Oceanic Art

1500 – 1615

The native peoples of the Pacific Islands from Hawaii and the Easter Islands all the way to Australia were great artisans and their works are referred to as Oceanic Art.

Locations include Hawaii, The Easter Islands, Polynesia, New Zealand, and Australia and these are divided into four regions. Because the locations are so varied and each has differing cultures in time, the artwork created by these disparate people varies in style and execution. The overarching themes, however, include a bent toward the supernatural, fertility, ritual, and religion.

Oceanic mediums were myriad as well and included carving in stone and wood, painted and carved petroglyphs, tattooing, and textiles.

Origins and Historical Importance:

The islands of Oceania were first peopled by the Australoid people in New Guinea and Australia, giving birth to the Melanesians and Aborigines around 60,000 years ago. The next immigration was from Southeast Asia, 30,000 years later.

These two groups spread throughout Oceania increasing the population and establishing alliances and trading networks. Eventually, the Lapita Culture, of around 1500 BC, completed the populating of the more remote islands.

The oldest art in Oceania is that of the Australian Aboriginals and consists of rock art and petroglyphs that record mysteries of the Dream Time, a mystery idea based in religion and the mystical nature of there being no real time. Australians also painted on panel and on boomerangs, specifically in geometric patterns or in dot painting, a style specific to their culture.

Micronesia’s greatest achievement was the floating city of Nan Madol. This megalithic city was built over a period of 400 years as a network of artificial islands and canals built in a lagoon. Micronesia also produced great carvers that built exquisite homes for ceremonial purposes, vessels, canoes, and figures. Women of the region fashioned jewelry, headbands, and textiles. Micronesia’s art is characteristic in quality rather than decoration. Using minimal mediums, they created with what they had, but they did it to the highest level of craftsmanship.

Easter Island’s Moai statues are of course, the most famous example of art and sculpture in Polynesia. These megalithic statues are of giant stone heads on smaller bodies that are representations of the deified dead. Much of the art of the Polynesian people is supernaturally inspired and in fact, the people once believed that certain art works were inhabited by spirits that had influence on world events. When Christianity came to the islands sculpture declined greatly as a result as the former beliefs of its magical nature were no longer upheld. They did continue however to work on a smaller scale in secular art such as textiles like tapa, and kava bowl carving.

Melanesian art is the most vivid and ornate of Oceanic art and delves into subjects not as often seen in the other cultures such as those of a sexual nature or cannibalism. Using distorted, elongated line and crowded design in arresting colors, the Melanesian style is bold and unafraid. They use their art, particularly body art and ceremonial masks, in religious ritual. Themes of decoration and sculpture include sex and cannibalism as mentioned before and also hunting and the deceased. Masks and figures show exaggerated expression. Tattoos are often beautifully intricate in design and are comprised of harmonious geometric compositions.

Key Highlights:

  • The Lapita were known for creating geometric and anthropomorphic designs on ceramic art using a comb like tool to stamp clay repeatedly to create a pattern.
  • The Oceanic peoples did not think of their creations as art, but rather put great effort and decoration into ceremonial and ritual objects.
  • In addition to tattooing, face painting is very popular especially amongst Melanesians.
  • Scholars believe that the large heads of Polynesian sculptures indicate that they though the head was the area housing the personality.
  • The Sulka people of New Britain have an agricultural fertility ritual that bridges gaps between supernatural, visual, and performance art. Huge bamboo and bone marrow masks are believed to have indwelling spirits that come to life on certain days and they are carried about infertile orchards by naked bodies painted red that dance to rhythmic ritual movement to release the fertility of the orchard.
  • The Maori of New Zealand also practice tattooing and are dedicated to a chief obsession with curvilinear spiraling. They also use similar complex curvilinear patterns on doors, canoes, and any other carved surface.
  • The great stone sculptures of Easter Island were incredibly carved in a period of less than 4 weeks each and were carried from the quarry by hundreds of men and women. Five hundred were carved and many remain in the quarry having never reached their altars.

Top Works:

  • Moai at Rano Raraku (Easter Island)
  • Split Gong Figures from Vanautu
  • Rock Paintings – Namadgi National Park Australia
  • Ceremonial Board – Papa New Guinea
  • Nan Madol
  • Kii-Hulu Manu – Hawaii

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