I had a magical visit at the Royal Academy of Arts giving access to a whole new world, known to us in avery piecemeal manner, normally through the filter of other artists’ perception, the originals being the spontaneous artwork created by the people of Oceania for no financial gain, reproduced and pillaged through the eyes of the commercially savvy modernists of the XXth century. Oceania first and Africa afterwards, the creative output of native cultures alien to the civilized Western world, have inspired a cultural revolution but have remained largely unknown and beyond comprehension. What is just a pretty picture worth loads of money to us is a vital part of a people’s identity and culture. What was sold as a curiosity and exhibited to amaze, is a visceral part of a whole we cannot belong to, let alone understand. Statues are spiritual beings, foreign cultures feel we have captured their ancestral spirit and kept it captive thousands of nautical miles from the place where they belong. What is just entertainment for us, is vital on the opposite site of the globe.
Oceania is a wonderful exhibition, opening the doors of perception into a world alien to us, a world made of water and populated by fantastical creatures. Only those fantastical creatures are simply part of nature, it is a world deeply steeped into nature, living in harmony with its surroundings, a total opposite to our artificial way of life, devoid of any contact with nature, animals, the cycle of life and death. Nature has become a mystery being appreciated maybe one hour a week in a documentary, any other living creature has been neutralized, be-gone. Deer are cartoons, frogs are princes, meat does not belong to an animal.
Oceania the exhibition offers a glimpse into a paradisiac world, no wonder Gaugin never returned from his haunts in the French Polynesia, captain Cook’s crew mutinied, and Robert Louis Stevenson chose to die in Samoa.
In the many rooms of the exhibition I could observe the silent presence of modern-day islanders, offering floral gifts, paying their respects to the soulful sculptures being exhibited. It was moving, witnessing a love and respect for a way of life probably contaminated forever by the poisonous Western influence, but still longed for so painfully.
Oceania Royal Academy of Arts London 10 December 2018