Exhibition | Fiji: Art and Life in the Pacific

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on August 28, 2016


Double-hulled Fijian Canoe (drua), Suva Harbour, August 2015.
Photo: Steven Hooper.

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Press release for the exhibition:

Fiji: Art and Life in the Pacific
Sainsbury Centre, University of East Anglia, Norwich, 15 October 2016 – 12 February 2017

Curated by Steven Hooper with Katrina Igglesden and Karen Jacobs

Revealing stunning sculptures, textiles, ceramics, and ivory and shell regalia, Fiji: Art and Life in the Pacific opens in October 2016 at the Sainsbury Centre, Norwich. The largest and most comprehensive exhibition about Fiji ever assembled, it will take the visitor on a journey through the art and cultural history of Fiji since the late 18th century. A highlight of the exhibition will be a beautiful, newly commissioned, eight metre-long double-hulled sailing canoe that has been built in Fiji and shipped to Norwich for display. Made entirely of wood and coir cord, with no metal components, the canoe results from a project to encourage canoe-building skills and is a small version of the great 30-metre- long vessels of the 19th century, the biggest canoes ever built.

Over 270 works of art, including European paintings and historic photographs, are being loaned by exhibition partner the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology at Cambridge, and by the Fiji Museum, the British Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum (Oxford) and museums in Aberdeen, Birmingham, Exeter, London, Maidstone, as well as Dresden and Leipzig in Germany.

This exhibition results from a three-year Arts & Humanities Research Council-funded project which examined the extensive but little-known Fijian collections in the UK and overseas and uncovered some significant treasures. Research project leader and exhibition curator Professor Steven Hooper says, “An important aspect of this exhibition is that the many examples of exceptional Fijian creativity on display are not presented as  ethnographic specimens or illustrations of Fijian culture, but as works of art in their own right, as worthy of attention as any art tradition in the world, including Modernism. Remarkable creative imagination is applied to the making of ancestral god images, ritual dishes and regalia, and to the decoration of enormous barkcloths.”

Paintings, drawings and photographs of the 19th and 20th century provide context for the artworks. These include exquisite watercolours by the intrepid Victorian travel writer and artist Constance Gordon Cumming and by naval artist James Glen Wilson, who was in Fiji in the 1850s.

Fiji has always been a dynamic place of cultural interactions and exchanges. Since 1000 BC voyaging canoes have transported people and objects around the region, including to Tonga, Samoa and other neighbouring Pacific islands. In the 19th century new voyagers arrived—Europeans—with their new technologies, metal, guns, and Christian religion. Sophisticated strategists, Fijian chiefs twice asked to join the British Empire, and a colonial government was established in 1874. Fiji became independent in 1970. Fiji managed the British colonial administration quite effectively, establishing a particularly close relationship with the British royal family, notably with Her Majesty the Queen.

Fiji has also succeeded in maintaining and adapting many of its proud cultural traditions, and today woodcarvers and textile artists continue to produce sailing canoes, kava bowls (for the preparation of the important ritual drink), and impressive decorated barkcloths—some over 60m long, for weddings and mortuary rituals. In the vibrant Pacific fashion scene designers are using barkcloth and other local materials to make gowns and wedding dresses, showing their creations in London and Los Angeles.

The Sainsbury Centre’s large 900m suite of galleries will be used to present Fiji’s rich cultural past and its important relationship with Britain. Despite a population below one million, Fiji is known globally as a major rugby nation (they are currently World Champions at Rugby 7s) and as an alluring destination for travellers, for whom Fijian hospitality is legendary. The Sainsbury Collection, housed at the Sainsbury Centre, Norwich is world renowned for its works of art from the Pacific, the Americas, Africa, and Asia, as well as for its antiquities and modern works by Picasso, Moore, Giacometti, and Bacon. A selection of contemporary Fijian works such as painted barkcloths and small wood carvings will be stocked for sale in the Museum shop during the exhibition. A fully illustrated book by Steven Hooper will serve as a catalogue of the exhibition and an art history of Fiji.

The exhibition is curated by Professor Steven Hooper, with Katrina Igglesden and Karen Jacobs, all at the Sainsbury Research Unit at the University of East Anglia. Steven Hooper became passionate about Pacific art when growing up in his grandfather’s private museum, the Totems Museum  in Arundel, Sussex. It was full of objects brought back from the Pacific as a result of Britain’s naval, missionary, and colonial past. He initially spent over two years (1977–79) doing anthropological research on Kabara, a remote island in eastern Fiji, where canoes, bowls, and barkcloths were still made and which had retained a rich traditional culture. In August 2015 he was in Fiji sailing on, and filming, the canoe that has been specially made for the exhibition. Katrina Talei Igglesden is a PhD student studying Fijian barkcloth and design/fashion. Her mother is Fijian. Karen Jacobs is Lecturer in the Arts of the Pacific specialising in clothing, missionary collections, and the arts of the Kamoro region of West Papua. In 2014 Jacobs and Igglesden co-curated the exhibition Art and the Body at the Fiji Museum.

This exhibition is one of the main outcomes of a research project Fijian Art: political power, sacred value, social transformation and collecting since the 18th century, funded by the UK s Arts and (umanities Research Council  A(RC  from 2011 to 2014. It was a collaborative endeavour of the Sainsbury Research Unit (SRU) at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) at the University of Cambridge. Led by Professor Steven Hooper (SRU) and Dr Anita Herle (MAA), project members undertook extensive research on Fijian collections in the UK and overseas, with the aim of bringing these substantial but hitherto little-known collections into the academic and public domains. Artefacts, archives, and pictorial material, including photographs, are being brought together to allow fresh perspectives on the art and history of Fiji.

The islands now called Fiji were first settled about 1000 BC by voyagers from the west, probably from Vanuatu. During the subsequent 3000 years further migrations occurred and the population had expanded to over 120,000 by the late 18th century, when Fiji was briefly visited by Captain Cook and Captain Bligh. After the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789, Bligh was chased by Fijian canoes and was fortunate to escape. The 19th century saw the arrival of European traders, missionaries and planters, and after the first request in 1859 to join the British Empire was turned down, Fiji eventually became a British colony in 1874, with Sir Arthur Gordon as first Governor. He and others based at Government House, including Baron Anatole von Hügel and the redoubtable lady traveller Constance Gordon Cumming, were avid collectors and turned it into a kind of museum. Much of this material was eventually sent back to Britain, hence the substantial collections at Cambridge, the British Museum, and elsewhere. There is also a major high-quality collection in Fiji Museum in the capital, Suva. Although pre-Christian images, ritual objects, and weapons ceased to be made after conversion to Christianity and the cessation of warfare during the 19th century, other traditions, such as canoe building and barkcloth making, have continued as part of a rich traditional cultural life.





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