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

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

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In fact this is the first significant exhibition of the arts of the Pacific Islands since Pieces of Paradise, at the Australian Museum, in 1988.

Such neglect appears odd, for the cultures of the Pacific Islands were one of the areas of specialisation recommended by Daryl Lindsay in the report he presented to Robert Menzies in 1966 on the shape of the future national collection. Lindsay recommended “urgent measures” to develop the collection, and his advice was taken seriously. During the next few years, William Dargie undertook three important collecting expeditions in New Guinea, which was still an Australian protectorate at the time.

James Mollison, the first director of the NGA, continued to build the Pacific collection, both before and after the gallery’s opening in 1982. Existing collections were purchased or in some cases received as bequests. Mollison’s two successors, though, seem to have lost interest, perhaps distracted by the growing popularity of Aboriginal art. There was some angst, too, about the supposed difficulty of finding the right balance between ethnographic and fine-art approaches to the artefacts.

Under Ron Radford, all that has changed, and Pacific arts have once again become a priority. A new senior curator, Michael Gunn, has been appointed and the collection will eventually have a more suitable home than the landing it occupies on the way up to the Australian collection.

In the meantime, the present exhibition has been put together by the curator of Pacific arts, Crispin Howarth, who seems to have had no trouble revealing the aesthetic qualities of these objects while also situating them in their ethnographic context. After all, the problem is not fundamentally different from that of exhibiting any other objects whose appreciation requires explanation of their historical origins and relevant religious beliefs or cultural conventions. Buddhist sculptures or Byzantine icons raise similar issues.

Australia is obviously well placed to study these cultures and to collect their art, because of our proximity, historical links and close economic and political involvement. On the other hand, this familiarity can lead us to thinkof the Melanesian and Polynesian states at best as cheap tourist destinations and at worst aseconomically unviable, crime-ridden or politically unstable societies subsisting on the aid wegive them. The south Pacific looks much more romantic from London or Paris than it doesfrom Sydney.

But this region has had a significant presence in the consciousness of the West for two and a half centuries, ever since the days of the great Enlightenment explorers. The Polynesians in particular appealed to the European imagination for their physical beauty and reputedly free sexual morality. Denis Diderot, the French philosopher, was impressed by this aspect of the explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville’s account of his journey in Voyage Autour du Monde (1771), long before Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) fascinated and shocked its readers with revelations of unselfconscious sexuality. In general, the life of the Polynesians seemed simple, harmonious and natural: they came closer than almost any other indigenous people to the romantic ideal of the noble savage. By the late 19th century, the South Pacific had attracted such individuals as painter Paul Gauguin, who lived in Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands, and writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who settled in Samoa; both died in their adopted lands.

The Polynesians also gave us a word — first borrowed by Captain Cook — that has become important both in technical and everyday use: taboo, or tapu. The term has a range of meanings from sacred to forbidden, not unlike the Latin sacer, which can mean both sacred and accursed; it reminds us that a potent spiritual charge is always dangerous. At the end of the 19th century we borrowed another word shared by the Melanesians and the Polynesians, mana, which helped to elucidate the similar significance of the Latin numen, in each case a spiritual force that could also become a personal presence or godhead. These concepts became fundamental to anthropology and the study of religions, and then to psychoanalysis. All of these connections helped to make the art of the South Pacific attractive to the surrealists, and one of the collections acquired by the NGA was that of surrealist painter Max Ernst.