Royal Academy's Oceania Exhibition Is Let Down By A Lack Of Detail

Oceania, Royal Academy of Arts ★★★☆☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 62 months ago

Looks like this article is a bit old. Be aware that information may have changed since it was published.

Royal Academy's Oceania Exhibition Is Let Down By A Lack Of Detail Oceania, Royal Academy of Arts 3
A still from the gripping scrolling work by Lisa Reihana. © Image courtesy of the artist and ARTPROJECTS

Mention the continent of Oceania and most of us think of Australia and New Zealand only. However, there are over 10,000 islands that make up Oceania. This major exhibition at the Royal Academy gives us insight into some of the cultures that exist across these islands.

The sculptures, totems and figures in this exhibition are visually stunning. They include a soul canoe filled with figures of turtles, humans and birds that we assume is rowing into the afterlife, and a terrifying God of War made from human hair, feathers and dog's teeth.

This terrifying God has dog's teeth to make him all the more fierce. Copyright The Trustees of the British Museum

There's a room full of statues of Gods and ancestors that are visually brilliant, intriguing us about their origin and what they symbolise. However, a pan down to the label only shows us what it's made of but no further context. This is repeated for most of the works and gets very frustrating. The detail may be in the catalogue but visitors shouldn't be required to shell out an extra £28 just to know what they're looking at.

On the rare occasions that there is detail on the label, it's enlightening. A figure dwarfed by the giant fish that holds it in its mouth marks a person's transition to the afterlife, and we learn that the fish carries the motifs of his clan's origins to take with him as he transcends this world.

Image courtesy of The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

We'd argue that the Royal Academy should've taken a British Museum-esque detailed approach to labelling, which would leave us much more informed about these cultures that most of people know little about.

One of our favourite items is somewhat jarring. The comic book superhero The Phantom is placed on a war shield. This strange confluence occurred as American Soldiers introduced the locals to 'the man who cannot die' during the second world war. When fighting broke out in the 1980s among the Wahgi they adopted The Phantom as a symbol of their warrior virtue.

A 19th century feather cloak. Copyright Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

It's these stories that make the objects come to life, so it's disappointing when we see a God with two heads but can't figure out why he's double-headed or the details behind the ancestors that are being honoured.

Contemporary artworks are also present, with a gripping rolling video showing the encounters of Captain Cook with locals ranging from peaceful trading to violence and tense encounters.

The Royal Academy should be commended for bringing together such excellent works from a part of the world that many Londoners know little about. It's just a shame that we leave the show having learned little, when we wanted to learn a lot about Oceania.

Oceania is on at Royal Academy of Arts until 10 December 2018. Tickets are £20.

Last Updated 28 September 2018