- Pacific Encounters: Art and Divinity in Polynesia, 1760-1860
For people of Polynesian heritage, the Pacific remains the center of the universe. The great ocean that separates our islands—Moana-nui-a-kiwa—also connects and sustains us. We remain inextricably linked to our ancestors [End Page 657] and emotionally impacted by their achievements, whether or not we grew up immersed in a background of traditional culture. Accordingly, when we meet together on the other side of the globe, we are able to unite as members of an all-encompassing whanau (family group), celebrating our similarities rather than emphasizing our differences.
This was the sentiment in Norwich, England, at the launch of the exhibition "Pacific Encounters: Art and Divinity in Polynesia 1760–1860," the major event that marked the reopening of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, at the University of East Anglia, following the completion of a lengthy, substantial building and refurbishing project. The various Polynesian peoples present contributed to a multicultural opening ceremony that merged their past, present, and future. As the preliminary rituals were brought to their climax, the haunting notes of the final Hawaiian oli kahea, chanted by Marques Marzan, rang out and hung in the air; the enveloping wairua (spiritual essence) was intense and the sense of expectancy strong. (An oli kahea is a chant to bring together and announce the people present and to request entry, acknowledging all the spirits, deities, and guardians of this world.)
The anticipation was not without foundation. Although certain customary Polynesian arts continue to be practiced, much of the traditional art history is less well known. Instead of being located in the Pacific, the most comprehensive collections of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Polynesian artifacts in the world are held in Britain. The "Pacific Encounters" exhibition was part of a three-year research project called "Polynesian Visual Arts: Meanings and Histories in Pacific and European Cultural Contexts," sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK). As a British Museum Partnership UK project, it gained access to the enormous range of magnificent items brought back from the Pacific during the period of initial contact with European explorers, traders, and missionaries. Rare and valuable objects came from all three of Captain Cook's voyages as well as the voyages of Captains Bougainville, Bligh, Wallis, and Vancouver; also included are unique quasi-religious artifacts from the important collections of the London Missionary Society, in addition to materials from various international sources. More than 270 pieces were assembled for the first time, with the full intent of creating "the largest and most comprehensive exhibition ever mounted on Polynesia," as stated in the exhibition brochure.
The exhibits were drawn from the major Polynesian regions: from the Society Islands (Tahiti), Austral Islands, Cook Islands, Marquesas Islands, Hawai'i, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Tonga, Fiji, Sämoa, and Aotearoa/New Zealand. However, rather than being assembled according to region, they were grouped in relation to the five overarching themes of Sea, Marae or Temple, Land, Collecting, and Making Divine. To achieve this, the exhibition was mounted in the Sainsbury Centre's ground floor and lower ground floor temporary exhibition spaces, in addition to inaugurating the new exhibition gallery linking the two spaces. Contemporary [End Page 658] pictorial materials were incorporated to support the themes and extend appreciation and understanding of the artworks.
Created without the use of metal tools, from Pacific Island materials ranging from the most prestigious to the mundane, the treasures on display ranged from the exotic to the basic essentials of survival. They included awesome figures carved of wood and stone, intricate images created of feather and fiber (see for example figure 1), ornamental wooden bowls, textiles of decorated bark cloth or cloaks adorned with feathers, valuable items of ritual practice or...