Oceania, Part One

 By Insider – Suzanne Peri-Chapman

Oceania: 2 exhibitions; 25,000 islands

Location: Wellington, at Te Papa Tongarewa (Museum of New Zealand) and at City Gallery Wellington, until 6 November.

(Images from Oceania website)

Oceania is two exhibitions, one called Early Encounters, at Te Papa, and the other called Imagining the Pacific, at City Gallery. To quote from the brochure “The two complementary exhibitions explore the richness of Maori, Pacific, and European cultures, offering an unprecedented look into the soul of the region”.

You buy a ticket at either gallery, and it gets clipped at whichever gallery you go to first, then you stroll along the Wellington waterfront to the other gallery, with your ticket and get the other end of it clipped for entry. To assist with the waterfront strolling, there are Oceania stickers on the pavements to follow.

It doesn’t matter which gallery you choose first…I had parked at Te Papa, so started there, with Early Encounters. When I wrote the creative guidelines for the RWC Opening Ceremony, (with my Ceremonies Manager hat on), one of them was about “reflecting our place in the Pacific”, so I was keen to see this idea in more detail.

This exhibition is divided into segments: Cultures in Conflict, Creative Encounters, Spirit Worlds, People of the Sea and Contact. As you enter, you are immersed in a soundtrack running the whole time, and it reflects the nature of the exhibition, with indigenous rhythms, music, screams, and chanting all blended together as Oceania is. The first object you see is a Lapita clay pot, 2500 years old, which has been fragmented and put back together. Is this to demonstrate the changing world of Oceania; the fracturing of ancient worlds and the re-forming of them into places which are the same, but different? One could wax lyrical about this pot, but moving on….

Into Cultures in Conflict, and there was a great sketch by T J Grant, about 1850, of a haka, but not quite as we know it on the rugby fields. This one was lead by a woman, with the men holding both traditional weapons and also European muskets. In a display case was an 1800’s knuckle-duster weapon, made of wood, human hair and sharks teeth sticking up on the knuckles.

There was a wonderful woven Kiribati armour suit, very thick, with a dried Puffer fish as a helmet. It had pretty much the same effect as a helmet as the Puffer fish probably intended when puffed up – damned intimidating. That is, until you get to the next display and see a nasty carronade, a heavy metal short-barrelled European cannon, pointing in the direction of the woven armour. No contest – cannon beats puffer fish helmet. Of course, this makes one think about conquest and colonisation, and how my cultural ancestors seem to have had an unfortunate habit of saying hullo to the natives with military weaponry in hand.

On to Creative Encounters, where there is a terrific newspaper, the Fiji Times, dated 1891, and printed on Masi (bark cloth). I think they should still do this – it’s so gorgeously Pacific. Among the advertisements for the Union Steamship Company of NZ, is an advert placed by Mrs Stevenson, widow of the late George Stevenson, in which she desires to announce that she has now commenced business as a Milliner and Ladies Outfitter, and that it is a strictly cash business. One wonders if the late George might not have left too much in the family piggy-bank, and Mrs Stevenson was stuck in Fiji, with her living to earn. There was also an advertisement for the rather unpleasant sounding “Carters Mucilage” which turned out to be a superior sort of glue, if you believe what you read.

There was a glorious cultural confluence in the clothing display – a waistcoat and a military jacket, woven of flax, and a plant fibre skirt with a Union Jack waistband. There were brooches, which sadly were made of the curved beaks of the female Huia, a bird native to New Zealand. Sad because the Huia is now extinct, thought to be last sighted sometime around the 1920s.

Moving into the Spirit World, where three things caught my eye – a very rare ceremonial Poi, with dog hair talismans attached to it and with patterns to signify spiritual protection. Rare because Poi are more often used in dance and games. There was a woven miniature spirit house (for miniature spirits?), and a priest’s vestment called a cope, made out of bark and dyed with a mix of indigenous and Christian icons.

People of the Sea had a necklace from Fiji, made of sperm whale teeth, from the late 1800s. Things like this of course resonate for modern viewers in a different way than their makers could possibly have intended – rather like the Huia brooches, we look at them now knowing about extinction, endangerment and conservation.

There was a big Tamtam – a slit drum made out of a hollowed out tree trunk, about 4 metres high, with a totem carved on the top. Used for music and for signals, the scale of this made me feel, for a moment, that time was passing at a different, slower pace. Imagine if you were to think to yourself “I need a new drum, I’ll just go out and make one”. You’d have to find the right tree, cut it down (without power tools), dry it, hollow it out, slit it just right for the sound, carve a design on the top of it, get seven of your closest friends to help you stand it up (remember, it’s a big tree trunk), then have a ceremony to try it out. This is not something I’ve ever done, but it must have taken weeks…no such thing as instant gratification. Indeed, this is true for all the objects in the exhibition – they took time to make. A long, long time.

Lastly, to the Contact section. This features James Cook, and a lovely large model of “His Majesty’s Bark Endeavour”, along with the silver fern collected by Joseph Banks. The object I was most drawn to was the embroidered map, in fine gold, of a map of the world (as known in 1812), with a blue line showing James Cook’s Pacific journey. It was made by an English woman, and one wonders what she was thinking as she stitched it…as her blue line crossed the Pacific, and through exotic locations she would probably never see. I hope she enjoyed her imaginary journey.

Walking on to the City Gallery for Part Two of the exhibition, having been immersed for a while in all things Oceania, I looked with new eyes at the water in the inlet by the Rowing Club. Its greens and its rocks and its textures, changing and moving in the sunlight, looked somehow more Pacific than I had thought about before. I think of myself as a New Zealander; now my horizons have been broadened and I am pleased to say that I am also a child of the Pacific.

I enjoyed my journey through Early Encounters, and it’s something for either locals or visitors to learn from, especially those who don’t get to our part of Oceania too often.


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