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Exhibition exploring the art of Oceania opens in Shanghai

By XING YI | China Daily | Updated: 2019-06-18 09:22

An exquisite exhibition of art and crafts from the Oceania region was unveiled in Shanghai recently, offering Chinese visitors an opportunity to peek into the ancient culture and society of the Pacific islands.

Titled Arts of the Great Ocean, the special exhibition, staged in the Shanghai Museum and set to run through Aug 18, features 150 exhibits-including a wooden oar carved with an intricate geometric design, a canoe prow sculpted to resemble a human face, a jade tiki pendant and a sperm whale ivory necklace.

All the artifacts were selected from the collection of France's Musee du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, which boasts an eclectic catalog of more than 30,000 exhibits from the Oceania region.

Stephane Martin, president of the Musee du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, says that recent archaeological studies show that some of the first people to inhabit Oceania traveled from ancient southern China to the Pacific islands, where they settled and developed their unique culture.

"In a sense, the Pacific islanders and Chinese share the same roots," Martin says.

The pieces featured in the exhibition are of great aesthetic and anthropological value, offering a valuable insight into the richness of a vast cultural sphere that is home to multiple identities. In this complex and, more often than not, hostile environment, these people have shown the true heights of creativity, he adds.

The exhibition tries to present that creativity and its uniqueness, showing how people worshipped and decorated their temples, how they farmed and fought, how they made textiles from tree bark and ornaments from shells and feathers.

The whole exhibition is set against an ocean blue background and, at the entrance of the exhibition hall, a big map of the Oceania region enables visitors to get a general picture of the area, before examining the exhibition's five different sections which cover different aspects of life in the Pacific islands. Most of the exhibits on show are made from wood and were created between the 18th and 20th centuries.

"The connection between the ocean and the land is the main theme of the exhibition," says curator Constance de Monbrison, head of the Insulindia collections of the Musee du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac. Insulindia refers to Maritime Southeast Asia.

The people of Oceania traversed the region in outrigger canoes that could transport up to 200 men, along with plants and animals. They were experts in open sea navigation, and their societies adapted to the diversity of the islands, developing rituals with a rare degree of complexity.

"The bond that united these travelers to the sea would have no meaning without the presence of the land, where people finally settled. It is through the prism of this sea-land dialectic that we invite you to discover the arts of the Great Ocean," she says.

Yang Zhigang, director of the Shanghai Museum, says this is its first exhibition that comprehensively showcases the art of the people of Oceania, as the exhibits come from all the three major subregions, namely Micronesia, Polynesia and Melanesia.

The last time that artifacts from the region came to the Shanghai Museum was eight years ago, when they held an exhibition in conjunction with New Zealand's Otago Museum on the life and culture of the indigenous Maori people, he says.

"The 150 artworks in this exhibition tell the stories of the distinct and unique cultures of Oceania. They highlight the wild imagination of the indigenous people of the Pacific Ocean, while exuding an undeniable rustic charm," Yang writes in the introductory notes in a brochure about the exhibition.

"As French artist Paul Gauguin stated in his journal, Noa Noa, which records his life on Tahiti: 'Yes, indeed, the savages have taught many things to the man of the old civilization; these ignorant men have taught him much in the art of living and happiness'."

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