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The soul of Oceania

The art of Pacific Island cultures from the 18th to early 20th century is finding renewed resonance in museums across the U.S., including a new exhibition in San Diego.

February 22, 2009|Suzanne Muchnic

SAN DIEGO — "Just look at the noses," says Los Angeles collector Valerie Franklin, approaching a display of Melanesian masks at the San Diego Museum of Art. One resembles a sharply pointed beak, another curls into a spiral, yet another sprouts a branch that morphs into a bird-like form. A 19th century mask with a strikingly modern look has a relatively ordinary proboscis, but it anchors a twisted face with a haunting expression.

Noses are not the point of "Oceanic Art: A Celebration of Form," an exhibition of about 100 objects from Franklin's collection and the holdings of Edward and Mina Smith, who live near San Diego. But fascination with details is a pathway to understanding a swath of cultural history that can be baffling for novices.

"The imagination that's manifest in the art brings the creative impulse to life," Franklin says. "There is an immediacy about the material that makes it very exciting visually. You could come back to the exhibition 50 times and see something different each time."

Fifty return trips may be a bit much, but many more people are looking at Oceanic art these days. And not only at ethnographic repositories, as in the past, but in mainstream art museums. What's more, Pacific Island art is about to get a showcase of its own in Long Beach.

In San Diego, "Oceanic Art" is paired with "Black Womanhood: Icons, Images, and Ideologies of the African Body," a traveling show, as part of an effort to expand the Balboa Park museum's global reach and attract a broader audience. "Black Womanhood" will end April 26; the Oceanic show will remain until Jan. 3 with a few changes from time to time.

The museum's first exhibition on the subject in 40 years, it's a welcoming gesture to Southern California's large population of South Pacific Island people, says Executive Director Derrick R. Cartwright. But it's also a timely event that taps into "burgeoning curiosity about the works of art that come out of [the region's] inherently fragile, insular ecosystems," he says.

Though far from a comprehensive survey, the show offers considerable insight into the art of Oceania -- the collective term for about 25,000 Pacific islands that are home to 1,800 cultures and hundreds of artistic traditions. Works on view include figurative sculpture, bark cloth, jewelry, baskets, ceramic containers, musical instruments, canoe ornaments, shields and weapons. Mostly made between the late 18th and early 20th centuries, they are the work of anonymous artists.

A particularly rare, life-size figure from Micronesia is carved of wood from a breadfruit tree. Other pieces make creative use of stone, grass, bark, shell, feathers, bone and human hair. The face of a wood canoe prow ornament from the Solomon Islands is decorated with trade beads, shells and pigments. A container made of a gourd, also from the Solomon Islands, is topped by a seated wood figure adorned with fiber, shell and rat teeth.

Varied as they are, all the works merge religion and spirituality with aesthetics and have ceremonial or practical functions. Carvings of gods, spirits or ancestors may double as architectural elements, handles of fly swatters or hooks that suspend food and other valuable goods out of the reach of animals.

"These are timeless works of art that complement our permanent collection," Cartwright says.

But as George Ellis, a scholar of Oceanic art and director emeritus of the Honolulu Academy of Arts who guest curated the show, puts it: "This is not art for art's sake. This is art that serves religious purposes and societal needs in a very real way that, for me, gives it a soul. It speaks of people, their fears, hopes and aspirations -- the same concerns we have but reflected in different forms. It's exciting, wonderful art from a part of the world that we know very little about."

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Oceania's rediscovery

Westerners have collected Oceanic art and artifacts since the late 18th century, but ethnographic institutions, such as the Field Museum in Chicago, have the largest holdings. Most art museums that have acquired Oceanic material have devoted little space to it beyond exhibitions that point out the influence of "primitive" art on Western modernists.

But the star of Oceanic art is rising at museums and in the marketplace, where a rare work with an impeccable provenance can bring hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco attracted international attention in 2005 when it landed a 3,000-piece trove of art from New Guinea, valued at $100 million, as a promised gift from New York collectors John and Marcia Friede. The museum's new building in Golden Gate Park opened a few months later with about 350 Friede works installed in a large gallery named for the donors. Although the gift has become embroiled in a family feud, the installation remains intact and museum officials are hoping for an amicable resolution.

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