemporary works is problematic and signifies a disjunction between the values of the art world and ethnographic analysis. The gap between knowledge and collections cannot be bridged by juxtaposing contemporary ethnography with early collections of objects. Those early objects can only be understood through systematic historical research and analysis demonstrating the relationships between forms over time and reconstructing changes in the context of production and exchange.

The authors are not to be blamed for the inadequate state of Pacific art history. Indeed Kaeppler has done as much as anyone to try to remedy the situation. Art and material culture has until recently been neglected as a source of information in anthropology, and the history of collections has often been one of increasing disassociation of artefacts from their original context of production. Much of the early history of collections from the Pacific has been recovered by the painstaking research of anthropologists such as Kaeppler and Peter Gathercole, who have combined formal analysis with archival research. The book hovers on the edge of a breakthrough in the study of Pacific. The authors realise that there are no neat divisions between the artforms of the different islands and different cultural groups, that colonial history has added further complexity to already dynamic regional systems. One senses at times that Kaufmann is almost overwhelmed by the task and the uncertainty about what has been discovered. The book illustrates the enormous potential of art as a source of historical knowledge, and I hope works such as Oceanic Art will encourage the research effort required to use it better. In short, this is a wonderfully rich if somewhat flawed work.

The Cambridge History of the Pacific Islanders represents an extraordinary achievement. In the European world view, the Pacific existed outside history, beyond the boundary of the known world. Then no sooner was it "discovered" than it disappeared again to become an ocean, war zone and a romantic mnemonic for an exotic past. The achievement of this book is that it separates Pacific islanders from this European foreshortening of their existence and creates a space and time that do justice to the vastness of the ocean they occupy. To do this, it combines the work of archaeologists, anthropologists and historians, creating a work that is truly interdisciplinary. Yet it is so well edited that it reads as if written by a single very well-informed author, who occasionally, for the sake of interest, shifts perspective a little. Recent archaeological discoveries have shown the interconnected nature of the islands, provided evidence for continuing inter-island trade and for exchange, migration and reoccupation, and have made it impossible to sustain the view that the separate island peoples developed in isolation from the rest of the world. Anthropological research is now seen as relevant for reconstructing past patterns of inter-island exchange and also in showing the basis for the development of new institutions in a post-colonial context. And the history of missionisation and colonialism has been vital in establishing the context in which post-colonial societies have developed. The role of indigenous researchers has been crucial in developing a critical Pacific-centred view, and their work is well represented here.

The authors show that interdisciplinary research has transformed our knowledge of Pacific prehistory in recent years, with the tracing of the movement of peoples across the Pacific using archaeological, linguistic, biological and ethnobotanical data. The picture of European colonisation is not a pleasant one, but the unpleasantness is revealed non-judgementally. The book contains accounts of tragedies in which the worst-case scenario of European colonisation was played out. And yet for the most part it gives a lie to the image of the mass destruction of Pacific peoples and cultures, showing how most islands have remained firmly under the control of indigenous populations concerned with maintaining their independence. The book strikes an excellent balance between the local colonial history of missionisation, trading posts and the development of plantations, and the policy and administrative objectives of colonial governments. The dispossession of Maori and Hawaiian landowners that provides the background to disputes over land ownership and indigenous rights is well covered. The contrast between colonial policy in French Polynesia and that of other European colonial powers comes through: while French policies move its Pacific dependants closer to metropolitan France, the very distance from France made Pacific islands the ideal "French" location for nuclear testing. The nuclear debate is an important symbolic theme in recent Pacific history, and is well brought out. Later chapters show the many challenges posed by the migration of Pacific islanders to Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

A book on Pacific island history poses a series of definitional problems: what are the boundaries of the Pacific islands region, what internal divisions exist? Is Australia a Pacific island, and what is the status of the division into Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia? The issue of Australia is dealt with brilliantly by including and excluding it in different ways according to the period of time and the topic discussed. Australia moves from being integral to the Pacific during its prehistory, when Australia was part of the same land mass as New Guinea, to being a distant European power in the 19th century, and back to the Pacific rim in the late 20th century.

The place of Japan and the US in Pacific history is well developed. The discussion of the "received categories" Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia is open-ended. The strong meaning of the terms, based on assumptions about racial and cultural divisions, is wisely dismissed, though the terms "Melanesia" and "Polynesia" are said to "retain some utility for describing regional cultural homologies and linguistic relations". The cultural diversity of Micronesia makes the label useful primarily, again, as a "geographic shorthand". In other words, the issue is unresolved and is presented thus. The problem of categorisation symbolises the tension between local historical and cultural trajectories and the continual interchange of people and ideas across the region: any boundaries are likely to be permeable and fuzzy. When post-colonial factors are taken into account, boundaries and categories seem to dissolve even further - especially when common themes such as dispossession, migration and missionisation are the focus. Yet continually re-emerging are local differences that can be connected to past trajectories. On the whole the book avoids simple conclusions. The authors recognise the provisional nature of their findings, yet they give readers a firm sense of direction and an exciting framework for future research.

Howard Morphy is senior ARC research fellow, Australian National University, and professor of anthropology, University College London.

Oceanic Art

Author - Adrienne L. Kaeppler, Christian Kaufmann and Douglas Newton
ISBN - 0 8109 3693 3
Publisher - Abrams
Price - £150.00
Pages - 633

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