Wednesday, January 7, 2015

How To Read Oceanic Art

One of the pleasures of being a San Franciscan is ability to visit local museums that allow us to view great art from around the world.  One of the strengths of our DeYoung Museum is their collection of Oceanic Art.  In addition to Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art, the DeYoung has many excellent works from Australia, New Zealand and many South Pacific Islands.

While these artworks make strong statements by themselves, it is difficult for cultural outsiders to understand their significance.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art has published a new title, How To Read Oceanic Art that helps to explain the mystery and power behind these creations.

How to Read Oceanic Art opens with introduction discussing the background of the artwork, discussing the regions, religions and spiritual practices, uses of decoration and the depictions of humans and animals.  It also looks at the role of the artist in these societies and considers the impact of the contact of these cultures with the West.  The book then looks at 42 individual works of separated into six regions: New Guinea, Australia, Island Melanesia, Island Southeast Asia, Micronesia and Polynesia.

image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

The above image of a Female Figure made from a sperm whale's ivory tooth on the Ha'apai Islands, Tonga in the 19th century is used to engage with the now almost trivialized notion of the "tiki."  The book's author notes that tiki has been used through many parts of the region to refer to images with human features.  He describes the significance of the over-sized head -- another common feature of Polynesian art -- as reflecting the seat of a person's mana or power.  From these he concludes that the figure is a representation of a "powerful female deity" and goes on to describe the ritual use of such an object.

With this book in hand you will gain a new appreciation of the art you view on your next visit to the DeYoung.

How to Read Oceanic Art by Eric Kjellgren (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014.)

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