- Power and Taboo: Sacred Objects from the Eastern Pacific, and: Pasifika Styles, and: Pacific Encounters: Art and Divinity in Polynesia
Last year saw the Pacific emerge into the public eye in the United Kingdom through a series of exhibitions and associated events that were spread across the southeast, creating a new Polynesian triangle of sorts between Cambridge, Norwich, and London. I was involved in many of the openings and celebrations in various guises, as [End Page 283] a curator, performer, artist, lecturer, and member of the large and thriving UK-based Polynesian community. Although the projects differed in their scale and time frames, they shared networks, artists, and ideas that will help advance and secure the position of Pacific art and artists in the international arena, expanding the old trade networks and perpetuating all things Polynesian in the twenty-first century.
May 2006 saw an intensive month of activity scheduled around the opening of "Pasifika Styles"—an exhibition and festival reconnecting contemporary artists with the historical collections housed in the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology—and that of "Pacific Encounters: Art and Divinity in Polynesia" at the University of East Anglia's Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, which displayed an astounding array of historical taonga (treasures) drawn from collections worldwide. These two projects may have been centuries apart in terms of focus, but by working together in the planning of the opening dates of both exhibitions the organizers were able to maximize the involvement of several hundred visiting artists, academics, curators, and dignitaries visiting from Europe, North America, and the Pacific. Blessings, opening events, artist residencies, workshops, performances, and the Pacific Arts Association (Europe) conference all created opportunities for formal and informal discussion, with many conference delegates taking time to visit the Cuming Museum's "Mana: Ornament and Adornment from the Pacific" and the October Gallery's "Fijian Red Wave Collective: Contemporary paintings from Fiji, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Samoa" exhibition in London.
Yet despite all this activity, the Pacific remained largely invisible to the public at large, thanks to a mystifying lack of interest in these happenings on the part of the mainstream national media, helping to push the Pacific farther into the back rooms of obscurity. So I hoped that the last of the year's Polynesian exhibitions to open would help readdress this issue of voice and representation in the United Kingdom.
"Power and Taboo" at the British Museum was in many ways a spin-off of the Norwich-based Pacific Encounters project, as it re-displayed many of the taonga from the British Museum that had been loaned to the Sainsbury Centre. But in another sense "Power and Taboo" was conceived out of a need to fill an empty gap in the museum's gallery number five, rather than a positive desire from the top levels of the institution to present its unparalleled Oceanic collections to the public. Even so, I was ready to relish this exhibition, especially as these taonga have no permanent gallery in the museum. When "Power and Taboo" was finished, so too were our five minutes of fame in the global arena that the British Museum claims to be.
My first glimpse of "Power and Taboo" was in the London Underground. I stood face-to-face with a mighty feathered god, nestled in among some modern-day gods—movie stars and the latest rock-star releases. Eyes bulging, mouth twisted, he looked angry, reflecting the mood of the passing commuters, a striking yet somewhat savage ambassador [End Page 284] for the exhibition. The next time I saw him was from a distance, looming above the masses milling around outside the British Museum. Ngäti Ranana, the London Mäori Club, together with other members of the UK Polynesian community, were gathered by his side to partake in the blessing...