Pacific Perspectives, Oceania, and James Cook

Featured string: Cooking up a Storm

I created this particular string as a response to two exhibitions I attended more-or-less back-to-back.

In a feat of coordination, the British Museum and the Royal Academy have produced two differing exhibitions on Pacific culture recently. They differ in scale, they differ in function, they differ in approach, layout, and goal, and they differ in cost—the British Museum’s smaller Pacific Perspectives is free to enter.

James Cook and his regular travelling companion the botanist and naturalist Joseph Banks are contentious figures to say the least—just how contentious is often concealed in British narratives of empire and exploration, derived from well-cultivated hero cults of the late 18th and early 19th century, rather than from unbiased or at least differently-biased sources. Both the RA’s Oceania and the British Museum’s effort seek some form of redress to this one-sided approach.

At the British Museum, a small section of the Prints and Drawings gallery contains a selection of works largely from the museum’s own collection, relating to the passage of Cook and Banks through the Pacific and South Seas and their reception—raising the figure of Raiatean navigator and high priest Tupaia and his role in creating more favourable conditions for contact between the Europeans and, for example, Maori representatives in Aotearoa New Zealand, who recognised Tupaia’s importance and social standing but couldn’t really have cared less about a selection of heavily-clad white weirdos who kept demanding their stuff.

The Pacific Perspectives exhibition, small in scale, is focussed on creating a counterpoint to the prevailing stories of Banks and Cook in Britain, making baby-step attempts to reframe their progress and explain changing attitudes to Europeans in the Pacific from the perspective of islanders for whom they were just one in a series of different visitors to other, more important events. Banks’ atrocious conduct towards Tahitian priests and women is touched upon very lightly, using terms like “baffled” and “failed to understand” rather than taking a stronger stance, which is: what the hell kind of man of science can’t grasp the idea of other value systems? What kind of educated man had such unbelievably bad manners as to desecrate the sacred spaces of his hosts? (The answer is of course and unfortunately: educated white English men).

The exhibition’s key note is the Chief Mourner’s Outfit from an 18th century Tahitian funeral tradition, acquired by Joseph Banks with some difficulty in exchange for some very valuable feathers. It closes, unfortunately tucked away in one corner, with the evergreen satire on colonialism that is the declaration of Burnum Burnum, and it features contemporary re-imaginings of the arrival of Cook and Banks by artists from multiple Pacific Nations. One is a still image taken from a much larger, imaginative piece which I’ll touch on in a minute.

Overall it felt disappointing—I was promised a reimagining and titillated with the likelihood of controversy or at least some blunt use of words and received very ginger acknowledgement that a lot of myth-making and failure to understand had taken place.

Conversely, the Oceania exhibition at the Royal Academy has delivered multiple rooms full of artefacts. Created in partnership with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Aotearoa New Zealand, with the Kingdom of Tonga and the nation of Papua New Guinea, Oceania showcases works which show both the diversity and mastery of Pacific Islander cultures and works which derive from or comment on the contact between Pacific and European cultures. The cultures in question are not reduced to the moments of conflict they reached with Europeans but rather presented as complex societies whose relationship to these moments involved negotiation, power struggles, political motivations, and—phrased without squeamishness—violence. A feasting through on loan from the British Museum, originating in the Solomon Islands, is noted to have entered the collection by being confiscated. A punitive raid by the British on Solomon Islanders resulted in this artefact being stolen from its home.

Some of the highlights, from my own perspective, were not only the stick charts mapping currents and sea swell around island formations—an immediately-recognisible form of navigational data storage that had the benefit of being lightweight and water-resistant, perfect for use on long voyages—but also the method of displaying artefacts not alone in their cases, but accompanied with demonstrations of respect—floral wreaths and palm roofs for cases containing important statues; feather charms; a flag spread before the feasting trough encouraging visitors not to disrespect the artefact by looming over it; and most potently, several offerings and a plaintive poem before a basalt figure from Rapa Nui.

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The still image from the British Museum exhibition now got its context in a video installation of Lisa Reihana’s critical reimagining of Jean Gabriel Charvet’s Savages of the Pacific Ocean. “In pursuit of Venus [infected]”, which the artist believes is both a more accurate take on the moments of European/Pacific contact that drains the exoticism and triumphalism from the original and replaces it with humanity—is also a commentary on the effects not only of the disease disseminated by European visitors (in particular syphilis) but on how cultures interact and change each other.

The moments of conflict and contact were captured, too, by other artists. The work of a late 19th-Century Solomon Islander known as Ajo featured repeatedly: a talented sculptor and an adaptable draughtsman, Ajo worked with anthropologists to describe and memorialise his culture. He produced works both in the style which was customary in his home—and in the European “realist” style, recording the citizens of his home:

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Towards the end of Oceania, in the final room of the exhibition, there are two photographic prints of Papua New Guineans. My contemporaries, they were born in the 1980s, part of the “Blood Generation” who came into being during a terrible conflict between Papua New Guineans on a course for self-determination and foreign mining companies eager to exploit the rich mineral resources of the islands. It is a narrative which has played out repeatedly around the world, and it is rare that it is settled peaceably, or to the benefit of the guardians of the land.

Opposite these is a large-scale work, To New Arrivals. The process of arriving at the islands of the Pacific is not done, and the artist envisions the burdens carried by those coming to Aotearoa New Zealand—not just physical, but cultural, as they flee violent conflict or come seeking new opportunity. And as cultures meet and meet again, they are transformed.

Perhaps the degree of nuance and the voice of the Islanders displayed in the context of the Oceania exhibition is only possible in exhibitions of considerable size. It cannot be easy to balance justifications for the presence of contested items with condemnation of the colonial actions that brought them into the collection, and to the British Museum’s credit it did, in the small space it had allocated to this endeavour, seek to boost several voices of contemporary islanders and Indigenous Australians about the isolated moments in time that brought the favoured son of the British Empire into contact with their ancestors.

But how do you achieve that balance? What efforts at contextualisation versus accessible narrative should a museum or gallery take when putting together an exhibition of cultural artefacts—when showcasing a people (or several peoples), rather than a single artist’s work?

Featured string: Cooking up a Storm

Related string: Display It Like You Stole It

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