Encountering Pacific Style In Norwich And Cambridge

By Paul Dance | 29 June 2006
photo of a red and yellow cape

Feathered cape, Hawaiian Islands, late 18th/early 19th century. Courtesy Sainsbury Centre

Paul Dance encountered Pacific style past and present at the Sainsbury Centre, Norwich and the Museum of Anthropology in Cambridge. Exhibitions Pacific Encounters and Pasifika Styles run at each venue, respectively, until August 13 2006 and February 2008.

After a 21-month revamp by Foster and Partners, the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts has re-opened at the University of East Anglia on the outskirts of Norwich. This art collection was made possible by the generosity of Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury who, in 1973, donated more than 300 cultural objects and pieces of art. When it opened to the public in 1978 it had doubled in size and today contains in excess of 1,300 objects.

In the late 1970s Sir Robert said: “I never decided to become a collector … I have been a passionate acquirer of works of art that appealed to me irrespective of period or style.”

photo of a carved wooden bowl with supports in the shape of men

Bowl with two figure supports, Hawaiian Islands, 18th century. Courtesy Sainsbury Centre

This shows in the main collection, known as the Living Area, where works are displayed with as little obstruction as possible between the item and the visitor and with little regard for inter-relationship.

Thus paintings by Francis Bacon hang on the walls and pillars, next to Giacometti drawings, 17th-century Indian religious art and Chinese paintings from 400BC. Many of the display cases allow the objects to be viewed from all sides, an unusual asset in a collection with such important items.

The current Pacific exhibition benefits from this accessibility, allowing us to see some of the beautiful carvings of fishhooks, stone totems and ceremonial staffs.

photo portrait of a smiling elderly Maori woman in a grey bowler hat and heavy coat adorned with badges

Suzanne Tamaki, Crack Up. Courtesy Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

The exhibition covers items from the entire Pacific area, from Samoa to New Zealand and Hawaii. It helps to reveal how much difference there is between the various people of this huge area, which since the explorations of the 18th and 19th century that provided many of the items in this exhibition, has been largely ignored by Western Europe.

The angular design and atmosphere of the modern gallery contrasts sharply with the culture or environment in which the artefacts would have been created. While trying to envisage the places where they were made, I was lucky in getting a chance to eavesdrop on George Tamihana Nuku. George is a Maori teacher and artist who was guiding a school party around the exhibition, bringing the objects to life for them.

Heavily tattoed and wearing Maori traditional dress, George embodied the passion that I came to realise is such an important part of his culture. I spoke to him after his talk, while he was carving slabs of polystyrene into traditional Maori designs in order to build a Maori house in the lower gallery of the Sainsbury Centre.

photo of a table and chairs with their surfaces covered in bright flowers

Niki Hastings-McFall, Polynisation. Courtesy Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

He explained that the material was about keeping the culture alive and that he uses plastic and whatever he can to create his work, rather than the more traditional wood. This chimed with his comments about Maori beliefs of connectedness with the environment and his work in New Zealand (Aoteorea in Maori) with youngsters.

“It’s always great to spend time with these youngsters and get them to look at themselves differently,” he told me. “I tend to see them at about 15 years old, just before they would be going to jail.”

There's another exhibition of Pacific art at the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, with a more contemporary theme. Entitled Pasifika Styles, the first thing that strikes you as you enter the gallery on the second floor is a large (about 18ft wide by 12ft high) acrylic carving by the artist I spoke to at the Sainsbury Centre, George Tamihana Nuku.

painting of a swirling pattern

Reuben Paterson, Admiral Tangaroa. Courtesy Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

George’s caption to his carving says: “Though it’s a shame to see this piece inside, away from the sweat of Maori hands, does anyone really believe they can contain the power of these pieces just by putting them indoors?”

The caption is passionate in a way we don’t normally see in galleries and the whole exhibition retains this quality of pride and visceral commitment to art as a way of life and connectedness to one’s past, present and future.

This attitude is echoed in other artists’ comments, which show no remorse about the loss of a culture or colonial appropriation but rather a fierce determination to keep their art up to date by using modern methods whilst not losing sight of the traditions that inform them.

This show, though small, has completely changed my view of what Maori culture is about and challenged my view of modern art. I cannot think of any comparable Western art that is so emotionally and completely connected with its cultural base whilst creating interesting and exciting works of art.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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