Lesson 13: Oceanic Art 

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What You Will Learn:

  • Explore All Art Movements and Periods

    You will learn about all the leading art movements and periods, such as primitive art, ancient Greek art, the Renaissance, Romanticism, Impressionism, Modernism, and contemporary art. There is also a lot of attention to non-Western art, such as Islamic Art, Hindu Art, Chinese Art, Oceanic Art and African Art, and the globalization of the art world.

  • All Famous Artists and Their Masterpieces

    The course covers important artists like Sultan Muhammad, Fan Kuan, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Utagawa Hiroshige, Vincent van Gogh, Ilya Repin, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Banksy and many more, and discusses their most influential works.

  • Cultural and Historical Context

    Our courses also focus on the study of the cultural, social, political, and economic contexts in which artworks are created.

  • Various Media and Techniques

    You will explore different art forms and techniques, such as painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, and digital art.

Introduction to this course:

 

In Oceanic art, we refer to the art from the regions in the Pacific Ocean that we call Micronesia, Polynesia, and Melanesia. In this ocean, also known as the Pacific Ocean, there are no fewer than 25,000 islands. All of these islands belong to Micronesia, Polynesia, or Melanesia. Australia and New Zealand also fall within the area where Oceanic art has been created for millennia. 
It will not surprise you that there is a great variety of art objects produced by the many artists and craftsmen on these islands, especially considering the enormous distances in the Pacific Ocean. It is, after all, the largest ocean on our planet. This ocean is so vast that nuclear powers like the US, Great Britain, and France conducted nuclear tests here in the 1950s and 1960s, often with catastrophic consequences for many islands. A current environmental challenge for the islands is the large areas of accumulated plastic waste in both the southern and northern parts of the Pacific Ocean. Nevertheless, there are also commonalities to be found in the artistic expressions of the islanders in this ocean.

Een 19de-eeuwse dilukai van de Caroline-eilanden in Palau in Micronesië. Het bevindt zich in het Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York
Image: A 19th-century dilukai from Palau in Micronesia. Dilukai are wooden depictions of young women. They were placed above the doorways of the homes of tribal chiefs in the Palau archipelago. The young women are depicted with spread legs and a large, black, triangular pubic area. The artists placed their hands on their thighs.
Location: This dilukai is located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The MET) in New York, USA. This art museum is situated on the eastern side of Central Park in Manhattan.

Commonalities in Oceanic art

Magic and fertility are keywords that clearly represent the purpose of art in Oceania. In that sense, it is advisable to read the story about primitive art before delving into this chapter. Much of what you read there aligns with the artistic developments on the islands. You will find similar rock drawings and magical masks on the islands of the Pacific Ocean. In that sense, you will also find many primitive artistic expressions here. Remarkably, Polynesia did not create masks, which was common in other areas of Oceania. One notable aspect of the islands is that they did not have access to iron ore and, therefore, lacked iron tools. All stone and wooden statues were carved using stone axes, tools made of obsidian, shells, and sharp fish teeth.

Papoea's plaatsen een grote paal voor een in aanbouw zijnde paalwoning; Collectie Stichting Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen. De foto is gemaakt door de arts en fotograaf Gijsbert van der Sande.Image: Papuans erecting a house post for an under-construction stilt house in Papua New Guinea. These stilt houses were constructed without the use of iron tools. In Papua New Guinea, there are no less than 823 different Papuan and Austronesian languages spoken, almost 15% of all languages in the world! There is increasing attention to the art from Papua New Guinea.
Location: This photo is in the possession of the National Museum of World Cultures Foundation. The photo was taken in 1903 by the Dutch physician and photographer Gijsbert van der Sande (1863-1910) near the village of Asé and the Sentani Lake in Papua New Guinea.

But not only stone and wood were used as basic materials to create art; feathers, turtle shells, and mother-of-pearl also found a place in the art. All of these artistic expressions were associated with magic or fertility. The arts were also intertwined with the beliefs of different peoples, which is why many art forms and expressions were used in ceremonies with a religious character. These could be marriage or funeral ceremonies, but also the coronation of a tribal chief. Although often of different origins, there are other similarities to be found in the artistic expressions in Oceania. The importance of magic, religion, and fertility has already been mentioned. In this context, the veneration of deified ancestors is present on almost all islands.

Magische deurklopper uit Irian Jaya ofwel Papoea in Zuidwest-Nieuw-Guinea. Met een stok werd op het beeld geklopt. Het geluid was niet alleen al van verre te horen, maar het zorgde er ook voor dat de woning beschermd werd tegen kwade geesten of mensen met slechte bedoelingen. Bij het beeld hoort een uitstekende fallus. Deze diende niet alleen als deurklopper, maar eveneens als vruchtbaarheidssymbool.
Locatie: Deze magische deurklopper uit Irian Jaya (Papoea) maakt deel uit van de collectie van de Gooise Galerie. ©Ronnie Rokebrand.
Image: Magical door knocker from Irian Jaya, also known as Papua in Southwest New Guinea. The figure was struck with a stick. The sound could be heard from afar and it also served to protect the house from evil spirits or people with bad intentions. The figure includes a prominent phallus, which served not only as a door knocker but also as a symbol of fertility. The bent knees are a symbol of life through movement throughout Oceania.
Location: This magical door knocker from Irian Jaya (Papua) is part of the collection of the Gooise Gallery, an online gallery in the Netherlands. ©Ronnie Rokebrand.

Many images of these deified ancestors, known as tiki, are well-known on the islands. A famous example is the gigantic ancestor statues on Easter Island. Characteristic of the statues in Oceania is that they are sculpted with bent knees, symbolizing life through movement.

Een vrouwen figuurtje, gesneden uit het ivoor van een walvis, uit het begin van de 19de eeuw van de Ha'apai eilanden in het koninkrijk Tonga in Polynesie.Image: A female figure from the early 19th century. It comes from the Ha’apai Islands in the Kingdom of Tonga in Polynesia. It is carved from whale ivory and sculpted with bent knees, the symbol of life through movement.
Location: This ivory figure of a woman from the Ha’apai Islands is part of the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met), located east of Central Park in New York, USA.

There are also many similarities in the use of colors. The color palette was originally limited because natural dyes were used exclusively. On the islands in the Pacific Ocean, they had access to only four colors: white, black, red, and brown-yellow ochre. The divine color red symbolized prestige and power, while white was the color of death. That’s why these were (and still are) the traditional colors used on artworks.

Een 19de-eeuws schild van hout en parelmoer uit de Solomon eilanden in Melanesië. Image: A shield from the Solomon Islands in Melanesia. It was made around 1830 from wood and mother-of-pearl, then painted in the traditional colors of red and black. The radiant white mother-of-pearl symbolizes death, while the red color symbolizes the power and prestige of the person who carries the shield.
Location: This shield from the Solomon Islands is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met), located on the east side of Central Park in New York, USA.

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