Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Museum Review: Oceanian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

It seems like everyone in New York City had the same idea on a cold, rainy day: let's go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art! I did.

I went specifically to take another, much closer look at their permanent exhibition of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. 

As you can guess, I was most interested in seeing the Oceanian section of this exhibition. The Oceanian portion consists of one large room full of mostly New Guinean art and also some other Melanesian objects, plus a number of side rooms including one split between Polynesian and Micronesian art, and one devoted exclusively to Island Southeast Asian art (Indonesia; Malaysia; Philippines; Taiwan; &c). I am unaccustomed to thinking about Island Southeast Asian cultures as part of (or related to) Oceania, but a passing look at the Southeast Asian artifacts does reveal some similarities with the rest of Oceania. And long histories of migrations across this region (and sharing of material cultures) also help explain why the Met's version of "Oceania" is so inclusive!

Polynesian Art

I was most interested in viewing the Polynesian collection, which I was quite dismayed to see only comprised one half of one small room:

Map introducing the viewer to the Polynesian Triangle: Hawaiʻi to the North; Rapa Nui (Easter Island) to the East; Aotearoa (New Zealand) to the Southwest

Tapa cloth from Wallis and Futuna, Polynesian islands located in the midst of Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga

Map of Wallis and Futuna, western satellite islands of French Polynesia

Tapa (Hawaiian: Kapa) is a type of cloth made, most usually, from the paper mulberry tree (Hawaiian: wauke). All across Polynesia, tapa manufacture - which involves stripping the bark off the tree, and felting the strips together with tapa beaters, and then adding inked designs to the cloth using various types of stamping utensils - is women's work.

In my research into early nineteenth century Hawaiian material culture, I have found that tapa was used for a variety of functions. Most noticeably tapa was used as clothing, and in Hawaiʻi it was the only form of clothing used before imported European, American, or Chinese materials. Women wore tapa skirts and men wore tapa in a variety of fashions, including over one shoulder like a toga, and as a loincloth, called malo in Hawaiʻi. Tapa were also used as mats, as bedding, and as hanging separators between rooms in traditional Hawaiian thatch houses.

Detail of tapa cloth from Wallis and Futuna

I am lucky enough to have a little bit of my own tapa cloth right here in my apartment in New York City! It was a birthday gift from my girlfriend that she secretly picked up in Hawaiʻi: a tapa scrapbook in which we can store the mementos of our pacific voyages!

Here is an Hawaiian artifact:

Lei Niho Palaoa: Whale's tooth pendant on a necklace made of braided human hair

We saw many lei niho palaoa at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. As the object label here at the Met suggested, wearing a whale's tooth plus all that human hair on one's body was a way of absorbing great quantities of mana (divine power) from those objects (and the associations with whales and people that the objects always carried).

John Hayter, Boki and Liliha (1824), Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawaiʻi. 
Note that beautiful Liliha is wearing a Lei Niho Palaoa just like the one at the Met!

The last piece of Polynesian art that I wish to note is this object:

Statue from Mokumanamana (Necker Island), Hawaiʻi, c1000 CE

Few people in New York City might realize that the state of Hawaiʻi is much longer, east to west, than most any map cares to show us. Beyond Kauaʻi and Niʻihau, the most western human-inhabited Hawaiian islands, lie the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. Long ago, Hawaiian people lived on Necker and Nihoa islands in the Northwest Hawaiian chain. This statue at top is testament to that.

Map of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands: the once-inhabited islands of Nihoa and Necker are closest to the still-inhabited Southeastern Islands.

Each island in Northwestern Hawaiʻi is the summit of a massive underwater mountain. Today these islands are home to Hawaiian monk seals and a variety of seabirds, but human settlement is no more.

Micronesian Art

Rebbilib: Marshallese (Marshall Islands) navigation stick chart: 
a map of the Pacific ocean for the training of navigators

Melanesian Art

Unfortunately for big fans of Polynesian art, like myself, the major room of the Oceanian art exhibit at the Met is devoted exclusively to Melanesian art, almost all of which represents the art of the Asmat people of the island of New Guinea.

Asmat art from New Guinea in the gorgeously-renovated exhibition room

Asmat art on the ceiling of the newly-renovated room

Why Asmat? I am not quite sure. But the fact that someone with the last-name Rockefeller traveled to that region of Indonesia numerous times, collected artifacts, and, I think, contributed funding to the exhibition, could be a likely explanation.


Overall, I was disappointed in the Met's permanent exhibition of Oceanian art. 


1) The lop-sided collection and/or exhibition of objects. While the curator is undoubtably challenged by having to place "A Third of the World in Three Rooms," as he puts it (in a lecture, mind you, that I have not yet seen), I believe that most visitors will not even realize that the Island Southeast Asia and Polynesia/Micronesia rooms (the smaller rooms) exist, and they will only see the large, gorgeous room with the oversized Asmat art from New Guinea in it. This lop-sided exhibition of Oceania hardly showcases "a third of the world" because it disproportionately highlights just a handful of ethnic groups and their arts while slighting the hundreds of other ethnic groups and material cultures from across Oceania.

2) Even more disappointing to me is that all of Oceania only gets three rooms in the entire Met, which is a HUGE museum. I have heard many people argue that because European art, for example, is globally appreciated as great art, then it makes sense to devote most of the Met to European art. But any such "global" perspective that compares art across the world and finds European art to the "best" should also make clear how histories of European and Euro-American imperialism and colonialism have forced Western arts upon other peoples and have trampled upon indigenous forms of art across the world. It is this legacy, I think, of Western ethnocentric domination that has made the Met the lop-sided way it is today.

3) Lastly, this is not just a Melanesian vs. Polynesian issue of disproportionate representations; nor is this just an issue of the West vs. the rest of the world. But what really bothers me about the Met is how peoples who do not make art objects that fall into the categories of "painting," "sculpture," "ceramics," &c, and that do not fall into the categories of "European," "American," or "Modern," have their objects relegated to the back rooms of unwieldy departments like "Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas." What do the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas have in common, anyway, besides all being lumped together as "different" (read: primitive) compared to Euro-American and European arts? 

The European art section isn't full of static representations of European pasts, but rather showcases the development of European art over many stages as it is influenced by outside developments and continues to redefine the meaning of art in European society. Same thing with the Euro-American exhibition. But why not Africa? Do not African artists develop and change their styles over time? Do they not respond to contact with outsiders and create beautiful hybrid objects that relate to African as well as other global influences, just like Westerners do? Same thing for Native North and South Americas. Same thing for Oceanian peoples. 

But what I saw at the Met was a representation of Oceanian people stuck in the past, as if their greatest artistic achievements are only the oldest or most traditional things they have ever made, as if their interaction with the rest of the world over the past half millennium has not contributed to any great new developments in Oceanian art. How can the paintings of each individual European master-artist of the nineteenth century be given such prominence on these walls (including Gauguin's paintings of Tahitian women), while we simultaneously are not even shown a single example of Oceanian art from the same time period that adapted to, responded to, incorporated, or challenged the influences of other peoples upon their world, just as the Tahitian people so greatly influenced Gauguin's.


  1. This is a wonderful, thoughtful post--full of spot-on analysis of cultural artifacts that I often fail to pay as much attention to as I should when visiting art museums and other such cultural institutions. I'll try to follow your lead...

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