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Reviewed by:
  • Atua: Sacred Gods from Polynesia
  • David Hansen
Atua: Sacred Gods from Polynesia. Exhibition, National Gallery of Australia ( nga), Canberra, Australia, 2305– 308 2014. Exhibition catalog available at the ngaShop: a$39.95.

Approaching Atua: Sacred Gods from Polynesia, one’s first encounter is with two semi-abstract totemic figures from a marae by Cook Islands artist Eruera Nia. Embedded in a low, square, grey plinth, these silver-weathered wooden arabesques are at once descriptive and abstract, hieratic and dynamic, leaping up into vision and consciousness in a manner comparable to that of the [End Page 307]National Gallery of Australia’s modernist masterpiece, Constantin Brancusi’s Birds in Space. Then, turning right to enter the exhibition galleries, one is confronted with a pair of related figures: two Tongan ceremonial clubs, their tall, narrow staves fanning out at the top into lethal, skull-splitting wedges. The inlaid marine ivory of the one and reflected light from the other’s richly lozenge-carved surface scintillate, like navigators’ stars or drifting sea spray.

The profound formal refinement, the natural elegance of these two pairs of objects has immediate appeal to a contemporary Western sensibility, and this frisson of aesthetic near-recognition repeats as one proceeds through the installation. Thus a Hawaiian figure of the god Mo‘i crouched on all fours weirdly pre-echoes Jacob Epstein’s arch-backed Woman Possessed, another of the collection’s great twentieth-century European sculptures. Indeed, through the lens of Atua, Polynesian culture is revealed as a powerful presence within the gallery: the beaked head of Habakuk, a Max Ernst sculpture in the foyer, also resonates with that of a Rapa Nui bird-man, while on the ground floor a vitrine full of surrealist pictures and objects has been assembled on the basis of Le monde aux tempes surréalistes, a fantasy map that includes both a very wobbly Pacific equator and a vastly hypertrophied and anthropomorphized Rapa Nui.

Yet despite an immediate recognition of the primal power and beauty of Pacific art, the explorers, missionaries, whalers, traders, and, eventually, artists of the West signally failed to comprehend Pacific Islanders’ elaborate cosmology, with its regularly repeating duality of migration and settlement, of the stranger and the ancestor, of the vaka (canoe) and the marae, its periodic transfers of power among the sea god Tangaroa, war gods Tu and Rongo, and Tane, god of the forest. It is a failure amply demonstrated by Captain Cook himself, whose return to Hawai‘i at the wrong moment in the ritual calendar ultimately resulted in the navigator’s death at Kealakekua Bay. More generally, there is a profound disjunction between the popularly received or inferred impression of precontact Polynesian lifeways as all “luxe, calme, et volupté” and a very different reality accessible through historical documents, anthropological deduction, and oral tradition: that of an inherently expansive network of aggressive warrior societies, of powerful ariki (chiefs) and priesthoods, of complex encounters before and after the arrival of Europeans in the region. Behind the philosophical myths of noble savagery and sailors’ erotic tales of willing wahine lie much less comfortable, more violent stories of invasion, oppression, loss, and death.

Atuais demonstrably more in tune with this more complex history. Indeed, curator Michael Gunn displays an eccentrically intense sensitivity to his charges, and it is said that the arrangement of the different gods, the placement of the sculptures in relation to one another, was based as much on his intuition of inter-deity “personal” relationships as on historic or aesthetic principles. He even staged a ceremony prior to the opening in which a canoe-figure portrait of Māori warrior Te Rauparaha was made “king” of all the atua in the exhibition, to ensure a [End Page 308]peace for the duration. While this kind of immersion curation may be a little unconventional, it produced a show that is archaeologically, anthropologically, and historically well informed as well as aesthetically highly alert, and that succeeds in conveying something of the potent objects’ original mana.

Text panels inform us that sometimes the objects are themselves the god, sometimes they are bodies or vessels within which the god occasionally resides, and sometimes...