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New Arts of the Pacific Gallery brings art and traditions of island cultures to Boston
Ceremonial seat (Osa Osa), Indonesia (Nias), Mid 20th century Stone and pigments. Gift of William E. and Bertha L. Teel. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

BOSTON, MASS.- The Pacific Ocean could be called a “continent of water.” It covers more than one third of the Earth’s surface and consists of thousands of islands––stretching from Indonesia and New Guinea to Easter Island off the coast of South America, and spanning the distance from Hawaii in the north to New Zealand in the south. Nearly 80 works from the region, including a number of recent acquisitions, are on view in the new Arts of the Pacific gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This diverse display represents four main cultural spheres: Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia and the islands of Southeast Asia (including Indonesia and the Philippines). Reflecting some of the artistic traditions of a region known alternately as Oceania, the Pacific Islands or the South Seas, objects on view attest to the distinctive and expressive use of many materials and forms. Mostly dating from the 19th to early 20th centuries, works include Melanesian sculptures, monumental Dayak guardian figures from Borneo, richly carved ornamental artworks from the Maori peoples of New Zealand, Indonesian textiles and Polynesian tapa cloths. Some of these objects were used in daily life, while others had ceremonial and ritual functions, serving as links to the ancestral or spiritual worlds.

“The new Arts of the Pacific Gallery opens a window to vibrant cultures and features a wide range of artistic traditions from across the Pacific,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director at the MFA. “The works on view offer a unique opportunity to visually trace artistic connections throughout the Oceanic region.”

The MFA’s newly installed gallery explores the ideas and aesthetic traditions of Pacific art. Set at the nexus of the Museum’s South, Southeast and East Asian galleries, the space reinforces the region’s location at the crossroads of cultures. Rather than a chronological or geographic arrangement, the gallery is grouped thematically––highlighting conceptual and stylistic connections between the islands, which have been linked through centuries of migration and trade. Artworks also reflect the influences of the region’s main religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, in addition to traditional beliefs in local spirits and deities. Visitors to the new gallery can find a variety of materials and objects, such as sculpted wood and stone, carved jade and engraved bamboo as well as delicate weavings and paintings on bark and wood.

“Pacific Islanders’ notions of self and group identity, complicated by colonial entanglements, rarely align neatly with outsiders’ perceptions,” said Florina H. Capistrano-Baker, Consulting Curator, for the MFA. “Artworks from the region generally express a fundamental preoccupation with survival and physical well-being through divine protection, fertility and regeneration.”

In the gallery, an array of Pacific masks evokes the spiritual transitions that were required for travel between the sacred and earthly realms. Masks such as the Hudoq (20th century) were used by the Dayak peoples of Borneo to impersonate spirits who had come down to earth to bless and protect the harvest. The object’s exaggerated features are heightened by painted designs––intimidating the viewer with round, staring eyes, a pointy nose and fanged teeth. During agricultural rites, masked hudoq dancers would help ensure a bountiful rice harvest. The masks were carefully stored after the festivals, and would be painted and decorated again during the next planting season.

The kakaparaga mask (late 19th century) from the Witu Islands in Melanesia––an area encompassing a variety of Papuan-speaking cultures in New Guinea and multiple island groups to the east––was probably used to bridge mortal and spiritual worlds in funerary rituals. Carved from a single piece of wood, the helmet mask is painted with polychrome bands of red, blue and white––highlighting facial contours––while the eye area is accentuated by inverted teardrops. Also from Papua New Guinea, a kepong or ges mask (late 19th century) would have been used in malagan rituals that were performed to cleanse the community. Traditionally worn by young men, this mask is rendered with prominent shell-inlaid eyes, bared teeth and a nose in the shape of intertwined bird and serpent, which may represent tree-dwelling spirits who live in the bush. Among Papua New Guinea’s Kwoma peoples, the elongated Yam cult head (yina) (20th century) mask was used in ceremonies ensuring agricultural fertility. Featuring bulbous eyes and a long protruding tongue, the Yina mask would have been placed on large mounds of recently harvested yams.

Architecture is another important element of Pacific cultures. An exquisitely carved wooden Door (20th century) from the Sa’dan Toraja of Sulawesi in Indonesia signifies wealth and prestige with an elegantly stylized water buffalo head floating in relief against a rich pattern of graceful spirals. As with many Indonesian cultures, traditional Sa’dan Toraja houses, or tongkonan, are metaphorically analogous to the human body, and are known to feature direct correlations between textiles and architectural carvings. These motifs trace back to the practice of covering walls with sacred cloths to promote the well-being of the community. Hand-woven textiles from Sumatra evoke these symbolic connections, as do double-ikat geringsing cloths from Bali, which feature Hindu-Buddhist motifs.

In the center of the gallery, seats of power from Indonesia and Papua New Guinea display diverse styles and functions. On Nias Island, off the west coast of Sumatra, zoomorphic stone seats portray images that unite the upper and lower spiritual realms. The small ceremonial seat, Osa Osa (20th century), combines the dragon-like head of the mythical lasara––a creature associated with the underworld––with an upright, birdlike tail evoking the upper world. These were placed in the village plaza or in front of noblemen’s houses to commemorate lavish feasts associated with the founding of a new village, the installation of a new headman, or in order to achieve a higher status in society. In the Middle Sepik region of Papua New Guinea, Iatmul peoples carve a different type of Ceremonial Stool (mid 20th century), known as “orator chairs” or “debating stools.” These customarily stood in the middle of men’s ceremonial houses. Orators would hold a sacred bundle of leaves, placing a leaf on the stool after each pronouncement in order to emphasize their point.

Sea travel and warfare were also important features of Pacific cultures, and are represented by canoe prows and paddles from various islands as well as powerful implements of war, such as clubs and shields. A war Shield (late 19th century) from the Trobriand Islands (Papua New Guinea) features a variety of intricate patterns and imagery common on these types of objects. Various interpretations of the painted designs have been suggested, which are probably associated with notions of protection and power.

Objects from the late 19th to 20th-century trace evolving art styles and technologies among the Maori people of New Zealand. A Feeding Funnel (19th–20th century), probably carved with stone tools, is shown beside a Treasure box (waka huia) (19th century), which was carved with iron or steel tools––demonstrating how artists adapted to contemporary technologies. The ornate box was carved from a single piece of wood by chiefs or priests called tohunga and was used to store prestigious feather headdresses or precious objects such as nephrite ornaments and ivory combs. The container was especially potent because it contained objects that had touched the chief’s head, the most sacred part of his body and the locus of great power––known as mana. This spiritual power was inherent in both objects and people, and many Polynesian artists infuse their creations with mana through exquisite workmanship, which can be found throughout the gallery.

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