The Oceania exhibition which opens in London next week is a chance to tell a different side of the "discovery of the Pacific" story, says Associate Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage Carmel Sepuloni.

Sepuloni will be among the official delegation participating in events at the Royal Academy of the Arts which hosts the United Kingdom's first major exhibition of Oceanic art.

It features 10 of our contemporary visual artists, including Fiona Pardington, Michael Parekowhai, John Pule and Lisa Reihana, and is timed to coincide with the 250th anniversary year of the Royal Academy (RA).

The RA was founded in 1768, the same year as Captain James Cook's first Endeavour expedition.


Spanning more than 500 years, the exhibition includes around 200 works showcasing the art and culture of New Zealand, Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia.

Saying she is proud to promote Māori, Melanesian and Pacific People's art on the international stage, Sepuloni describes Oceania as a chance to tell Pasifika and Māori stories to the world.

"Marking 250 years since Cook began his voyage of 'discovery' of the Pacific, it gives us the chance to re-evaluate his legacy and the legacy of colonialism. He didn't discover the Pacific, the people of the Pacific did, and it's important that we tell that side of the story back to the world."

The exhibition will get a publicity boost when Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, attends the official opening ceremony on Tuesday. It will be Markle's first solo engagement and comes just weeks before she leaves the UK to travel with her husband, Prince Harry, to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga.

Oceania will provide her with a taste of what she can expect to see and some of the issues facing this part of the world. Sepuloni says given the Pacific region covers more than 30 per cent of the Earth's surface, it is of strategic significance and also faces many of the big global issues of the day: climate change, migration and regional and environmental security.

MP Carmel Sepuloni.
MP Carmel Sepuloni.

It's a point made by the RA, which says Oceania will also be a "revelation of modernity" with contemporary art highlighting the relevance of the past and the challenges of the present.

"The peoples of the Pacific are navigating challenges unprecedented in the thousands of years since they began to settle this vast ocean. A deeper international understanding of the Pacific — of its history and its future, including since European engagement began over 250 years ago — is vital to help meet those challenges."

While attention will be on the art, and Markle's visit, there will be behind-the-scenes meetings and events where NZ and Pacific leaders can talk to UK stakeholders on issues and encourage them to take a role in finding collaborative solutions.


"I'm looking forward to strengthening relationships with our Pacific neighbours and the UK," Sepuloni says.

"While there I will also be taking the opportunity to have meetings in relation to my other portfolios and I'm looking to the insights I get from those meetings."

She is keen to learn more about the repatriation of objects from museum and gallery collections back to the nations they came from.

"Repatriation is also something I'm very interested in, both of our taonga but also human remains. Trading in remains was a regrettable chapter in human history. Whether in the name of culture, science or commerce, this practice was disrespectful and harmful to indigenous communities.

"So it is heartening to see nations around the world, including New Zealand, begin to acknowledge past wrongdoings and show respect for traditional knowledge and culture."

Meanwhile, news that Markle will attend the opening reception of Oceania has delighted Creative NZ. The Arts Council is one of the organisations supporting the exhibition and chairman Michael Moynahan says the Duchess' attendance will guarantee greater awareness of Oceania.

Artist Lisa Reihana with her presentation Emissaries at the Venice Art Biennale. Photo / Michael Hall
Artist Lisa Reihana with her presentation Emissaries at the Venice Art Biennale. Photo / Michael Hall

"My hope is that the exhibition builds greater awareness and understanding of our region and that many, many people go through it to see the depth and sheer breadth of the art work — the taonga — from this part of the world," he says.

"Personally, I think people will come away amazed by that."

As well as Markle's visit, Oceania will attract extra attention when a ceremonial procession and opening blessing takes places through London streets on Monday morning.

The procession, from Green Park to the Royal Academy, is billed as a symbolic voyage by representatives of the cultures featured.

It will be formally welcomed, on behalf of the Academy by members of Ngāti Rānana, the London Māori Club.

Representatives, including descendants of the creators of some of the featured objects, will privately bless the exhibition and welcome their cultural treasures to London.