Art of the native peoples of Australia and the South Pacific islands, including New Guinea and New Zealand. Covering a wide geographical area, Oceanic art is extremely diverse in style and technique. Artefacts were not considered art by their creators, but were an integral part of the religious and social ceremony of everyday island life. Art objects include ancestor figures, canoe-prow ornaments, ceremonial shields, masks, stone carvings, decorated human skulls, pottery, and stools. Fertility is a recurrent theme, along with occasional references to headhunting and ritual cannibalism. Most Oceanic arts are considered primitive in that until recently the indigenous cultures possessed no metal, and cutting tools were of stone or shell. Although Oceanic art is considered to have little historic depth, an outstanding example of prehistoric art is found in the sculpture of Easter Island
, huge standing carved-stone figures up to 18 m/60 ft high, possibly representing ancestors.
Three main areas in Oceania can be distinguished: Melanesia (New Guinea and surrounding islands), Polynesia (the triangle formed by the Hawaiian Islands, New Zealand, and Easter Island), and Micronesia (islands to the north of Melanesia). For Australian Aboriginal art, see Aboriginal art
is the most striking of all the Oceanic arts because of its decorative brilliance and imaginative ornament. Associated with ancestor and spirit cults, headhunting, and cannibalism, it is typified by exaggerated natural forms with prominent sexual motifs. Ritual masks made for use in the islands' elaborate festivals are both colourful and disturbing. Many of the carved figures are demonic in appearance, at least to Western eyes. The ancestor figures, known as uli
, from New Ireland have been amassed by Western collectors; Soul Boat
, an enormous sculpture with life-size humans with ferocious teeth and eyes, is in the Linden Museum, Stuttgart. Local custom said that that the body of a dead chief should be laid in a canoe such as the Soul Boat
and sent out to sea. Melanesian art little of which remains in the islands has inspired such Western artists as Ernst
, and Henry Moore
, among others. Easter Island falls within the region.
is more decorative than that of Melanesia, characterized by the featherwork of Hawaii, the highly patterned surface ornament of the Maori carvers of New Zealand, and the living art of tattooing. Traditionally, cult objects were made to contain or conduct mana, a supernatural power.
typically combines extreme functional simplicity with a high-quality finish. Surface decoration is rare. Few examples of Micronesian art have found their way into Western collections.
© RM 2013. Helicon Publishing is division of RM.