Book review

Art of the Pacific Photographs by Brian Brake Conversations by James McNeish with commentary by David Simmons
published by Oxford University Press in association with the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand, Wellington, 1979 ($39.95)


Art of the Pacific presents tribal artefacts of the Pacific as art. Here we get somewhat glamorous photographs in colour or rich black-and-white with an impact that does justice to the fascinating variety of the pieces. No mere catalogue of material with token grey, evenly-lit illustrations here! With a wide sampling of works from New Zealand collections included for their individual qualities, this is a book of stunning images, and a background text of conversations, that together attempt to vitalize Pacific art.

The works illustrated are presented to us in such a manner that they stand on their own. They are divorced from backgrounds, save for captions and notes. The notes suggest that, because many objects were originally souvenired by the first Europeans, many have become unexplainable. So we are left with aesthetic objects.

Nineteenth century
wooden gooddess figure
from Nukuoru
(Collection of the Auckland Museum)

One gains the feeling in looking at these photographs that the vision needs to be educated to see the works as intended. Traditional criteria of judgement seem redundant and other factors become more important. The fact that one finds the use of scale, of parts to whole, so unusual here may be the result of our viewing these works with western eyes.

But with all the evidence of fine craftsmanship within a wealth of styles and subjects the pieces (mostly sculpture) offer a rich store indeed! From abstract decoration and pure functionalism through to a variety of figure styles, the individual taste will find much reward.

As a sculptor with my own preoccupations my attention is caught to begin with by the figures in tribal art. A figure such as the man-shaped oil dish from Fiji (70) impresses. There is a monumental presence that the photograph, with its ghostly outline and element of mystery, is cleverly judged to augment. The quality that unites this art with all art is decisiveness of form: whether it is in the simple lines of this dish, or in the accretion of detail that dazzles the eye in the Maori threshold (paepae) (128). Here, the adding together of the sharply-defined details is executed with a sure sense of balance and absence of fuss within the simple shape of the whole. The harsh light of the photograph breaks up the form with its dense black shadows and points up the multiplicity of detail.

With each work in this book, an eye-catching image has been achieved, making the book first a pleasure and only secondly a cultural duty.

My favourite piece from the Auckland Museum is simply and effectively presented. This large goddess from the Caroline Islands (78), standing over two metres high, with her broad shoulders, short legs, and W chest. The interplay between the human and geometric elements is endless as the mind conceives the sculpture first one way and then the other. How did the sculptor see her? Were her smooth shapes transcendingly beautiful or powerfully magical? Serene or terrifying?

Released in the photograph (and also by the new Museum display) from a glass-case curio approach into an art gallery atmosphere, her formal qualities are everything. The mastery displayed in the simplest shapes and lines, the balance of the part to the whole, make her an anonymous masterpiece. She is only one of many which this book brings vividly to our attention.