Pacific art identity
Written, edited and directed by Laura Sergeant.
Working with the Oceania Centre for Arts, Culture and Pacific Studies means observing firsthand how art is part of the process of building a broad Pacific identity across the islands.
By Laura Sergeant, 2015
The Oceania Centre for Arts, Culture and Pacific Studies (OCACPS) is part of The University of the South Pacific. This Centre brings together artists from across sixteen countries within the Pacific region. As the Oceania Centre encompasses so many countries under its umbrella, does this allow a homogenisation of the art its artists produce? Can each tradition still retain its distinctiveness, or does something new arise when they come together?
The term ‘Pacific’ includes a large geographical area, which encompasses the Pacific Ocean from east to west. It consists of three sub regions:
Micronesia in the northwest (Palau, Mariana Is, Caroline Is, Marshall Is, Kiribati);
Melanesia in the southwest (New Guinea, Bismarck Archipelago, Solomon Is, Santa Cruz, Vanuatu, Fiji, New Caledonia); and
Polynesia in the east (Hawaii, Tuvalu, Samoa, Tokelau, Cook Is, Society Is, Austral Is, Easter Island, New Zealand, Marquesas Is, Tuamotu Archipelago, Tonga, Kermadec Is, Mangareva).
The Pacific region includes between 20,000 and 30,000 islands; Fiji alone is composed of over 320 islands. These many different island cultures have each evolved in their own distinct ways.
Historically, Oceanian art was originally made with a practical purpose in mind and not for the sake of being art. Pieces were part of religious and social ceremonies that held symbolic significance. As a result, many pieces were not preserved; particularly in the case of Melanesian artefacts, they were frequently created for a one-off purpose and then destroyed. Art was created for the purpose of displaying individual prowess and was not passed down through the family, as was often the case in Polynesian areas.
Polynesia proves the exception. There, objects were preserved, thus leaving art to age and create a historic timeline, within individual families but also in the wider Polynesian society.
The establishment of the Oceania Centre, like the creation of the concept of ‘Oceanian art,’ is an innovation that attempts to bring traditional techniques together with new media into a modern art market. A collaborative Oceanian approach allows for greater access to the global market rather than each small nation vying to create demand and awareness of their creative work.
The historical diversity in the Pacific that influences each individual’s art, however, is far and wide. For example, climate change has varying degrees of impact upon the Pacific, and the understanding of its effects does not have a uniform influence on all Pacific artists. For some communities, climate change is a distant threat; for others, the crisis is already acute. The Pacific has varied political, religious and social community links that cannot be easily overlooked when travelling within the region.
For these reasons, Oceanian Art can have a future together as a collective, one that continues to entail rich diversity, which can make the region’s art unique and appealing to audiences around the world. Oceania will always contain diversity, but that variety can provide endless lessons for artists to share with each other, and with the broader world – new techniques, new symbols, and new ideas. Oceanian artists can deploy this rich diversity to their advantage and showcase this to the world for eager audiences.