Unlike the art of the West, Pacific Island art is not a special activity set aside from everything else - it is part of life. It embraces tools, weapons, utensils, images used in religious ceremonies, and displays for entertainment and prestige.
Class divisions which systematically exclude certain people from the creative process have never been a part of the structure of most Pacific islands. Only in the kingdoms of Polynesia, Hawaii and Tahiti were there chiefs and kings powerful enough to employ artists, craftsmen and performers to produce art for an elite. Elsewhere, in New Guinea, Melanesia, Micronesia and much of Polynesia, artists and craftworkers, singers and dancers were, and still are, farmers and fishermen. So are the traditional landowners, politicians and feastmakers. the lawyers, historians and priests, and, at intervals, the government officials and business employees. They live in tribal societies with everyone learning, according to their sex, most of the skills necessary for the material and spiritual welfare of the community.
The most important form of inequality in Pacific societies is that between men and women, and men dominate the arena of artistic creativity. In New Guinea the most striking teams of costumed and painted dancers in the Highlands are male and the carved and painted sacred houses of the Sepik region are built, decorated and used by men. Men made and used the finest costume ornaments of the Solomon Islands and the carved and polished weapons of Fiji and Polynesia. Women may decorate everyday objects like baskets, mats and pottery and dress themselves beautifully on special occasions, or even have their own costumed dances and songs. But in parts of the Solomon Islands only men could dance. In lowland New Guinea women are the audience for the parades and dances of often fearsome spirits which their menfolk impersonate through masks. Although women can look at the decorated sacred houses and canoes they cannot enter.
This is all part of the Pacific practice of keeping women and their ‘unclean’ sexual functions separate from the spirits of dead ancestors and other beings whose powers their menfolk invoke to ensure the health and prosperity of their communities.
As in the West, artistic creativity was woven into the power structure of society. Many beautiful objects were difficult and time- consuming to make. The personal ornaments and beads used in the Solomon Islands have to be painstakingly ground and polished from scarce shells. Only rich and influential men could buy or borrow enough to make a full set for themselves and their families to wear at festivals.
In the Solomons shell beads were also used as currency; as in other parts of Melanesia valuable ornaments were among the fine objects given away at festivals, marriages and other occasions to show off the prosperity of the givers. Besides fine carvings there were also great architectural achievements in wood and thatch, huge festivals with pigs to feed the guests and trained dancers to impress them; all required much work and organisation and reflected the strength and success of the community and its leaders.
But community-based Pacific arts are now bending under the pressures of colonialism. The objects and books that decorate Western museums are all symbols of the destruction of a great part of traditional Pacific culture. Not that the Islanders themselves were always unwilling participants in the process. They wanted the manufactured goods and labour-saving devices of the industrial world; the transport, the metal tools, the medicine.
Sometimes they even wanted the political control which has stopped the constant bloody feuding, and the new religions which welcomed women and maybe contained the secrets of the white men’s power. But the price has been the rejection of traditional arts, both because manufactured goods are often so much cheaper and easier to use, and because of the prejudices of the dominant culture which regarded anything traditional as ‘savage’, ‘heathen’ or ‘primitive’.
Slowly, then, the artistic traditions of the Pacific have been eroded and the international culture of the West has begun to replace them. Traditional ornaments have been replaced by fashionable clothes, folk singing by pop music on radios and cassettes, crafted utensils by shiny pots and pans, and religious art by … what? The material enrichment has brought artistic impoverishment.
It is only now that attempts are being made to revive the traditional arts, partly to provide income from tourism but also as a way of reasserting the cultural identity of Pacific islanders and reuniting them with a past culture which is only now beginning to be appreciated. Ironically it is often Western institutions like Arts Festivals and museums which are leading these efforts to reclaim the cultural heritage of the Pacific Islands.
Ben Burt works or the Museum of Monkind, London.