The Art of Oceania





Hiapo (tapa)

By Dr. Caroline Klarr
Polynesian Art Historian

Polynesian history and culture

Polynesia is one of the three major categories created by Westerners to refer to the islands of the South Pacific.  Polynesia means literally “many islands.” Our knowledge of ancient Polynesian culture derives from ethnographic journals, missionary records, archaeology, linguistics, and oral traditions. Polynesians represent vital art producing cultures in the present day.

Each Polynesian culture is unique, yet the peoples share some common traits. Polynesians share common origins as Austronesian speakers (Austronesian is a family of languages). The first known inhabitants of this region are called the Lapita peoples. Polynesians were distinguished by long-distance navigation skills and two-way voyages on outrigger canoes. Native social structures were typically organized around highly developed aristocracies, and beliefs in primo-geniture (priority of the first-born). At the top of the social structure were divinely sanctioned chiefs, nobility, and priests. Artists were part of a priestly class, followed in rank by warriors and commoners.

Polynesian cultures value genealogical depth, tracing one’s lineage back to the gods. Oral traditions recorded the importance of genealogical distinction, or recollections of the accomplishments of the ancestors. Cultures held firm to the belief in mana, a supernatural power associated with high rank, divinity, maintenance of social order and social reproduction, as well as an abundance of water and fertility of the land. Mana was held to be so powerful that rules or taboos were necessary to regulate it in ritual and society. For example, an uninitiated person of low rank would never enter in a sacred enclosure without risking death. Mana was believed to be concentrated in certain parts of the body and could accumulate in objects, such as hair, bones, rocks, whale’s teeth, and textiles.

Gender roles in the arts

Gender roles were clearly defined in traditional Polynesian societies. Gender played a major role, dictating women’s access to training, tools, and materials in the arts. For example, men’s arts were often made of hard materials, such as wood, stone, or bone and men’s arts were traditionally associated with the sacred realm of rites and ritual.


Hawaiian kapa (barkcloth), 1770s, 64.5 x 129 cm (Te Papa, New Zealand)

Women’s arts historically utilized soft materials, particularly fibers used to make mats and bark cloth. Women’s arts included ephemeral materials such as flowers and leaves. Cloth made of bark is generically known as tapa across Polynesia, although terminology, decorations, dyes, and designs vary through out the islands.

Bark cloth as women’s art


Barkcloth Panel (Siapo), Samoa, early 20th century, 139.7 x 114.3 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Generally, to make bark cloth, a woman would harvest the inner bark of the paper mulberry (a flowering tree). The inner bark is then pounded flat, with a wooden beater or ike, on an anvil, usually made of wood. In Eastern Polynesia (Hawai’i), bark cloth was created with a felting technique and designs were pounded into the cloth with a carved beater. In Samoa, designs were sometimes stained or rubbed on with wooden or fiber design tablets. In  Hawai’i patterns could be applied with stamps made out of bamboo, whereas stencils of banana leaves or other suitable materials were used in Fiji. Bark cloth can also be undecorated, hand decorated, or smoked as is seen in Fiji. Design illustrations involved geometric motifs in an overall ordered and abstract patterns.


Masi (tapa cloth), likely used as a room divider, Fiji, date unknown, 300 x 428 cm (Te Papa, New Zealand)

The most important traditional uses for tapa were for clothing, bedding and wall hangings. Textiles were often specially prepared and decorated for people of rank. Tapa was ceremonially displayed on special occasions, such as birthdays and weddings. In sacred contexts, tapa was used to wrap images of deities. Even today, at times of death, bark cloth may be integral part of funeral and burial rites.


Barkcloth strip, Fiji, c. 1800-50, worn as a loin cloth, decorated with a combination of free-hand painting, cut out stencils and by being laid over a patterned block and rubbed with pigment (The British Museum)

In Polynesia, textiles are considered women’s wealth. In social settings, bark cloth and mats participate in reciprocity patterns of cultural exchange. Women may present textiles as offerings in exchange for work, food, or to mark special occasions. For example, in contemporary contexts in Tonga, huge lengths of bark cloth are publically displayed and ceremoniously exchanged to mark special occasions. Today, western fabric has also been assimilated into exchange practices. In rare instances, textiles may even accumulate their own histories of ownership and exchange.

Hiapo: Niuean bark cloth


Tiputa (Poncho), 19th century, Niue (Te Papa, New Zealand), photo: CC BY-NC-ND

Niue is an island country south of Samoa. Little is known about early Niuean bark cloth or hiapo, as represented by the illustration depicted below. Niueans’ first contact with the west was the arrival of Captain Cook, who reached the island in 1774. No visitors followed for decades, not until 1830, with the arrival of the London Missionary Society. The missionaries brought with them Samoan missionaries, who are believed to have introduced bark cloth to Niue from Samoa. The earliest examples of hiapo were collected by missionaries and date to the second half of the nineteenth century. Niuean ponchos (tiputa) collected during this era, are based on a style that had previously been introduced to Samoa and Tahiti (see example at left). It is probable, however, that Niueans had a native tradition of bark cloth prior to contact with the West.

In the 1880s, a distinctive style of hiapo decorations emerged that incorporated fine lines and new motifs. Hiapo from this period are illustrated with complicated and detailed geometric designs. The patterns were composed of spirals, concentric circles, squares, triangles, and diminishing motifs (the design motifs decrease in size from the border to the center of the textile). Niueans created naturalistic motifs and were the first Polynesians to introduce depictions of human figures into their bark cloth. Some hiapo examples include writing, usually names, along the edges of the overall design.


Hiapo (tapa), Niue, c. 1850–1900, Tapa or bark cloth, freehand painting (Aukland War Memorial Museum)

Niuan hiapo stopped being produced in the late nineteenth century.  Today, the art form has a unique place in history and serves to inspire contemporary Polynesian artists. A well-known example is Niuean artist John Pule, who creates art of mixed media inspired by traditional hiapo design.

Tapa today

Tapa traditions were regionally unique and historically widespread throughout the Polynesian Islands. Eastern Polynesia did not experience a continuous tradition of tapa production, however, the art form is still produced today, particularly in the Hawaiian and the Marquesas Islands. In contrast, Western Polynesia has experienced a continuous tradition of tapa production. Today, bark cloth participates in native patterns of celebration, reciprocity and exchange, as well as in new cultural contexts where it inspires new audiences, artists, and art forms.

Gottfried Lindauer, Tamati Waka Nene


By Dr. Billie Jane Lythberg
Senior Research Fellow
University of Auckland

Ancestor portraits

We all know portraits can be made of ancestors, but can a portrait be an ancestor?


Gottfried Lindauer, Tamati Waka Nene, 1890, oil on canvas, 101.9 x 84.2 cm (Auckland Art Gallery)

In Te Ao Māori, the Māori world, they can. Paintings like this one—and even photographs—do two important things. They record likenesses and bring ancestral presence into the world of the living. In other words, this portrait is not merely a representation of Tamati Waka Nene, it can be an embodiment of him. Portraits and other taonga tuku iho (treasures passed down from the ancestors) are treated with great care and reverence. After a person has died their portrait may be hung on the walls of family homes and in the wharenui (the central building of a community center), to be spoken to, wept over, and cherished by people with genealogical connections to them. Even when portraits like this one, kept in the collection of the Auckland Art Gallery, are absent from their families, the stories woven around them keep them alive and present. Auckland Art Gallery acknowledges these living links through its relationships with descendants of those whose portraits it cares for. The Gallery seeks their advice when asked for permission to reproduce such portraits. This portrait has been published in the Google Art Project, which is why we can look at it here.

Tamati Waka Nene

Māori are the indigenous people of New Zealand. The subject of this portrait, Tamati Waka Nene, was a Rangatira or chief of the Ngāti Hao people in Hokianga, of the Ngāpuhi iwi or tribe, and an important war leader. He was probably born in the 1780s, and died in 1871. He lived through a time of rapid change in New Zealand, when the first British missionaries and settlers were arriving and changing the Māori world forever. An astute leader and businessman, Nene exemplified the types of changes that were occurring when he converted to the Wesleyan faith and was baptised in 1839, choosing to be named Tamati Waka after Thomas Walker, who was an English merchant patron of the Church Missionary Society. He was revered throughout his life as a man with great mana or personal efficacy. What is Wesleyanism?


Paua eye in tewhatewha (detail), Gottfried Lindauer, Tamati Waka Nene, 1890, oil on canvas, 101.9 x 84.2 cm (Auckland Art Gallery)

In his portrait, Nene wears a kahu kiwi, a fine cloak covered in kiwi feathers, and an earring of greenstone or pounamu. Both of these are prestigious taonga or treasures. He is holding a hand weapon known as a tewhatewha, which has feathers adorning its blade and a finely carved hand grip with an abalone or paua eye (image above). All of these mark him as man of mana or personal efficacy and status. But perhaps the most striking feature for an international audience is his intricate facial tattoo, called moko.

Gottfried Lindauer and his patron


Detail, Gottfried Lindauer, Tamati Waka Nene, 1890, oil on canvas, 101.9 x 84.2 cm (Auckland Art Gallery

Lindauer was a Czech artist who arrived in New Zealand in 1873 after a decade of painting professionally in Europe. He had studied at the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna from 1855 to 1861, and learned painting techniques rooted in Renaissance naturalism. When he left the Academy he began working as a portrait painter, and established his own portrait studio in 1864. Just ten years later he arrived in New Zealand and quickly became acquainted with a man called Henry Partridge who became his patron. Partridge commissioned Lindauer to paint portraits of well-known Māori, and three years later, in 1877, Lindauer held an exhibition in Wellington. The exhibition was important because it demonstrated Lindauer’s abilities and he was soon being commissioned by Māori chiefs to paint their portraits. Lindauer took different approaches to his commissions depending on who was paying. He tended to paint well-known Māori in Māori clothing for European purchasers, but painted unknown Māori in everyday European clothing when commissioned by their families to do so. His paintings are realistic, convincingly three-dimensional, and play beautifully with the contrast between light and shadow, causing his subjects to glow against their dark backgrounds. As his patron, Partridge amassed a large collection of portraits as well as large scale depictions that re-enacted Māori ways of life that were thought to be disappearing. In 1915, Partridge gave his collection of 62 portraits to the Auckland Art Gallery—the largest collection of Lindauer paintings in the world.


“New Zealand—The Battle of Mahoetahi,” The Illustrated London News, January 19, 1861, page 67 with engraving from John Crombie photograph of Tamati Waka Nene

Painting Tamati Waka Nene

If you’ve been paying attention to dates you will have noticed that Nene died in 1871 but Lindauer didn’t arrive in New Zealand until 1873, and didn’t paint his portrait until 1890. It is likely that Lindauer based this portrait on a photograph taken by John Crombie, who had been commissioned to produce 12 photographic portraits of Māori chiefs for The London Illustrated News (image above). There are several other photographs of Nene, and in 1934 Charles F Goldie—another famous portrayer of Māori—painted yet another portrait of him from a photograph. So Nene didn’t sit for either of his famous painted portraits, but clearly sat for photographic portraits in the later years of his life. These were becoming more common by 1870, due to developments in photographic methods that made the whole process easier and cheaper. Many Māori had their portraits taken photographically and produced as a carte de visite, roughly the size of a playing card, and some had larger, postcard sized images made, called cabinet portraits. Lindauer is thought to have used a device called an epidiascope to enlarge and project small photographs such as these so he could paint them.

Lindauer didn’t make many sketches. He worked straight onto stretched canvas, outlining his subjects in pencil over a white background before applying translucent paints and glazes. Through the thinly painted surface of some of his works you can still see traces of pencil lines that may be evidence of his practice of outlining projected images. But Lindauer wasn’t simply copying photographs. In the 1870s, color photography had yet to be invented—Lindauer was working from black and white images and reimagining them in color. Moreover, sometimes he dressed his sitters—and those he painted from photos—in borrowed garments and adorned them with taonga that were not necessarily theirs. Thus some of his works contain artistic interventions rather than being entirely documentary.

Michel Tuffery, Pisupo Lua Afe

By Dr. Billie Jane Lythberg


Michel Tuffery, Pisupo Lua Afe (Corned Beef 2000), 1994, flattened cans of corned beef (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Collection) ©Michael Tuffery

What can a tin can bull teach us about ecological and population health issues in the Pacific? Michel Tuffery is one of New Zealand’s best-known artists of Pacific descent, with links to Samoa, Rarotonga and Tahiti. He majored in printmaking at Dunedin’s School of Fine Arts, and describes art quite literally as his first language because he didn’t read, write or speak until he was 6 years old. Encouraged instead to express himself through drawing, he now aims artworks like Pisupo Lua Afe primarily at children, hoping to engage their curiosity and inspire them to care for both their own health and that of the environment.

Pisupo Lua Afe is one of Tuffery’s most iconic works, made from hundreds of flattened corned beef tins, riveted together to form a series of life-sized bulls. Despite evident connections to Pop Art, especially Andy Warhol’s celebrations of the humble Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962), it’s impossible to read this work solely in the terms of Western art history. So what is Tuffery trying to tell us?

Pisupo—canned food in the Pacific

Pisupo is the Samoan language version of “pea soup,” which was the first canned food introduced into the Pacific Islands. Pisupo is now a generic term used to describe the many types of canned food that are eaten in the Islands—including corned beef. Not only is corned beef a favorite food source in the Islands, it has also become a ubiquitous part of the ceremonial gift economy. At weddings and birthdays, and other important life events both in the Islands and in Islander communities in New Zealand, gifts of treasured textiles like fine mats and decorated barkcloths are made alongside food items and cash money. But unlike the Island feast foods gifted at these events—such as pigs and large quantities of root vegetables—canned corned beef is a processed food high in saturated fat, salt and cholesterol (a type of fat that clogs arteries). These are all things that contribute to disproportionately high incidences of diabetes and heart disease in Pacific Island populations as diets formerly high in locally grown fruits and vegetables, seafood, coconut milk and flesh, give way to cheap, imported foodstuffs.

So Tuffery’s sculpture is impossible to separate from the ceremonies at which brightly colored tins of corned beef now figure in large quantities. But these links to traditional economic exchanges and population health only tell part of the story. Pisupo Lua Afe also critiques serious issues of ecological health and food sovereignty. Tuffery is interested in the introduction of cattle to New Zealand and the Pacific Islands and how they impact negatively on the plants, landscapes and waterways of these countries, as well as how industrialized approaches to farming disrupt traditional food production.


Head of bull (detail), Michel Tuffery, Pisupo Lua Afe (Corned Beef 2000), 1994, flattened cans of corned beef (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Collection) ©Michael Tuffery

Look at Pisupo Lua Afe. It’s literally a “tinned bull”—solid, hard-edged and weighty. Whereas a real cow has a visual softness suggested by its movements, eyes and coat, Tuffery’s tin cans and rivets—overlapping like large metal scales— better convey the capacity of beef and dairy cattle to destroy fragile island eco-systems. Look closer—single out just one flattened can. Think about all the cans that were emptied to make Pisupo Lua Afe. Then think about all the cans that are emptied and discarded in the Pacific Islands each year. Tuffery is gesturing rather obviously towards the challenge of rubbish disposal in Island economies where creative “upcycling” of materials into new objects is often more common than the civic recycling regimes of larger cities and countries (upcycling refers to reusing discarded objects to create a product of a higher value). What use is there for thousands of empty tin cans? And what use are foods that cause ill health, damage the environment, and take up large swathes of land formerly used to grow healthier, indigenous foods? Especially when the Pacific Island nations under Tuffery’s scrutiny are recipients of some of the worst products of such agricultural farming: fatty lamb flaps and turkey tails, and tinned corned beef.

Food sovereignty

Food sovereignty (sometimes called food security) is a great lens through which to view the various threads of traditional economic exchanges, population health, environmental degradation and industrialized food production introduced so far. Food sovereignty is the right of a nation and its peoples to decide who controls how, where and by whom their food is to be produced, and what that food will be. For Indigenous peoples in the Pacific, food and the environment are sacred gifts. There cannot be food sovereignty without control over food production and ownership, and without appropriate care of the environment.

Alongside Pisupo Lua Afe and his other tin can bulls, Tuffery has produced many artworks that address challenges to food sovereignty and the continued exploitation of Pacific Island resources, including the taro leaf blight epidemic in Samoa in 1993, and drift net fishing that is depleting fish stocks. For example, he’s made fish tin sculptures, like his “tinned bull,” which upcycle cans that hold another “staple” food in the Pacific: tinned mackerel. Tuffery made two of these for an exhibition called Le Folauga, shown in Auckland, New Zealand in 2007, which are now in the collection of the Auckland War Memorial Museum.


Michael Tuffery, Asiasi [Yellowfin] II (2000), fish cans, copper, aluminium and polyurethane, 60 x 250 x 100 cm (Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa Collection) ©Michael Tuffery

In the exhibition’s catalogue he explained:

O le Saosao Lapo’a and Asiasi I reflect on the ironic and irreversible impact that over-fishing and exploitation of the Pacific’s natural resources has wrought on the traditional Pacific lifestyle. This includes changing virtually overnight the dietary habits of generations.

Is it co-incidental that significantly increasing health and dietary problems amongst Pacific Islanders has occurred during the same period that their premium fisheries catches are exported? And at the same time locals have experienced explosive growth of canned & other imported products flooding into the Pacific?

Tuffery states the aims of his works very clearly. His fish tin sculptures are perhaps even more interesting and evocative because they are also functional fish-smokers used to cure and preserve fish. They have been used in this way at his exhibition openings, bringing a smoky, wood- and fish-scented haze to the gallery experience.

Firebreathing bulls?

Tuffery has also brought his “tinned beef” bulls to smoky life in various performative installations throughout the world, by installing fireworks inside their heads to give them the appearance of breathing fire. Mounted on castors with their necks articulated so their heads can be turned, he has staged bullfights with his fire breathing monsters, accompanied by drummers and groups of human performers issuing fierce challenges. But these performances have not been restricted to the sanctuary of the white walled gallery—these were performed outdoors, on city streets, to reach a community that might not otherwise come into the gallery to encounter his work.


Ambum Stone

By Dr. Jane Catherine Horan and Dr. Billie Jane Lythberg
University of Auckland


Ambum Stone, c. 1500 B.C.E., greywacke, 
20 x 7.5 x 14 cm, Ambum Valley, Enga Province, Papua New Guinea (Australia National Gallery, Canberra)

The Ambum Stone is a masterfully crafted stone carving, created around 3,500 years ago in the highlands of the island we now know as New Guinea. Who actually carved it and for what original purpose is not known. Nevertheless, the Ambum Stone had a life as a religious object for a group of people in Papua New Guinea before becoming an aesthetically beautiful and intriguing artifact of exotica in a Western gallery. More recently it suffered a mishap that left it broken, and the publicity around this thrust the Ambum Stone into ongoing political debates about who owns historical artifacts. Every chapter of this carving’s history has been entangled with personal and political intrigue, and chronicles a bigger story about colonization and shifting and evolving structures of power.


An ancient pestle

There are 12 recorded artifacts like the Ambum Stone: ancient stone mortars and pestles excavated from New Guinea, usually from the mountains of its interior. The smoothly curved neck and head of the Ambum Stone suggest its possible utility as a pestle when we consider its size—at about 8 inches high, the “neck” of the creature it depicts can be held in the hand, and its fat base could have been used to pound food and other materials. The tops of other ancient pestles from New Guinea are distinguished by human or bird heads, or by fully sculpted birds, while the mortars also include geometric imagery alongside avian (bird) and anthropomorphic (human) depictions.

The Ambum Stone is prized above all others not only for its age—it is one of the oldest of all sculptures made in Oceania—but also for its highly detailed sculptural qualities. It has a pleasing shape and smooth surface, and the slightly shiny patina on some of its raised details suggest it has been well handled. It was made from greywacke stone, and its finished shape may suggest the original shape the stone it was carved from. Greywacke is a very hard sedimentary stone, which often has fracture lines and veins that reveal its age and formation. Much greywacke has been subjected to significant amounts of tectonic movement, pressure and heat over extended periods, and some of the greywacke in the islands of the Pacific is more than 300 million years old. Imagine carving something as symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing as the Ambum Stone using only stone tools. It must have taken its maker many months to chip out the rough shape then finish it carefully, and the time and effort involved in its making suggests it was special and valued by whomever it was made for.

Carved in the form of some kind of animal, its features are rounded and include a freestanding neck, elegantly curved head and long nose, and upper limbs that hug its torso and appear to enclose a cupped space above its belly. Stylized eyes, ears and nostrils are depicted in relief, and shoulder blades and what could be an umbilicus suggest the maker’s understanding of anatomy. While it is possibly a fetal-form of a spiny anteater known as an echidna, which is thought to have been valued for its fat prior to the introduction of pigs, it might also be a bird or a fruit bat, and some have speculated that it represents a now extinct mega-sized marsupial.


Ambum Stone (detail), c. 1500 B.C.E., greywacke, 
20 x 7.5 x 14 cm, Ambum Valley, Enga Province, Papua New Guinea (Australia National Gallery, Canberra)

Ritual use in Papua New Guinea

When the Ambum Stone first became known to Westerners in the 1960s, it was being used by a group of people called the Enga who live in the western highlands of Papua New Guinea. For the Enga, the Ambum Stone and other objects like it are called simting bilong tumbuna which literally translates as the “bones of the ancestors” (Egloff 2008:1). This is the Enga term for a class of cult objects which were used as powerful ritual mechanisms where ancestors reside. While the ritual object is not actually an ancestor per se, paradoxically, such sacred objects are believed to have a life of their own, and they can even move around, mate, and reproduce. It would seem—for the Ambum Stone at least—they can also go on adventures and create controversy.

Enga society is based on an organizational power structure known as the “big man” system, and the negotiation of power depends on commanding natural resources like pigs and produce, as well as supernatural forces like the goodwill of the ancestors (or the Christian God). Power is vested with those “big men” who can cajole, organize, or even manipulate other people into giving them resources so these can be redistributed at big ritual events. Before the Enga decided to convert to Christianity in the wake of the arrival of missionaries and colonization in the 1930s, the Ambum Stone and other objects like it were imbued with supernatural powers through ritual processes. They were buried in a group’s ancestral land and regular sacrifices of pigs were needed to appease the stones and the ancestors that resided in them. With the appropriate care they could ward off danger and promote the fertility and vigor of the tribe and the land.


Ambum Stone (detail), c. 1500 B.C.E., greywacke, 20 x 7.5 x 14 cm, 
Ambum Valley, Enga Province, Papua New Guinea (Australia National Gallery, Canberra)

Christianity, colonization, and commoditization

When Christian missionaries arrived in Papua New Guinea, people largely embraced the new religion, the new system of power that came with colonization, and the consequent Australian administration. The big man system was maintained but the way of managing the supernatural took on a Christian guise. Objects like the Ambum Stone lost some of their former potency, but under the “Whiteman’s gaze” they acquired new parameters of value as “primitive art” and were therefore worth money.

The Ambum Stone came to distil exoticism, imbued with all the romance perceived by Westerners in the stark differences of Papua New Guinean ways of seeing the world, and evoking a primitivism and purity lost to the West. This exoticism was enhanced by its specific dimensions and proportions that meet a certain aesthetic ideal from a Western point of view. All of this, its “primitive” and aesthetic value drove its pathway through a murky set of transactions, culminating in its acquisition by the Australian National Gallery in 1977, where it is valued as a priceless antiquity.

Originally sold by two young boys (at the urging of resident missionaries) for 20 shillings to the European owner of the trade store in Wabag (Enga Province), it was then sold by an intermediary to Philip Goldman, a London art dealer. Goldman subsequently offered it to the British Museum, before selling the sculpture to the Australian National Gallery in Canberra, Australia. In his negotiations with the Museum and by way of justifying his asking price, Goldman compared the Ambum Stone to Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles which the gallery had purchased a few years earlier: basing the “primitive” Ambum Stone’s value on that of a work of modern art. Eventually, the Australian National Gallery agreed to pay Goldman $115,000 United States dollars for the stone.


Australian National Gallery, Canberra (photo: Nick-D, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Protecting the cultural heritage of Papua New Guinea

The Papua New Guinea Museum attempted to buy the Ambum Stone when it was offered to the Australian Museum, but was unsuccessful. Papua New Guinea became an independent state in 1975, and robust legislation and other legal structures have been in place since 1913 that prohibit the export of objects of antiquity and relevance to Papua New Guinea as a unique place in the world. The country has not been able to afford to make purchases on the international antiquities market because prices are too high for a developing nation. Further, Papua New Guinea has not had the capacity to enforce its legislation internationally until recently. Whether the Ambum Stone was legally exported from Papua New Guinea remains a point of contention.

Many objects of New Guinea’s historical material culture were shipped to foreign museums and galleries for “safe keeping.” Other desirable or even potentially valuable objects were smuggled out illegally. In 1977, the legal standing of the Papua New Guinea state to reclaim objects of national significance was bolstered by the opening of the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery, complete with state of the art storage and exhibition facilities. It was staffed first by Europeans who in turn trained Papua New Guinea nationals in museum management who were politically and philosophically intent on having antiquities returned to Papua New Guinea. Over the years the Papua New Guinea Museum and Art Gallery has perfected its systems of export control and its capacity to enact legal proceedings against those intent on taking antiquities out of the country. They have also been able to successfully negotiate the return of objects and whole collections that were sequestered away for safe keeping elsewhere in the world. Nevertheless, there are limits to their ability to enforce the return of objects such as the Ambum Stone.

Damage and restoration

In 2000, while on loan to a French art museum, the Ambum Stone was accidentally dropped and shattered into three main pieces and various shards of stone. It was later discovered by conservators, as they pieced it back together, that what had previously been thought to be old breaks, mended while in Papua New Guinea, were actually fracture lines of the greywacke stone. Fissures and grooves containing organic material were examined and were used to suggest its date of 1500 B.C.E. The Ambum Stone was carefully repaired, but other damage had been done. News of the incident made it into international media, which in turn generated the discussion about what the Ambum Stone—a registered antiquity belonging to Papua New Guinea—was doing in the possession of an Australian gallery in the first place. Whilst the Ambum Stone remains in Canberra, arguably the controversy over this artifact has meant that Papua New Guinea’s capacity to negotiate at the global level has been bolstered.

At the heart of the recent chapters of the story of the Ambum Stone is a narrative about colonialism and its legacy. The Ambum Stone was made and imbued with particular meanings and values by a group of what we now know as Papua New Guineans, and then relocated to a Western museum where it has been reinterpreted within a framework of aesthetics and exchange, where we continue to marvel at it—and exoticize it—because of its origins, and the mysteries we perceive in the pages of its story, remain closed to us.

Mask (Buk), Torres Strait, Mabuiag Island

klemm01  harris02

By Dr. Peri Klemm (left) and Dr. Beth Harris (right)
Klemm – Associate Professor of Art History, California State University
Harris – Professor of Art History, Khan Academy

Mask (Buk), Torres Strait, Mabuiag Island, mid to late 19th century,turtle shell, wood, cassowary feathers, fiber, resin, shell, paint, 21 1/2 inches high (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City)

Presentation of Fijian Mats and Tapa Cloths to Queen Elizabeth II


By Dr. Jennifer Wagelie
Professor of Art History
University of California, Santa Cruz


Presentation of Fijian mats and tapa cloths to Queen Elizabeth II during the 1953-54 royal tour, silver gelatin print, 16.5 x 22 cm (Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand)

A procession for a royal visit

On December 17, 1953, a newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, arrived on the island of Fiji, then an English colony, and stayed for three days before continuing on their first tour of the commonwealth nations of England in the Pacific Islands. What is the Commonwealth of Nations?

The Commonwealth of Nations, today commonly known as the Commonwealth, but formerly the British Commonwealth, is an intergovernmental organization of 53 member states that were mostly territories of the former British Empire.
While the precise date of the photograph depicted above is unknown, there is still much that can be learned both about Fijian art and culture and the Queen’s historic visit. The first thing you might notice in the photograph is the procession of Fijian women making their way through a group of seated Fijian men and women.


Several of the processing women are wearing skirts made of barkcloth painted with geometric patterns. Barkcloth, or masi, as it is referred to in Fiji, is made by stripping the inner bark of mulberry trees, soaking the bark, then beating it into strips of cloth that are glued together, often by a paste made of arrowroot. Bold and intricate geometric patterns in red, white, and black are often painted onto the masi. The practice of making masi continues in Fiji, where the cloth is often presented as gifts in important ceremonies such as weddings and funerals, or to commemorate significant events, such as a visit by the Queen of England. While in this photograph, the masi is only worn by the women and not carried, as far as can be ascertained in this picture; it is very likely that the women also presented the cloth to the Queen to celebrate the occasion of her visit.


Masi (bark cloth), Fiji (Auckland War Memorial Museum, accession no. 1990.54)


What is definitely evident from the photograph are the rolls of woven mats that each woman in the procession carries. Like masi, Fijian mats served and continue to serve an important purpose in Fijian society as a type of ritual exchange and tribute. Made by women, Fijian mats are begun by stripping, boiling, drying, blackening, and then softening leaves from the Pandanus plant. The dried leaves are then woven into tight, often diagonal patterns that culminate in frayed or fringed edges.


Mat, Fiji (Auckland War Memorial Museum, accession no. 1993.29)

While the mats that the women in this photograph are carrying may seem too plain to present to the Queen of England, their simplicity is an indication of their importance. In Fiji, the more simple the design, the more meaningful its function. Fijian artists continue to create mats and it is a practice that is growing, with many mats beings sold at market, often to tourists. With the advent of processed pandanus, they are more widely available than masi, and used heavily in wedding and funeral rituals.

In addition to masi and mats, Fijian art also includes elaborately carvings made of wood or ivory, as well as small woven god houses called bure kalou (left), which provided a pathway for the god to descend to the priest.


Bure kalou, Fiji, 81 x 38 cm (Australian Museum

The Queen’s itinerary

Returning to the Queen’s visit in 1953, while in Fiji she visited hospitals and schools and held meetings with various Fijian politicians. She witnessed elaborate performances of traditional Fijian dances and songs and even participated in a kava ceremony, which was (and continues to be) an important aspect of Fijian culture. The kava drink is a kind of tea made from the kava root and is sipped by members of the community, in order of importance. On the occasion of the Queen’s visit, she was, as you might imagine, given the first sip of kava. In thinking about the importance of the kava ceremony, consider what might happen if everyone from a large group takes a sip from the same cup and of the same liquid. Although sipped in order of hierarchical importance, it would, in the end, put everyone in the group on the same level before beginning the event, meeting, or ceremony.

After three days on the island of Fiji, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip departed for the Kingdom of Tonga where they stayed for two days before leaving for extended stays in New Zealand and Australia. On Tonga, they were greeted warmly by Queen Sälote and other members of the royal Tongan family. On the occasion of her visit to Tonga, an enormous barkcloth was commissioned in Queen Elizabeth’s honor and had her initials, “ERIII,” painted onto the rare piece of ngatu. Referred to as ngatu launima in Tongan, it is just shy of 75 feet in length and is significant not only because it commemorated Queen Elizabeth’s visit, but also because it was placed under the coffin of Queen Sälote when her body was flown back to Tonga in 1960 after an extended stay in a New Zealand hospital. The barkcloth is now in the collection of Te Papa Tongarewa/Museum of New Zealand, after being donated by the pilot who had flown Queen Sälote’s body back to Tonga, to whom the barkcloth had been given by the Tongan Royal Family.


Wooden sculptures from Nukuoro


By Dr. Fanny Wonu Veys
Oceania at the National Museum of World Cultures (Tropenmuseum, Afrika Museum and Museum Volkenkunde)


Nukuoro Atoll, Micronesia (Archive: NASA, International Space Station, CC BY-NC 2.0)

At the crossroads of cultures

Nukuoro is a small isolated atoll in the archipelago of the Caroline Islands. It is located in Micronesia, a region in the Western Pacific.


Location of Nukuoro in the Caroline Islands

Archaeological excavations demonstrate that Nukuoro has been inhabited since at least the eighth century. Oral tradition corroborates these dates relating that people left the Samoan archipelago in two canoes led by their chief Wawe. The canoes first stopped at Nukufetau in Tuvalu and later arrived on the then uninhabited island of Nukuoro. These new Polynesian settlers brought with them ideas of hierarchy and rank, and aesthetic principles such as the carving of stylized human figures. However the new inhabitants also incorporated Micronesian aspects such as the art of navigation, canoe-building and loom-weaving with banana fiber. Because Nukuoro is geographically situated in Micronesia, but is culturally and linguistically essentially Polynesian, it is called a Polynesian Outlier. 

Encounters with Westerners

The Spanish navigator Juan Bautista Monteverde was the first European to sight the atoll on 18 February 1806 when he was on his way from Manila (in the Philippines) to Lima (in South America). The estimated 400 inhabitants of Nukuoro engaged in barter and exchange with Europeans as early as 1830, as can be attested from the presence of Western metal tools. A trading post was only established in 1870. From the 1850s onwards, American protestant mission teachers who had been posted in the area, visited Nukuoro regularly from the Marshall Islands and from the islands Lukunor, Pohnpei, and Kosrae. However, when the American missionary Thomas Gray arrived in Nukuoro in 1902, to baptize a female chief, he found that a large part of the population was already acquainted with Christianity through a Nukuoran woman who had lived on Pohnpei. When Gray returned three years later, he found that the local sacred ground (marae) and the large temple had been replaced by a church. By 1913, many of the pre-Christian traditions including dances, songs, and stories were lost. Most of the wooden images had been taken off the island before 1885 and subsequently lost their function.


Figure, Nukuoro, Caroline Islands, Micronesia, wood, 54.5 cm high (The British Museum, acquired in 1944)

Earliest sources

In 1874, the missionary Edward T. Doane made the first mention of carved wooden figures. It is unclear, however, where this experienced missionary got his information from as he never left his ship, the Morning Star, to go ashore. Two German men, Johann Stanislaus Kubary, who visited the island in 1873 and in 1877 while working for the Godeffroy trading company and its museum, and Carl Jeschke, a ship’s captain who first visited the atoll in 1904 and then regularly between 1910 and 1913, give the most detailed information on the Nukuoron figures.


Female Figure, Nukuoro, Caroline Islands, Micronesia, 18th-19th century, wood, 40.2 cm high (Barbier-Mueller Museum)

Wooden sculptures

The first Europeans to collect the Nukuoro sculptures found them coarse and clumsy. It is not known whether the breadfruit tree (Artocarpus altilis) images were carved with local adzes equipped with Tridacna shell blades or with western metal blade tools (Tridacna is a genus of large saltwater clams). The surfaces were smoothed with pumice which was abundantly available on the beach. All the sculptures, ranging in size from 30 cm to 217 cm, have similar proportions: an ovoid head tapering slightly at the chin and a columnar neck. The eyes and nose are either discretely shown as slits or not at all. The shoulders slope downwards and the chest is indicated by a simple line. Some female figures have rudimentary breasts. Some of the sculptures, be they male, female or of indeterminate sex, have a sketchy indication of hands and feet. The buttocks are always flattened and set on a flexed pair of legs.


Local deities in Nukuoro resided in animals or were represented in stones, pieces of wood or wooden figurines (tino aitu). Each of the figurines bore the name of a specific male or female deity which was associated with a particular extended family group, a priest and a specific temple. They were placed in temples and decorated with loom-woven bands, fine mats, feathers, paint or headdresses. The tino aitu occupied a central place in an important religious ceremony that took place towards the month of Mataariki, when the Pleiades are visible in the west at dusk. The rituals marked the beginning of the harvesting of two kinds of taro, breadfruit, arrowroot, banana, sugar cane, pandanus and coconuts. During the festivities—which could last several weeks—the harvested fruits and food offerings were brought to the wooden sculptures, male and female dances were performed and women were tattooed. Any weathered and rotten statues were also replaced during the ceremony. For the period of these rituals, the sculptures were considered the resting place of a god or a deified ancestor’s spirit.


Alberto Giacometti, Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object), 1934 (cast c. 1954-55), bronze, 152.1 cm high (The Museum of Modern Art)

Early twentieth-century artists

When the Swiss sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti made his famous sculpture Hands Holding the Void (Invisible Object) (left) he was inspired by a wooden Nukuoro figure he had seen at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris (now in the collection of the Musée du quai Branly). A fellow artist, Henry Moore, considered the Nukuoro image at the British Museum (image above) to be one of the highlights in the history of sculpture. Both carvings are part of a small group of thirty-seven sculptures from Nukuoro that arrived in Western Museum collections from the 1870s onwards. European artists believed that the highly stylized representation of the human in the Nukuoro figures represented the purest form of art—an art that lay at the origins of mankind.

Nukuoro figures today

Today the sight of even a small Nukuoro figure still makes a big impact on visitors. Scattered across museums and private collections in Europe, North America and New Zealand, ten figures were brought together for the first time at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, near the Swiss city of Basel. This prompted research in these exquisite sculptures, which has been bundled in a book Nukuoro. Sculptures from Micronesia (2013). Nukuoro figures continue to inspire Nukuorons and Westerners alike as they are copied, and displayed in places ranging from people’s houses to Pacific themed hotel lobbies.


Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Earth’s Creation


By Allison Young
ABD doctoral candidate in Art History at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University


Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Earth’s Creation, 1994, synthetic polymer paint on linen mounted on canvas, four panels (private collection)

At nearly twenty feet wide and nine feet high, Emily Kwame Kngwarreye’s painting Earth’s Creation is monumental in its scale and impact, rivaling Abstract Expressionist masterpieces by Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock not only in size but also in its painterly virtuosity (see a photo of it in a gallery here, to get a sense of its scale). Patches of bold yellows, greens, reds and blues seem to bloom like lush vegetation over the large canvas. Comprised of gestural, viscous marks, each swath of color traces the movement of the artist’s hands and body over the canvas, which would have been laid horizontally as she painted, seated on (or beside) and intimately connected to her art.


Still from a short video produced by The National Museum of Australia

The work made records at auction when it was sold in 2007 for over $1,000,000—the highest price ever fetched for a work by a female artist in Australia. Yet, just decades earlier, Kngwarreye was virtually unknown to the world outside her small desert community in the Australian country of Alhakere. A self-taught artist who was trained in ceremonial painting, she rose to international prominence only in her eighties, and enjoyed a flourishing career at the end of her life.

Rooted in tradition

Kngwarreye was born around 1910, and spent most of her life in an isolated Anmatyerr community in Central Australia. The area, however, was forcibly occupied by European pastoralist settlers in the 1920s, and the artist, alongside other members of her community, worked on the pastoral property (pastoral refers to the tending of cattle and sheep). In 1976, Aboriginal land rights were legally granted, and she was able, finally, to live independently. 

Aboriginal culture has long been intimately connected to the landscape of Australia; inhabited by humans for over 40,000 years, the region is characterized by deserts, grasslands and dramatic arched rock formations. Kngwarreye was an established elder of her community and was trained to create ceremonial sand paintings inspired by her ritual “dreamings,’” as well as to paint decorative motifs on women’s bodies as part of a ceremony called 
Awelye. These visual forms were connected to cultural expressions in song, storytelling and dance. While her paintings have never been figural, they remain influenced by the culture in which she grew up as well as the natural environment.

Artistic intervention

In the late 1970s, Kngwayere began to work in the medium of batiks, making works that were purely artistic endeavors for the first time. In 1977, she was a founding participant of the Utopia Women’s Batik Group. Her compositions were abstract and featured the motif of repeated dots, acting sometimes as a linear stroke, or elsewhere used to fill large patches of space. A decade later, in 1988, the S.H. Ervin Gallery in Sydney initiated a “Summer Project” that sought to facilitate the creation of Aboriginal art, as well as to establish a market for the genre. Sponsored by the collector Robert Holmes à Court, curators traveled to the Aboriginal homeland of Utopia and delivered acrylic paints and materials. After two weeks they returned to find “abstract and richly expressive” compositions created by many of the artists, and held a group exhibition in Sydney.


Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Emu Woman, 1988–89, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 92.0 x 61.0 cm (The Holmes à Court Collection, Heytesbury)

Kngwarreye’s painting Emu Woman (above) was selected for the cover of the exhibition catalogue as a gesture of respect for her seniority, as she was the oldest artist from the community. Dominated by rich, earthy tones, the painting—her first ever on canvas–contained references to plants and seeds that featured in her “dreaming” ritual. Against a dark field of charcoal, violet and black, the piece is punctuated with bright marks in tangerine and white hues, which lend the work an electric sense of energy and rhythm. Her decades-long experience in painting directly on the human body informs the curving swells of dotted marks that comprise the composition.


Critics lauded the piece, and virtually overnight, the artist received international exposure and unprecedented acclaim. The following year, Kngwarreye held her first solo exhibition at Utopia Art Sydney, after which she would be invited to participate in several renowned international exhibitions and biennales.

The “global” turn

The arc of Kngwarreye’s career runs alongside a period of tremendous change in Australia, moving from the end of a phase of colonial settlement through to a more ethical embrace of Aboriginal culture by the nation’s Western population. Yet the period in which she came to prominence also reflects changes taking place in the contemporary art world internationally, as the 1980s and 1990s saw a notable expansion within the mainstream to include non-Western or minority artists. 

“Green time”

Earth’s Creation belongs to the “high colorist” phase in Kngwarreye’s work, which is characterized by a loosening of her compositions—which were no longer reliant on pseudo-geometric patterns—and the expansion of her color palette to include a range of tones beyond the familiar clay and ochre hues that dominated her prior works. Still connected to the natural environment, however, these works reference the changing atmospheric character of seasonal cycles. Earth’s Creation documents the lushness of the “green time” that follows periods of heavy rain, and makes use of tropical blues, yellows and greens. The piece has often been likened to Claude Monet’s studies of seasonal and temporal change, and given its formidable, room-filling scale, a comparison to the artist’s Water Lilies of 1914-26 (MoMA) might be remarkably apt.

Earth’s Creation was created as part of the larger Alhalkere Suite which contains twenty-two panels, and is still considered one of the most virtuosic of Kngwarreye’s immense and prolific artistic output. In the last two weeks of her life, Kngwarreye completed a suite of twenty-four small paintings. These were characterized by extremely broad, milky strokes of jewel-toned hues of blue and rose, and communicate the artist’s long-standing fascination with color and her sophisticated grasp of abstract composition.