Celebrate Pacific Arts: POP Cultures

Every four years, the different islands of the Pacific region gather to share in a special celebration of the arts. For two weeks, thousands participate in the Festival of Pacific Arts—FoPA, or FestPac as we call it here on Guam—which showcases singing, dancing, painting, weaving, carving, live demonstrations, storytelling, canoe building, and other forms of artistic traditions unique to this part of the world. It is also a time to celebrate the people of Oceania, to share history and knowledge, raise cultural awareness and create memories. More than two dozen Pacific Island states, nations and territories send hundreds of delegates, each prepared to enjoy a giant love fest for the arts and Pacific Island cultural traditions and peoples. [To learn more about the history of FestPac, click here.]

Now in its 44th year, the Festival of Pacific Arts began primarily to preserve Pacific traditional arts for future generations. The goal was to provide a space for Pacific peoples to gather and share their diverse cultural art forms. The original organizers, the Fiji Arts Council and the South Pacific Commission (now the Pacific Community (SPC), previously also known as the Secretariat of the Pacific Community), envisioned it to be a festival organized by Pacific people for Pacific people. It would re-emphasize the importance of traditional art forms, encourage the creation of new forms of artistic expression, promote the use of indigenous languages, raise awareness and celebrate the rich cultural heritage of Pacific Islanders.

Guam is fortunate to host the 12th FestPac and many preparations are underway to make sure all aspects of the event run smoothly. Guampedia actually has been participating in this preparation process for two years now, helping organize cultural design and history workshops for cultural practitioners and assisting the Guam Council on the Arts and Humanities Agency, one of the lead organizers of FestPac locally, in various ways. Mostly, Guampedia wants to help our whole community show the rest of the Pacific what our island has to offer. After all, FestPac is not only a time to celebrate the diversity of cultures and artistic expression found among Pacific Islanders, it is also a time to show the similarities that connect us as People of the Pacific.

To this end, Guampedia presents POP Cultures: People of the Pacific, a series of entries to help our community learn more about the folks who will be visiting us this year at FestPac. There are 27 island nations and territories that are participating in FestPac 2016. With a grant from CAHA, Guampedia has produced 30 entries about our Pacific Island neighbors. Each entry provides some basic quick facts about the islands of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia, a little description of the history, geography, culture and the arts, as well as a greeting in the various indigenous Pacific languages. In addition, all the entries include each participant’s flag and images of representative arts. It is a great tool for teachers to introduce their students to the various cultures that will be on island over the course of the festival. And because the entries are online, visitors to the Festival will find the entries a quick and easy way to familiarize themselves with the FestPac participant nations.

Arts of the Pacific Islands

When one thinks of Pacific Island art, they might conjure up images of exotic looking pieces made of natural materials like plant fibers or wood, stone or clay, feathers, shells, teeth, or even human hair. They are exotic because they might look quite different from the oil paintings or marble or stone sculptures displayed in museums in Europe or the United States. We may be tempted to look at Pacific art differently from western art because the forms are often surreal, inspired by spirits and dreams. They may seem old and primitive, fanciful, weird, and maybe less interesting or less valued than western art. Sometimes, especially regarding contemporary Pacific art, we may think of them as inauthentic, merely reconstructed, or commodified as trinkets for tourists to buy. Worse, we may think Pacific arts are dying, with no one around in the next generation or so to pass it on. But it does not take a large arts festival to show that Pacific arts are alive and well. Art is all around us—in the mundane things that surround us and in the galleries, halls and other public spaces where people live, work, and conduct business. Pacific artists are engaging in all forms of art—from traditional to modern and everything in between—continually innovating and finding new ways to communicate human experience and ideas.

Pacific arts have their own complicated history and are awe-inspiring as examples of human achievement. While some arts continue to be practiced today, there are other forms that are no longer active—some having been suppressed by missionaries or colonizers, or just fallen out of use by lack of trained practitioners. This reality points to the intense impact the larger experience of missionization and colonization has had on Pacific Island peoples. So to understand Pacific arts, one must appreciate this long, rich history and the context in which these various art forms were created, understood, thrived, diminished or persisted.

When Europeans began exploring the Pacific they marveled at the presence and diversity of cultures and societies among the different islands they visited. To make sense of the breadth of cultures and peoples, they came up with the terms Melanesia (“Dark islands), Polynesia (“Many islands”) and “Micronesia (“Little islands”) grouping them in racial terms and perceived cultural similarities. The terms are still used today, but are understood more broadly and provide a way to identify relationships in language, social organization, religions, economics and artistic traditions among the three culture areas. An observer or practitioner of any of the various art forms in the Pacific should be able to appreciate the unique features as well as similarities that exist among the different culture areas of the region.

Art is meant to express and evoke emotions, feelings and ideas. People create and respond to art based on meanings and ideas they learned in their culture. Often, Pacific art pieces are or are inspired by functional or utilitarian items—a wooden bowl, a carved head rest, a ceremonial mask, a religious idol, a woven mat, etc.—these serve a purpose, but may have an aesthetic quality that appeals to our sense of beauty or they have specific cultural meanings. All Pacific cultures have some form of carving, weaving, or fashioning natural materials into body ornamentation, but the attention to detail, the application of particular, culturally significant motifs or designs, the kinds of available natural materials and techniques used create the nuances and differences are what distinguish each culture from the next. There may also be evidence of sharing of ideas or influences across ocean spaces and time. Art can help trace historical connections and provide the context in which to understand a society’s view of nature and the place of human beings in the world.

Pacific Origins and the Arts

The Australian National University, College of Asia and the Pacific, CartoGIS
The Australian National University,
College of Asia and the Pacific, CartoGIS

Perhaps the earliest examples of Pacific art are stone figures, mortars and pestles from the highlands region of New Guinea in Melanesia that date from about 8,000 years ago. However, people have been living in island New Guinea for thousands of years before then, since the start of human expansion into the Pacific. The earliest movement of people into Melanesia is believed to be about 45,000 years ago during the last Ice Age, before the ocean levels rose and separated island New Guinea from the Australian continent. Although any evidence of their art may be submerged, it is likely they used stone tools and made cloth and baskets of plant fibers. The more recent objects of 8,000 years ago were ground with stone tools and exhibit a high level of sophistication. Part human, part animal, these figures were intentionally produced and probably had special meanings for their creator or user.

The Papuan-speaking people who descended from these early inhabitants continued to settle in New Guinea and the surrounding islands including the Solomons. They were followed thousands of years later by Austronesian-speaking peoples who arrived sometime around 2,000 BC, bringing with them an advanced seafaring technology and pottery. The Austronesian people were distinct from the Papuans and probably originated from what is now Indonesia and the Philippines. Cultural contact and trade most likely resulted in mixing of certain art forms between the Austronesian- and Papuan-speaking peoples. They expanded through the other islands of Melanesia, moving from New Britain and New Ireland, to Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji, and then further to Tonga and Samoa. Their most famous art are in the form of decorated pottery, called Lapita, with intricate and geometric designs. Scientists assume that these patterns were likely repeated on other items they may have produced but have not been preserved, for example, barkcloth pieces or tattoos.

Other Austronesian-speaking peoples moved into Micronesia—to the Marianas and Palau about 4,000 years ago, and about 2,000 years later, the Caroline and the Marshall Islands. As the different cultures evolved in each of these regions, so did distinctive characteristics of their art forms also evolve and change. Utilizing materials that were available to them, they fashioned objects that were significant both aesthetically and symbolically. The early settlers of the Marianas also had a unique pottery style, broadly named Marianas redware, with lime-incised decorations. It is not clear but some scientists believe a second wave of migration into the Marianas about 1,000 years ago may have led to the distinct culture that produced the iconic latte stones of the Chamorro people. Other builders of iconic stone architecture are the ancestors of the Pohnpeians who constructed the impressive series of channels and platforms known as Nan Mahdol.

The Lapita people, as well as the early Papuan-speaking peoples, likely evolved into the Melanesians and Polynesians that we see today. The islands of Fiji and western Polynesia were settled about 3,000 years ago with about a 1,000-year lapse before the next movement east. A distinct Polynesian culture, different from the cultures in the Solomons, New Caledonia, or Vanuatu, emerged. They moved to eastern Polynesia first, the Society Islands and the Marquesas, then later, north to Hawaii and southeast to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) about 1,000 years ago, and finally to Aotearoa (New Zealand) about 300 years later.

In the islands of Melanesia, people settled in coastal areas first, moving inward as populations became more dense. As each group developed distinct lifestyles, so did their rituals, crafts, languages and art forms evolve and change. This may not fully explain the incredible diversity of languages and cultures in the region. However, mutual influences made possible through continued contact and bartering can be found in certain art styles, but probably had different meanings for different ethnic groups.

Like the story of migration and settlement of Oceania, the diversity of styles and art forms that have evolved in the Pacific is quite breathtaking, something that will be incredibly obvious while reading through the POP Culture entries and for anyone fortunate enough to attend FestPac. Art historian Anne d’Alleva has described some general differences that can be seen among traditional Pacific art. Traditional Melanesian art, for example, often uses a variety of materials in one piece including feathers, wood, shell, flowers, leaves and different colored pigments. Bodies are highly decorated and performance is an important aspect of display. Polynesian artworks are generally less busy, focused on fine lines, polish, and other fine details. Micronesian art often appears in simple and elegant forms using coral, wood and fiber and other materials from the sea. The Marshallese stick chart which uses shells and sticks to indicate specific islands and illustrate ocean currents and wave formations, for example, has been used for many years and is an aesthetically pleasing piece of art.

Pacific art exemplifies the connections between the peoples of Oceania. Indeed, in places where there has been continual contact, there has also been a continual exchange of ideas, language and even art forms.

Tradition and Change

“Traditional art,” like culture, constantly changes as new forms, new ideas and new materials are introduced and influence artists and their creative processes. It could change rapidly with the emergence of new religions and cults, or if new contacts and exchange relations arose between separate groups. For example, the remote archipelagos in Polynesia were settled relatively recently. The Polynesian triangle, which extends from the western islands of Samoa, Tonga, and New Zealand to the Southwest, to the Hawaiian Islands in the north, to Rapa Nui in the east, were populated between AD 400 and AD 900, yet the art styles found in those islands by the time Europeans arrived had changed fairly rapidly in a relatively short time, with each island group displaying significant differences. Historian and anthropologist Nicholas Thomas asserts that these changes in Pacific traditional art does not mean the pieces made 100 years before or 100 years after European contact, for example, have greater status than the other, nor is there necessarily a lack of continuity with traditions. In fact, he argues, even if there is discontinuity in meanings as well as techniques and styles between art forms before and after contact, we should not assume that the latter are “assimilated” or absorbed by western culture or are no longer authentic, because the content and perspectives of work remain grounded in indigenous experiences and histories.

Except for the Mariana Islands which became territories of Spain and part of the Manila Galleon Trade Route since the mid-1500s, sustained contact with Europeans began for the rest of the Pacific around the 1800s with the movements of whalers, traders and missionaries. Colonial governments followed. Western goods, including iron tools, cloth and guns were introduced and access to such items became a new source of power and prestige. As islanders themselves traveled aboard western ships and traded their works for those of other indigenous peoples, they became aware of the different kinds of art forms and more creative possibilities. It was also around this time that Europeans became interested in purchasing and trading Pacific art. The tools they introduced made production of certain kinds of art much easier to make and therefore, more accessible to more people, regardless of social rank. The introduction of cloth and other materials like beads or yarn, also, were soon incorporated into established art forms creating new styles and designs.

According to Thomas, missionary activities also have had a profound impact on the arts in the Pacific. Among many groups, missionaries banned certain kinds of art forms, including dances, like the Hawaiian hula, that were deemed too sexually provocative. They banned nudity, destroyed religious idols and other works that were important for the indigenous religions. Tattooing was frowned upon as well. But missionaries also looked positively on certain decorative arts, including women’s work with pottery, barkcloth-making and mat-weaving, as these productions to them demonstrated industry. Christian-themed sculptures and paintings were also encouraged. The introduction of clothing and sewing eventually led to the abandonment of local garments and the production of elaborate quilts and dresses that can be seen, for example, in some parts of Polynesia. Polynesian missionaries also brought their artistic styles and designs and shared them with other Pacific Island groups in the places they were assigned to preach.

By the 1800s and early 1900s, the Pacific was partitioned and taken control over by western powers, and some of these colonial ties exist today.  France controlled French Polynesia, including the Society Islands, the Marquesas, Austral Islands, the Tuamotu Archipelago and New Caledonia. The Cook Islands and Niue were controlled by New Zealand; American Samoa and Guam by the United States; New Herbrides/Vanuatu were governed by an Anglo-French administration; Fiji and the Solomon Islands were territories of Great Britain; and parts of New Guinea were controlled by German, Dutch, British and Australian colonial administrations at one time or another. The presence of westerners in the area not only brought new ideas and new innovations, but also diseases that decimated populations and uncontrolled exploitation of local resources, especially when precious metals like gold, nickel and copper were discovered. It is during this time, however, that traditional arts also were transformed to include new motifs and materials introduced by the colonizers.

Over the next decades into the 20th century as Pacific Island nations were seeking independence and increased self-government, efforts toward the preservation of traditional culture increased as well, with the establishment of new cultural centers and the revival of arts that had initially been discouraged or abandoned. The architecture of government buildings also began to reflect indigenous motifs. The revitalization of art often occurred independently of any efforts by local governments, as some groups found that there was a commercial opportunity to be realized by the sale of art items to tourists. Still other traditional art forms remained sacred and reserved for use in religious, ceremonial or ritual contexts. Art also took on political aspects, especially those that affirmed indigenous ethnicity. A new kind of “urban art” emerged, using industrial paints, fabrics and other materials but maintaining traditional forms and aesthetics.

The Power of Pacific Art and Interpretation

According to d’Alleva, Pacific art has the power to move and affect people aesthetically, spiritually and socially. Art allows people to connect with ancestors, move through life cycles of birth, adulthood, marriage and death. It can shape—and is shaped by—the cultural values that are important to a community. She says, “Pacific art must be approached not in social context but as social context.” Thomas goes further, asserting that to look at Pacific art is not the same as to look into, which is a more effective way of viewing and understanding the art of Oceania. It means “examining their parts and composition, as well as the effect of the whole.”

Clearly, the art of Oceania is different from western art. For example, a carving that has human features and characteristics is not necessarily a representation of a human being or an ancestor, but rather, can be the embodiment of that ancestor, or the physical container in which that ancestor can inhabit for a period of time. Likewise, objects that seem more abstract may have specific meanings that insiders understand or are knowledgeable about but cannot be understood fully by outsiders. There are also objects that are left without interpretation, that stand by themselves, or their meanings are secret, which gives a particular piece sacred power.

In these ways, Oceanic art challenges western expectations and are not merely objects to be seen as exotic. In other ways Oceanic art follows other universals in art form—the use of patterns and subjects that appeal to the eye or human understanding. But Pacific artists have also been influenced by western contact.

For example, this is visible in the way Pacific art incorporates western objects or motifs in its expression, or in the way the different genders, or people of different ages or social status will experience the creating, viewing or the participation in the arts of a particular culture. A canoe can be carved using metal saws, and assembled using drills and nails instead of stone adzes and mallets. A fine mat can use colored yarn woven into a design instead of dyed natural leaves. A glass bead can be used in place of shell beads to create body ornaments. A tattoo pattern can be drawn on the body with modern tattoo machines and ink instead of traditional bone, turtle shell and wood tools. Designs can also change over time.

Another challenge for viewing Pacific art is to remember the contexts in which art was created and meant to be experienced. Viewing stagnant objects in a museum–for example, a slit drum or other musical instrument–one may miss the more ephemeral art associated with this object: the body paintings and movements of dancers in ceremonies for which the drum was used and the rhythms it created to evoke or heighten emotions. Throughout the Pacific, the human body is a locus of artistic elaboration; some of the patterns and images of tattoos are meant to be viewed while the body is in motion. Often, Pacific art is not meant to be viewed, detached from their contexts as in a museum, which is why celebrations like FestPac are so important for viewing and understanding each island’s artistic traditions–alive and in person.

As Thomas points out, it would be regrettable to adhere to stereotypes of Pacific societies and deny that interpretation and innovation is always present in Pacific cultures and in their art traditions. The degree of innovation and departure from prevailing traditions varies and should be appreciated and afforded to Pacific people as we do for western art forms and artists.

As one reads through the various entries in POP Cultures, one might get a sense of redundancy in each island’s story of contact, religious conversion, and colonial subjugation. It is a common thread among all the Pacific islands. There are the stories of struggle for survival under colonial rule, struggles for independence, for nationhood. The arts of the Pacific reflect these changes in Pacific island societies especially over the last 200 years of colonialism, two world wars, nuclear testing, and the scramble to decolonize.

As mentioned above, the Festival of Pacific Arts has the goal of preserving artistic traditions for future generations. The festival also encourages the creation of new forms of artistic expression.  Throughout the Pacific, different cultures are engaging in these processes of preservation and creation. The resurgence of canoe building and navigation, for example, demonstrates the strong desire to bring back knowledge that had been previously lost or forgotten. It shows, too, how Pacific peoples can collaborate with each other and generate new ways to approach old problems, advocate for each other and advance a sense of unity and pride for Pacific Island cultures.

Pacific people continue to engage in traditional arts—barkcloth weaving, carving, body ornamentation, performing traditional dances, chants and songs, etc. Pacific people are also advancing in other forms of media previously deemed the domain of western artists—for example, publishing poems, novels and other written works, performing plays and stage productions, producing films and video, recording music with modern instruments and rhythms, modern dancing, painting, printmaking and other visual art forms. The arts have helped Pacific people cope with the difficulties and challenges of their complicated histories, and also to forge their cultural identities as Pacific communities and nations, into the future.

For further reading

D’Alleva, Anne. Arts of the Pacific Islands. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998.

Stevenson, Karen. The Festival of Pacific Arts Celebrating 40 Years. Suva: Secretariat of the Pacific Community, 2012.

Thomas, Nicholas. Oceanic Art. London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1995.

POP Cultures sections