The most significant exhibition of islander art in two decades is a confronting experience for all, writes Christopher Allen | November 15, 2008

Gods, Ghosts and Men – National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Until January 11.

As you enter Gods, Ghosts and Men at the National Gallery of Australia, you are confronted by an object that stops you in your tracks.

A huge mask woven from plant fibres and painted in ochres stares down with round, unblinking eyes and a gaping, cavernous mouth edged with sharp teeth.

You are meant to feel confronted: this mask used to hang on the gable of a spirit house, guarding its entrance against both evil forces and the uninitiated. We have to imagine how much more terrible it would have looked in its original setting, and to the eyes of people who believed in the literal reality and danger of the spirit world to which it refers.

There are many more surprises in this fascinating exhibition, from a dagger made from a man’s femur — possibly that of the maker’s own father, or of an enemy killed in battle — to a magnificent and rare Maori ceremonial cloak or a mummy-like ramparamp figure from Vanuatu, but the most surprising thing of all is to realise that this is the first survey show the NGA has held of its considerable and important collection of Pacific arts.

In fact this is the first significant exhibition of the arts of the Pa