OCEANIC ART AND THE PERFORMANCE OF LIFE

By: Caitie Jane Moore

Robert Hull Fleming Museum, University of Vermont • Burlington, VT • uvm.edu/~fleming • Through May 24, 2013

Tatanua ceremonial mask, early twentieth-century, New Ireland, Papua New Guinea.
Tatanua ceremonial mask, early twentieth-century, New Ireland, Papua New Guinea.

The Fleming Museum has a long-standing tradition of providing examples of diverse visual culture to the campus community, permanent residents, and visitors. Its holdings contain a wide range of artifacts from more than eight Oceanic regions, including New Guinea, Australia, Samoa, the Marshall Islands, Indonesia, and the Solomon Islands. The museum has been collecting Oceanic artifacts since 1893, when its first curator purchased a number of objects during the World’s Fair in Chicago. In celebration of a generous donation in 2006 from Dr. David Nalin, a repeat donor and member of the UVM advisory board, the Fleming Museum has prepared the special exhibition derived from new research.

Jointly curated with the students enrolled in an Anthropology Museums Studies class earlier this year, the project emphasizes the Oceanic collection’s performative nature. It respectfully documents performance in its many forms and varied formats. Consisting of roughly fifty artifacts drawn both from the recent donation and from earlier holdings, this is the first time many of the objects will have been shown in Vermont.

Objects range from ceremonial masks, war shields, helmets, and textiles to a Japanese shadow puppet show, and a braided “bungee” cord accompanied by a video documenting its use by the land divers of Polynesia. “The performance of life is really about the myriad of ways in which we individually and collectively put ourselves out there for the benefit of others, as members of a social group,” affirms David Houston, ten-year veteran professor of the Anthropology Museums class. Some artifacts, like the Tatanua ceremonial mask of the early twentieth century, fall under a more traditional interpretation of the performance theme: It was used in the Malagan funerary ceremonies, believed to help communicate with deities and to honor the deceased. More “contemporarily” interpreted artifacts such as textiles and a ship’s prow ornament, delicately carved and intricately adorned, reflect the quiet performance of the anonymous craftsman, embodying an inherited and continuing aesthetic. Taken together, these undeniably fascinating objects with their didactic labeling offer rare insight into the performative nature of remote Oceanic regions.

[The museum will provide additional programming beginning the first week of November. The exhibition runs through May 2013, 120 years since Oceanic art collecting began in Burlington.]

—Caitie Jane Moore
 



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