Whose lives? Whose art? Whose Fiji?

Some thoughts on “Fiji, Life and Art in the Pacific”, on view at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia, Norwich until February12,  2017.

Inlaid ceremonial throwing club, iUla tavatava vonotabua. A large ceremonial version of the famous Fijian short throwing club. This ornate royal prestige object is decorated with multiple whale ivory inlays of stars and crescent moons. It was the property of King Cakobau who gifted it to a Methodist missionary, Reverend James H.S. Royce. (Trustees of the Fiji Museum)

This soon-to-close exhibition of more than 270 objects is a joint project of the Sainsbury Centre  and the Cambridge Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology (CMAA),with the participation of the Fiji National Museum and the support of several  other  British and European museums as lenders of significant individual artworks. It is billed as the biggest collection of Fijian artworks ever presented.  

Priest’s dish for yaqona (kava) in the form of a duck. Figural kava bowls, like such as this rare duck, collected in 1849 and the man-shaped example also shown, predate the well known round communal bowl, which is a more recent introduction from Tonga. They were reserved for their priestly owners, who drank yaquona or kava (a mild narcotic) to channel he ancestor spirits. (Sainsbury Collection, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art)

In fact, however, this exhibition is not entirely new. It’s genesis was a 2013 – 2014 exhibition that was conceptually far more contained  and  much more modest. It was titled  Chiefs & Governors: Art and Power in Fiji and curated by  the CMMA’s Anita Hurley. The occasion for that event was the celebration the CMAA’s centenary at its current home – the relevance being  that the foundation collection  of the CMAA was donated  by the first British Governor of Fiji, Sir Arthur  Gordon, and his close friend Baron Anatole von Hügel, who became the CMAA’s first Curator.

Whale ivory double-figure hook. Virtually all Fijian ivory figures are Tongan carved, but they were readily adopted by Fijian chiefs as vessels for their own gods. This rare carving shows two female figures back to back above a multi pronged hook to hold offerings is one of only three collected in Fiji. H. 17.8 cm. (University of Aberdeen Museums )

 The current incarnation of this  exhibition, Fiji – Life and Art in the Pacific, has morphed into a more ambitious and perhaps more loosely focussed  exhibition incorporating old and recent objects from the Fiji National Museum  collection and significant loan items from Europe and the UK.

The exhibition features  some of the most famous Fijian artefacts ever displayed or published and many less well-known artworks. Masterpieces on display include a carved whale ivory  offering hook featuring twin  goddess figures,  plus several other rare carved wooden divinities and a mouth watering section of  clubs  and other outstanding  Fijian masterpieces, such as early sawn whale ivory breastplates and other body adornments, priest’s sacred oil dishes and many more. Nothing at all wrong with these, but  the shift of focus from  19th century personal relationships to a wider examination of Fijian art does rather beg the question of whose art and whose  lives  are being  projected?

Is it the Fiji represented by the cruise ship brochures as a tropical Garden of Eden of lush forests, coral seas, secluded beaches and happy friendly people living an idyllic life in a tropical paradise? 

Or a celebration of British colonialism at its paternalistic and enthusiastic best after Fiji was ceded to Britain in 1874 by King Kacobau, who united the islands under his rule?  

Earthenware Water vessel (saqa moli), Fiji, mid-19th century These attractive, multi-lobed earthenware water vessels are unique to Fiji. The water was poured directly into the mouth like a wine skin, and evaporation from the outside might have cooled the water. H. 16,5 x w. 16.8 x d. 18.5 cm. (Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts , University of East Anglia)

Or is it  a  tribute to the missionary zeal which Christianised 19th century Fiji, even though  many irreplaceable artworks were burned or  destroyed by enthusiastic converts in the process. ( Fiji was  successfully Christianised in a relatively short period of time after the British intervention and today more than 65% of Fijians claim affiliation to a church, compared to only 11% of  UK citizens).

Or Is it a coda to a once flourishing  Polynesian society based on autocratic divine rulers,  rigid social structures, heroic marine  voyaging and  endemic warfare?  A culture of which the are the most visible survivals are the  language, a still fairly rigid class system, a tradition of male tatooing and the creation and presentation  of art objects such as tapa and  fine woven mats created  mainly  by women and used  to honour social obligations?

Breastplate, Fiji, earlyto mid-19th century. Composite whale ivory and shell breast plates were yet another Tongan status symbol eagerly adopted by Fijian chiefs. They were built on a foundation of black oyster shell (the dark centre), usualy surrounded by a frame of whale ivory with a serrated edge, with a further ivory graphic element in the centre. Whale tooth ivory was once rare and precious in Fiji, but becam eplemntiful when Europeanand Ameiocan whalers started puitting into Fiji to tak eon water and food.This example is made up of no less than 10 separate pieces of ivory. The components were tightly butted to one another and attached the underlying shell by means of pegs or sennit string, but the fastenings were only visible from the back. H. 333 x w. 280 mm. (CMAA, Cambridge).

 My impression is that the Fiji  being commemorated here is largely an 18th century invention of the self-created King Cakobau, the ambitious chief  who  outmanoeuvred  his rivals to declare himself  king of Fiji, plus the Christian missionaries who backed him, and  the British colonial administrators who perpetuated  his supremacy  after some initial misgivings. And even this  is possibly an oversimplification that ignores the very  Balkanised nature of Western Polynesia reflected in the  turbulent and far from  homogenous history of the Polynesian triangle of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.

The  political  and social outcomes of the British intervention in Fiji were certainly dramatic. Tonga, which had at times  controlled and exacted tribute from large areas of Fiji was finally excluded from the  islands, while many Fijian chiefdoms were downgraded in status by Cakobau’s ambitions, a process that  generates ill feeling among their descendents to this day.

Two  consequences of these transitions that would have  affected the creation of traditional art in Christianised Fiji were the  breaking of the powers of the divine chiefs  and the traditional priests, which had been  the motivation for almost all serious  art until then, and the end of  intertribal warfare, which saw  Britain flooded with  superb war clubs for  which there was now no practical use. A third factor was the growth of the  whale oil and baleen trade, which resulted in large quantities of whale ivory becoming available in Fiji.

At the same time, the evolution of Fijian art and culture was never exclusively Fijian. Fiji was a part of the well-connected Western Polynesian Triangle formed  by Tonga,   Fiji and Samoa, a relationship  that was often  politically dominated by  Tonga. The Tongans had the political clout  to import  Samoan carpenters and boat builders to work the tall timber of Fiji and as result many Fijian art forms show influences from Tonga and Samoa. The finest clubs, for example, were fashioned by descendents of  Samoan boat builders, while many  ornate whale ivory carvings adornments were actually fashioned by Tongan specialists.

Man-shaped dish for yaqona (kava). An extremely rare man-shaped priestly kava bowl for ritual consumption of yaqona by the priest to aid in channeling the spirits through his body so that he could receive messages from them for the chief. (Trustees of the Fiji Museum)

It could also be argued that the true legacy  and achievement of western Polynesia is the discovery and wide spread settlement of Polynesian societies from the Marquesas to New Zealand and Tahiti which created  a new world called Polynesia. Samoan-built and Fijian and Tongan crewed  drua double hulled  canoes were the largest vessels sailing in Oceania in the pre-European era, hence the inclusion of a traditionally built drua replica 8 metres long  on display in Norwich to symbolise the original  ocean going sailing vessels, which were up to 130 ft (40 metres) long,  carried 200 persons and could easily outpace a 19th century European sailing ship. 

I understand the need to get the museum turnstiles clicking and therefore to provide  a not  too challenging couple of hours  diversion for the casual museum visitor who  has a vague interest in Fiji and is  seeking  somewhere weatherproof on a wet British weekend, but one  thing I have learned as a result of a longstanding interest in Polynesian art is that the intellectual concepts that underlie  it  are complex and arcane. Anyone who has had the opportunity to hear Fergus Clunie, ex Director of the Fiji National  Museum, speaking for an hour on the significance of red feathers, or the so-called cannibal fork, must be impressed by the mystery and  intricacy of the concepts and belief system that makes sense of the art. Surely the time has come to  peel back the heavy old varnish of political ambitions, imperialism and missionary conversion  to reveal the true creative force of the culture that is embodied in the art of Polynesia?

In  spite of this slight reservation,  however, I can only suggest that if Fijian art fascinates you and you can possibly  get to  Norwich ( just over 100 miles outside London) before this show closes on Feb 12th, you should definitely do so. You are not likely to see this many superb  Fijian artworks one room again for decades.

David Said. December, 2016



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