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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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