The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Fine Arts   Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the AmericasOceania  
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Oceanic art - Introduction

The Pacific Ocean, a third of the earth's surface, was for many centuries an uncharted frontier. Rather than a barrier, the ocean became a passageway of exploration, settlement, and exchange for the Pacific peoples.  Roughly 40,000-60,000 years ago, Southeast Asian migrants began to inhabit the region, creating a myriad of small, relatively isolated societies. These people’s highly varied tribal cultures often exhibited traces of influence from early China and India.

By the mid-1700s, the British and the French dominated Pacific exploration - begun by the Spanish and the Portuguese in the 1500s - with scientific expeditions sent to study and chart its islands.  By the start of the 1800s the entire Pacific basin had been charted, and its  cultures brought to the attention of the West. From the mid-18th century explorers, scientists, settlers, and missionaries assembled large collections, which they brought back to Europe, documenting the artistic and cultural achievements of the hundreds of diverse peoples inhabiting the region's many island groups.

This gallery display reflects the proliferation of the arts everywhere in Oceania.  The arts flourished in every possible medium, from wood and stone, to leaves and feathers.  Since the societies tended to be small and isolated there was great stylistic variety.  Craftsmen were experts who often learned their skills from their parents, generation after generation, and who were recognized, admired and criticized by their communities. Recurrent themes of fertility, initiation, and social status, occasional references to headhunting and ritual cannibalism appear throughout island art.  Except in Polynesia, most such ritual objects were not meant for posterity.   Art, an integral part of the religious and social ceremony, lent refinement to everyday island cultures and led to great stylistic diversity, making the heritage of Oceanic art one of the richest in the world.

When Europeans arrived in Melanesia they were met by a completely new visual experience comprised of fantastic figures and exceptionally ornate decorations.   The dominance of three dimensional human figures in the arts of this region reflects the essential role of ancestral spirits, whose abode is the sculpture and whose benevolence can be induced by ritual or magic. 

Social life in Melanesia is dominated by secret societies. Each cultural group had its own repertoire of styles in life and art.  In the large islands - notably Papua New Guinea, the second largest island in the world – cultic life is the mainspring of the arts.  The men's cult and clan house was central to the production of a variety of carved figures, masks, and sacred musical instruments, which were made with great ingenuity. Large but select groups of men disguised as ritual characters, patronized initiation ceremonies and re-enacted the myth of creation during festivals explaining the widespread tradition of mask-making

Although objects were designed to serve a ritual purpose and thus not meant to endure for posterity, the interdependence of art and religious ritual did not compromise formal excellence as can be seen for example in the spectacular curved volumes of New Caledonian masks, in the monumental carving of Vanuatu, in the elegance of Solomon Island low reliefs and especially, in the dynamic link between positive form and negative space in the polychrome sculpture of New Ireland.

The life and artistic creation of Aboriginals, descendents of the dark skinned Austronesian (people of the south in Greek), settlers who arrived from Southeast Asia, on the continent in primitive watercrafts some 40-60,000 years ago, is rooted in and determined by "the dreaming", a powerful concept which  refers to a mythical sacred past - a time, the Aboriginals believe, when the Spirit Beings set the pattern for the entire world and its inhabitants (Creation).   For the Aboriginals the past and the present can exist in a kind of 

In traditional Aboriginal societies, activities like dancing, singing, making implements or weaving baskets were not considered to be separate activities called art and design as they are understood by Western culture. All of these activities were a part of normal daily life, allowing everyone to be an artist.  Aboriginal art is charged with a complex symbolic context, employing geometric patterns or naturalistic motifs in body decorations, sand drawings and the making of sacred shields.  Through these various manifestations the Aboriginal people found a way to transmit their history and traditions, thus preserving their culture.

Polynesia, meaning many islands, in Greek, is represented here by Hawaii, New Zealand, Easter Island, Samoa, Tonga and the Austral and Cook Islands.   Polynesian society is built upon a hereditary class structure headed by a sacred chief.  For the Polynesians art objects are symbols of rank whose aesthetic quality is seen as a matter of status.  Artists are limited by strict, formal aesthetic codes as religious ritual controls each step of their creative process. The Polynesians intended to create enduring works of art to be passed on from generation to generation.

The main forms of Polynesian artistic expression are - sculpture depicting primarily gods and ancestor figures; self-decoration, bark cloth (tapa) painting, feather work, and weaving.

The Maori art of New Zealand stands out by virtue of its quality and individuality of its style.   Serving as symbols of status Maori sculptural shapes, with sweeping outlines, gently merging planes, and surfaces decorated with deeply carved spirals, combine mythological symbols, which interact visually in order to tell a story or teach a lesson as well.

Indonesia (Island southeast asia)
Island South East Asia consists of two geographic regions.   These regions, settled by experienced Austronesian agriculturalists and seafarers around 2000BCE, are the Asian mainland, represented in this display by Laos, and Vietnam, and the maritime region, represented here in addition to the Republic of Indonesia, by the Philippines and Taiwan.
 A complex inheritance of magical and animist art is shared by the different tribal peoples of the mainland and the islands. Although each group has developed its own artistic language the visual arts of Southeast Asia have followed two major artistic traditions which coexist virtually everywhere. The first, known as the “monumental” style, is characterized by large scale stone sculptures representing ancestor spirits. The second, known as the “ornamental-fanciful” style came under the thematic and stylistic influence of bronze cultures from Indochina, in the eighth century BCE, resulting in smaller statuary  also representing ancestral figures, and ritual objects in a variety of materials, and characterized by the scrolled spiral, seen in the ever-present curvilinear ornamentations.

The name Micronesia derives from the Greek for "small" and "island", hence Micronesia is comprised of clusters of 2,500 small islands, many of which are too tiny to be inhabited.  The way of life of the societies on these islands is influenced by the sea that surrounds them.  Skilled navigation, voyaging, and fishing have become symbols of Micronesian identity, and themes in Micronesian art and culture.

The art objects produced by the Micronesians are, functional and executed with precision. The Micronesians have a strong respect for natural materials, which are scarce.   In the eastern Micronesian islands fine textiles are woven from banana and hibiscus fiber on back-strap looms. Micronesian textiles, especially the loom-woven works of the Caroline Islands, are noted for their geometric renderings of humans, stars, and fish.  There is very little sculpture in Micronesian art.   The only masks from Micronesia are from the Mortlock Atoll these represent benevolent spirits who serve as protection from natural disasters.  Objects related to ocean navigation, canoe prow ornaments and charms are otherwise the most notable works.

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