Book review Oceanic Art by Nicholas Thomas 1995 London Thames and Hudson's World of Art Series 216 pp 182 illustrations, 26 in colour RRP $22.95
The last handy book we had on the art of Oceania was the 1962 edition by Methuen, in the Art of the World series, authored by A. Bühler, T. Barrow and C.P. Mountford. It included a brief section on Australian Aboriginal art. Thames & Hudson have recognised that Australian Aboriginal art cannot be tacked on to a book on Oceanic art and have had a separate volume published on that topic by Wally Caruana.
Nick Thomas approaches the subject differently to Bühler and Barrow, eschewing a geographical 'style-region' approach. He insists on the importance of context for understanding Oceanic art, that you cannot appreciate its meaning by simply looking at it. Consequently, most of the chapters in the book are organised around certain types of cultural activity rather than geography or types of objects such as ancestor figures, masks or shields. Thus we will have difficulty understanding Oceanic art "if we presume that art inheres only in objects rather than in performances and practices" (p 29).
Thus in much of the Sepik region, art may be understood by the external observer as being, for the internal participant, a part of the process of revelation of knowledge through staged initiation rites. This appears to preclude women because the cults are primarily male cults and the activities largely confined to the men's cult houses. But Thomas explores the notion that men are indulging, through their art forms, in a "mimicry of female creativity" (p 52) ie. of women's ability to give birth to children.
Thomas suggests the Maori "wharenui" (meeting house) had a somewhat different symbolic function. On the façade and internally were carved images of individual named ancestors, mostly male, signifying the importance of genealogies for determining "a particular history of migrations, battles and incidents from which rights in land, fishing-grounds and other resources derived". The entire house represented the body of an ancestor: "the roof beam was the spine, the rafters the ribs and the barge boards in the front the arms"(p.61).
In the chapter on art in the context of warfare, Thomas breaks away from an area focus (Sepik; New Zealand) to discuss the Asmat of Irian Jaya with their commemorative ancestor poles, woven cane masks and startling two-dimensional shield designs; the canoes, shields and insignia of powerful men in the Solomon Islands; and the weapons - primarily clubs - of Fiji and Polynesia where "Great emphasis was placed on the prowess and accomplishments of individual warriors" (p 94). Thomas comments on the "theatricality of war" but reminds us that the weapons also "figured effectively in a defiant, highly aestheticized terrorism" (P.97).
Tattooing was highly developed by the Polynesians who perceived it as "an important reinforcement of the body, a stage as vital as other moments in the life cycle, such as birth and death" (p 103). Thomas links the importance of tatooing to the condition of "tapu" or heightened sanctity which was dangerous to non-"tapu" persons or objects. Individuals had personal "tapu" which was "dangerously unstable, prone to threaten others, and to be threatened. Tattooing appears to have partially redressed this ... The process of wrapping in images ... not only provided the warrior with an additional skin or shell, but diminished both the body's proneness to contagion and its capacity to suffer through attracting and diminishing the "tapu" of others" (pp 107-8). Thomas suggests that the contemporary practice of tattooing among Maori gangs is consistent with this in that it armours the body and creates awe and fear among beholders.
Drawing on detailed studies of New Guinea string net bags by Maureen McKenzie and of northern Vanuatu mats by Lissant Bolton, Thomas examines the notion that 'women's art' has been neglected by ethnographers. He finds that, rather, "The problem lies in the limited applicability of Western notions of the individual, production and property in Oceania" (p 116). He suggests that Melanesians understand "relationships between producers and products in multiple and divisible terms rather than on a one-to-one basis". Thus "forms of work and art forms that are primarily associated with one sex often bear certain attributes of the other". It may therefore be inappropriate to talk of 'men's art' and 'women's art' in Melanesia. He suggests that things made by women are less parochial than those made by men and thus "more easily mediate perceptions of wider ethnic affinity" and "national consciousness".
Barkcloth (tapa) is another women's product that has some of the function of tattooing but is transferable in a way that tattooing is not. Wrapping in tapa modifies the effect of "tapu". It "helps bring about transformations between divine and human realms, marks advancement from one phase of life to another, and desanctifies peoples and objects when this is desired" (p 144). Whilst tapa was used as clothing by everyone, and specially fine forms were used by people of high status, in many of the western Polynesian islands there was a vigorous tradition of production for the purpose of exchange and formal presentations as gifts for services rendered or in the context of marriage to "make a relationship visible": (p 143). Thomas points out that modern appliqué quilts, though different in technique and appearance to tapa, are nevertheless used in a similar way, demonstrating continuities from the past into the present.
In eastern Melanesia and Polynesia, particular art forms were associated with chiefly status and power. Apart from greenstone axes, wooden stools and fly-whisks, there were feather capes and girdles. In Polynesia, "feathers generally conveyed sacredness and were intimately connected with gods" (p 154). Thomas states that political leadership was not the most important aspect of Polynesian chieftainship; more important was the perception that chiefs had genealogical links with the ancestral deities "who ensured growth and life" - good health, and success in gardening and fishing. As Christianity spread throughout the islands and became more dominant in people's lives, feathers came to signify rank rather than divinity. The extraordinary nature of the featherwork, and of the authority mobilised to produce it, may be grasped by understanding that a single cape might contain up to a half million tiny feathers from eighty to ninety thousand individual birds, many of which were captured, selectively plucked and released.
Discussing narrative art, Thomas notes the distinction between connotation and denotation, between things standing for or acting as triggers for a narrative, and narrative art in the sense that the images tell the story. Sometimes these narratives are associated with the gods and ancestors but sometimes not. Thomas uses the example of the imagery on the facade of Belauan houses, from early contact period to contemporary forms, underlining the versatility of the medium. The fact that the facade storyboard was modified to enable it to be sold to tourists gives Thomas the opportunity to discuss tourist art/craft and the notion of cultural decline. He has a more balanced view of the impact of tourists on 'traditional' cultures and provides examples of a vigorous response to the commercialised market for painting and carving in semi-traditional, non-sacred mode, throughout Oceania.
In tile final chapter, Thomas looks at what has popularly been called 'contemporary' art - the work of art school graduates and others in media such as acrylics on canvas, screen printing, welded metal sculpture, architectural elements, modern ceramics and textiles. He links these works with themes of emerging nationalism, ethnic identity and migration. He identifies the tension between the pressures to assert a national identity and the determination of local groups and individuals to resist being submerged in a regional monoculture, be it Papua New Guinean, Melanesian or Polynesian.
Thomas's approach to Oceanic Art is refreshing. His choice of illustrations is exceptional and wide-ranging - historical, contextual, contemporary as well as a few studio shots of museum pieces. There are hardly any typographical errors but a few failings - some attributable to the publisher's 'house style' and others to the publisher pushing a deadline - mar an otherwise excellent little volume. The few maps lack detail. A separate list in the back of the book for illustrations is superfluous when the additional information the list provides could have been added to the captions beside the illustrations. Whilst it is most useful to have illustrations noted in the margin beside the places in the text where they are mentioned, it isn't satisfactory to have illustrations that are not keyed into the text even when they are mentioned there (eg 10,13,17,18 etc.) nor to have illustrations that are not mentioned (eg 2,154,162,168-9, etc). There were also inappropriate illustrations (eg two Massim objects on the opening page of the chapter on Sepik art; a Marquesan club, Plate 61, as an illustration of 'broken symmetry' when it is perfectly symmetrical; a Sepik house post, Plate 48, referred to inappropriately in the context of the discussion of the Belauan house) and incorrect captions (eg. Plate 26 is a 'Human figure' and Plate 27 a 'Female figure', not vice versa; Plate 44 shows a canoe 'shield' placed behind a decapitated canoe prow). The way the illustrations tend to get out of sync with the text suggests a design problem.
Also a result of the publisher's house style is the unscholarly manner of referring to other people's work which makes it extremely difficult to know where information is coming from. "Is this Thomas's opinion or another author's?" was a question I found myself asking. For example, I disagree with the notion that individuals in Papua New Guinea might preferentially identify themselves as Melanesians rather than as Papua New Guineans (p 184); and I do not think it is true to say: "Unlike Papua New Guinean artists, many Maori have been trained in art schools or combined 'Western' education with learning from their elders" (p 199) - a significant number of contemporary PNG artists have come through the Creative Arts Centre which became the National Arts School and many maintain links with village-based culture.
Finally, Thomas uses the term 'art' in a relatively uncritical, widely inclusive fashion as "modified or manipulated things that become aesthetic foci" (p 28) but does not explain what 'aesthetic' means in this context; nor does he discuss the adequacy of this definition.
Thomas has handled a diverse and enormously rich field of study in a commendably engaging way. The faults are an inevitable outcome of an impossible task. Nobody today can produce a book on Oceanic Art that says it all; nobody today can encompass all the scholarly work that has been done. It is a project for many authors and many volumes.
Reviewed by Barry Craig