The Telegraph described it as an "ambitious and astonishing exhibition" while Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones declared he didn't just like the art but wanted to live in the world it portrays. He also speculated that modernist masters like Picasso were more influenced by Oceanic art than we might have previously realised.

The opening was also the first solo official function for Meghan, Duchess of Sussex who, said those present, listened as artists raised concerns about climate change and the Pacific's place in the world.

The "astonishing blast of a show" demonstrating the complex, spectacular legacy of Oceanic art is, of course, Oceania, the Royal Academy of Arts' massive exhibition showcasing the art and culture of Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia and Aotearoa New Zealand.

But the art is only one side of this exhibition, which includes around 200 pieces of work, spanning 500 years, and features New Zealand contemporary artists: Fiona Pardington, Michael Parekowhai, John Pule, Lisa Reihana, Yuki Kihara, Mark Adams and the four-strong Mata Aho Collective.
Timed to coincide with the academy's 250th anniversary, the same year as Captain James Cook's first Endeavour expedition to the Pacific, the exhibition itself is a challenge to look at the history of colonialism and discover more about the region's ties to the United Kingdom.


Against the backdrop of a political climate where Brexit seems to be closing the UK's doors to the Europe, Oceania also provides a timely opportunity to reveal fresh stories of voyages, new encounters and settlement.

Māori leader Pouroto Ngaropo said an exhibition uniting the cultural treasures of Oceania was an important way for Pacific peoples to reclaim their culture and gift it back to the world.

"The beautiful artwork, through carving, weaving, storytelling and drawing, has enabled us to never forget our past. From our past we can affirm why we are here, and for the generations that will follow."

Entering, visitors are greeted by Kiko Moana, a royal blue vision of the ocean cascading from the ceiling on to the floor. The textile-based artwork by Mata Aho, an artists' collective of four Māori women, presents an undulating vision of the sea connecting the many islands of the Pacific to each other — and the rest of the world.

Erena Baker, Sarah Hudson, Bridget Reweti and Terri Te Tau, of the Mata Aho Collective. Photo/David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts
Erena Baker, Sarah Hudson, Bridget Reweti and Terri Te Tau, of the Mata Aho Collective. Photo/David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts

But, much like the sea, its bright colour hides darkness within its depths. The piece's beauty belies a darker message that artist Sarah Hudson said highlighted the "health of our waterways" brought about by global activity filling the ocean with plastic and the air with pollutants.

Artist Terri Te Tau said it's the cultures represented in the exhibition were suffering the impact of climate change brought about by humans: "A couple of these islands might not exist in a couple of years."

This dilemma is encapsulated in a simple but moving video installation Much like the sea, its bright colour hiding darkness within its depths. Tell Them is a haunting tale told through the words of Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a Marshall Islander poet and spoken word artist:

"Tell them we only have one road and after all this, tell them about the water, how we have seen it rising flooding across our cemeteries, gushing over our sea walls and crashing against our homes…


"Tell them we don't know the politics of the Science, but we see what is in our backyard."

"We don't want to leave ... we are nothing without our islands."

NZ High Commissioner Sir Jerry Mateparae was moved to hear of the fight faced by Pacific peoples living on islands threatened by these rising seas. Mateparae said he views the exhibition as an opportunity to remind those across the globe that we are all connected by the oceans.

"Thousands of years ago people were traversing the Pacific and they had familial links across the Pacific ... in contemporary times [we are still connected] not because canoes are traversing, but it is because in many ways the Ocean is calling for our help."

Oceania co-curator Nicholas Thomas said the exhibition was designed to give a deeper history of art in the Pacific but also foreground the urgency of the questions that confront us today.

"Oceania is the only part of the world where it was settled by water," said Thomas, also the director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. "We wanted to foreground those processes and those interactions ... that voyaging process that took people to places where they settled and created communities and established genealogies."

Part of the motivation was to show this "unique process" of settlement and the "distinctive ways of living" resulted. Thomas said this history of voyaging remains relevant in today's world though as some of the contemporary pieces in the art exhibition highlights, the reasons for doing so may begin to change.

"Islanders in the Pacific voyaged to settle those islands thousands of years ago, but those voyages continued in the subsequent centuries. That voyage continues today in part, and most shockingly, because of sea-level rises."

Lisa Reihana:
Lisa Reihana: "Art can shift perceptions". Photo/David Parry, Royal Academy of Arts.

Towards the end of Oceania, visitors see in Pursuit of Venus [infected] — artist Lisa Reihana's 23m-wide panoramic video installation which, at first glance, seems to show stunningly beautiful scenes in an idyll Pacific. A second glance shows those peaceful scenes of interaction between two cultures are not as they seem.

The word infected references the "infection" that came as the settlers brought with them diseases across the seas to the Pacific. Reihana wants people looking at the piece to develop a wider world view when looking both at the past and the future.

"Art can shift perceptions. I'm hoping there is empathy within the viewer to see things from multiple points of view, when we think about the Pacific and boat people."

Creative New Zealand chair Michael Moynihan said it was vital to run an education programme throughout the exhibition. There is a series of lectures with artists on their work, conversations around how cultural treasures should be treated, a look at literature from Oceania and discussions around the exhibition's themes of voyaging, settlement and encounters in the 21st century.

That now includes five Māori and Pasifika writers — Witi Ihimaera, Paula Morris and Tina Makereti and Pasifika poets Karlo Mila and David Eggleton — taking part in a panel discussion next month. Each writer will choose an artwork as a starting point to explore the exhibition's themes and will also talk about the role of indigenous writers and literature.

Award-winning writer and journalist Damian Barr also hosts one of his renowned Literary Salons with the writers. Glasgow-born Barr recently spent three months in NZ as part of the University of Otago's Scottish Writers Fellowship. His observations on the country, the population and its cuisine were shared in a series of light-hearted social media posts which garnered hundreds of likes.

The writers will also participate in a Commonwealth Writers Conversation hosted by the Commonwealth Foundation. This invitation-only event at the historic Marlborough House in Pall Mall will focus on the contemporary perspective of South Pacific writers.

Moynihan said it will all help people who knew little of Oceania to see the depth in the region: "We aren't a single thing; we don't just make milk or just catch fish. We are incredibly multidimensional and that didn't all just start when the Europeans arrived."