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The dazzling colours and patterns of the art of the Pacific Islands have long entranced Western audiences, not least artists such as Gauguin and Picasso. The tendency has been to regard Oceanic art as 'primitive', mysterious and shrouded in taboo, but Nicholas Thomas, in looking at and beyond the familiar, stunning surfaces of masks and shields, carved canoe prows and feathered gods, discovers the significance of such objects, past and present, for the peoples of the Pacific. In this revised edition with a completely new chapter on globalization and contemporary art, he shows how each region is characterized by certain art forms and practices - among them Maori ancestral carvings, rituals of exchange and warfare in the Solomon Islands, the production of barkcloth by women in Polynesia - while also being shaped by influences from within the Pacific and beyond. The dynamism and diversity of this compelling art are highlighted by the works accompanying this revelatory text - from those that evoke deep-rooted customs to ones that address contemporary political issues, now illustrated in colour throughout.… (mere)
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OCEANIC ART by Nicholas Thomas, published in 1995, before the current Internet coverage of bw/coloured art work copy prints became universally every-dayish, is a work of valour, no less. One had, before then, geographical regional studies, and Form depth coverage, but not cross geographically regional with historically time and cultural depth syntheses. Thomasʻ work extends the value of Sydney Meadʻs EXPLORING THE VISUAL ARTS OF OCEANIA (1979), which consisted of articles by different specialist scholar-critics interested in independent place/ art specifics (ex., Maori Tattooing; Sepik River Carvings) -- very difficult to think of in a general, comprehensive way. There is enormous originality in every individual region and in, e.g., the Sepik River, with its numerous different jealously independent community, village sized, and tribal, any kind of unification theory may be suspect. Theory is necessary however, both etically and emically together.

At the time span that Thomas was engaged, Western art scholarship was highly influenced, one is tempted to say indoctrinated or ruled by etic positioned anthropological views that followed the rejection of indigenous emic Spirit beliefs. The religious nature of Pacific art being rejected except as observable external material and verbal testimonial affects and effects turned presentations of even the best studies of Pactfic art history into secular etic views for Western consumption.

To teach such in Pacific settings to the indigenous, especially if the teacher is indigenous, meant constant extracting meanings and keeping the examples that were visual, e.g., as intact as possible but with explanations of indigenous power, i.e., as living phenomena overseen by ancestral spirits. For example, the type of art (wood, body painting, canoe carving) had such itemized patternings that only presenting context and situation gave them genuine life, for meaning. Thomasʻ work keeps the geographic space delineations but adds ethnographic descriptions as well as theoretical analytical propositions. Visual examples proliferate.

The contexts and situations like births, deaths, marriages retain their force individually; but the social (genealogical, e.g.) and religious (spirit beliefs) and political-economic are all embedded in different ways (e.g. shifting from visual to sound to tactile--oral, verbal as poem, song, drama etc.) that shape-shift in space/time collectively. Rhythmically together and apart in tandem with not an everlasting consciousness (for much is subconscious/ unconscious from repetition, hence habit) but a sense of eternal continuity. The ancestors are fore, the descendant children are aft and the continuity is in an alternating tension and release -- Hegelʻs thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis is a useful organizational concept for modes of resonantal and obvious structure of form and substance, in time/space.

The abstracting of meaning, intellectual, from the in-situ level data is Western in scholarly practice, especially because the visual forms are often taken as meaningful apart from the acts and/or rituals of which they are a part in indigenous societies. In short, the book form for analyses of Oceanic art form is inept.

It is extremely difficult for truth-telling in the round. Nevertheless, Thomasʻ attempt was, for me, teaching in Tonga, a god-send; for ours was a poor university, lacking in the technology even of a Chaplin movie film camera as well as a slide projector that might survive the damp weather conditions of an atoll. For Tongan art, one might simply live in a village and attend the village and island wide festivals, the open air meetings for celebrations of the Kingʻs birthday, etc. To understand Oceanic art beyond means importing devices like books, movie screens, film, and later TV and computer, the latter two a very expensive proposition. Thomasʻ Oceanic Art has the great merit of having a single author, unlike Meadʻs anthology (Mead is a Maori Art scholar and critic). (which was a god-send in his time!). Thomasʻ illustrations are wonderful, for atolls and mountain islands like parts of the Marquesas (which are both) and Tahiti (mountain islands). Both, left to their own means, which they are not since France colonized them, are not apt to allow for high tech expository books and other media. Paper, and even if with leather covers (or metal, wood), and film, vinyl discs, tape have short life durations: they are apt to get water logged or heat dry rot, wind and rain storm abuse, for merely existing in annual hurricane countries when the nights and days may also be damp cold then dry cold in alternating clock-like seasons. (Algae and fungae dry tot on swamp trees in summer but one sees them in winter proliferate in swarms up and down what were dead trees and that may still be. )

Thomasʻ Art In Oceania includes bibliographical references with End Notes. The language level is high academic, unfortunately, perhaps intended for Western graduate students. It is above the level of most Pacific islanders in their island schools where English is not their first language, but a second, adjunct -- especially if the country consists mainly of villages and they are (if proudly also) isolated, with the communication by radio, at the fastest. Iʻm not sure, as well, how one may lower the level of the language in a subject field like art set for dissemination in a set apart place called a school house, etc., but not common as the Menʻs House and Womenʻs House -- and get maximum information in highly condensed forms for students outside the particular Pacific cultures with their very different world views even if religiously Christian divided into two: Protestant and Roman Catholic. That is, the emic and etic sides of cultural contexts are difficult to find in indigenous art historical criticism --the cultural values being extremely different in short and long term viewpoints without better critical techniques and theory. Oceanic Art is a very, very difficult subject and area to teach both Oceanic and non-Oceanic students without visual (text, dance, pictorial, progressive activity applications like ritual prayers, offering litanies etc.) And audio evidence -- most especially context and situation specific traditions of application and extraction of meanings, emically/etically.

But Nicholas Thomasʻ work goes a long, happy way to ameliorate the conditions wanting, especially because of the numerous illustrations, the strategies for analyzing them, socially and historically relative especially to forms of expressions where there are prize forms such as of tapa and carving (architectural, canoe, tribal symbolic Board Histories) , dance (religious, everyday, chiefly vs. non-chiefly), painting (body, implements of war, domestic uses) etc. Pacific Art includes the entire spectrum of the islandersʻ life -- including marked speech uses (oratory, honorary, official, funereal), music, cooking, hair styles and shell, tree. stone work.

That is, Pacific art is not about individual expressions of paint or writing, printed, framed, and placed on a wall in a home, gallery, or museums; it is not about composing music and meeting to hear it in a concert hall for those who can afford to pay money, etc. Pacific art is a totalistic, never ending, unfurling of forms -- seen as tradition bound by Westerners, but in fact, in USAGE, INVOLVES MOTION IN SPACE TIME RHYTHMICALLY MOVING. It is a CONTINUITY WITH A SPIRIT or spirit like FORCE enroute to closures and beginnings in actual lives, considered united if it is whole, which is the sense of ideal familial social whole, from godships to chiefly governments to administrators to the laboring people, as well as the environment that itself is alive in nature.
This view of all life is a living quality of being -- wood, stone iron as much as plant and flesh and now virus -- that, according to W.H. Auden, speaking of Greek cosmology, was also the view of the Classical Greeks, meaning of Athenianss (Forewords and Afterwards, l973:27), but not without abstracting at some point also.

Thomas attempts to make this case valiantly. The nature of the book form aids him in introducing the parts, pointing to their coherence but not successfully in how the parts work in actual life, in actual space/time, in motion. He had no room, less time, given the media used is the book. Film/camera and Audio, not books, are the only means to explain and analyze Pacific Art as recorded life forms -in the transmission of dataʻPacifia to Non-Pacifica and back. ( )
  leialoha | Mar 29, 2014 |
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The dazzling colours and patterns of the art of the Pacific Islands have long entranced Western audiences, not least artists such as Gauguin and Picasso. The tendency has been to regard Oceanic art as 'primitive', mysterious and shrouded in taboo, but Nicholas Thomas, in looking at and beyond the familiar, stunning surfaces of masks and shields, carved canoe prows and feathered gods, discovers the significance of such objects, past and present, for the peoples of the Pacific. In this revised edition with a completely new chapter on globalization and contemporary art, he shows how each region is characterized by certain art forms and practices - among them Maori ancestral carvings, rituals of exchange and warfare in the Solomon Islands, the production of barkcloth by women in Polynesia - while also being shaped by influences from within the Pacific and beyond. The dynamism and diversity of this compelling art are highlighted by the works accompanying this revelatory text - from those that evoke deep-rooted customs to ones that address contemporary political issues, now illustrated in colour throughout.

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