Oceanic art

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Oceanic art

Oceanic art, works produced by the island peoples of the S and NW Pacific, including Melanesia (New Guinea and the islands to its north and east), Micronesia (Mariana, Caroline, Marshall, and Gilbert islands), and Polynesia (which includes the Hawaiian Islands, the Samoas, Tonga, New Zealand, and Easter Island).


Wood carvings and ritual masks, the best studied of Melanesian artifacts, are brilliantly colored. Each object was designed to serve a ritual purpose and thus was not meant to endure for posterity. Particular aspects of Melanesian art had an enormous impact on European artists, including Max Ernst and Constantin Brancusi (Sepik River style), Alberto Giacometti and Henry Moore (New Ireland style), during the period from 1915 to 1940.

Among the principal styles familiar in the West are the symmetrical scrollwork carvings and symbolic bark-cloth paintings of the Geelvinck Bay area of Indonesian New Guinea; the carved drums and ritual figures and polychromed pottery of the Sepik River peoples, as well as their wood or basketry masks. Other well-known designs include the carved bird and spiral motifs and superbly decorated canoe prow boards of the Massim area of SE New Guinea and the elegant carved objects with mother-of-pearl inlay characteristic of the Solomon and Admiralty islands.

The Asmat of Indonesian New Guinea are famous for the "praying mantis" –like treatment of the human form. Also famous are their uramon, or soul ships, with elaborate pierced carved prows and their war shields with apotropaic designs. Their objects are spare, smooth, and distinctive. Among their most elegant works are canoes with clean, graceful lines, expansive houses, and sparsely decorated cult objects. The homes of bachelors often have relief carvings of mythological and historic significance, painted in yellow, black, red, and white.

In New Ireland, especially in the north, are found figures and masks made for the dead and heraldic wood sculptures known as Uli figures representing tribal chiefs and which are kept. Malanggan, large horizontal openwork carvings of soft wood, consist of friezes, independent sculptures, and masks. Styles are traditional but the privilege of changing a style can be purchased.

The Baining people of the Gazelle Peninsula of New Britain are known for their large masks made of bark cloth stretched over wickerwork frames. After ritual use these masks are destroyed. In New Caledonia carved panels of figures with rhomboid bodies and large flat noses are placed on either side of house doors. In the north masks topped by a ball of hair or plant fibers are worn together with nets covering the body; such masks represent aggressive war spirits or a water deity.


In comparison to Melanesian arts, the objects produced by the Micronesians are streamlined, highly finished, executed with astonishing precision, and coldly functional. The designs developed by these peoples show a highly evolved respect for natural materials, which are scarce. The only masks from Micronesia are from the Mortlock Atoll and represent in simple elongated features benevolent spirits. Rows of figures placed on Mortlock Atoll illustrate mythological events and were thought to protect the islanders from typhoons.

Other important Micronesian art includes objects related to ocean navigation, gable figures in female form from Palau (Belau), and abstract figures representing deities. Micronesian textiles, especially the loom-woven works of the Caroline Islands, are noted for their geometric renderings of humans, stars, and fish. Fibers used are mainly banana and hibiscus.


A great deal of Polynesian art never survived the influx of Western missionaries who mutilated and destroyed any art they considered pornographic or idolatrous. However, these same missionaries also brought back many works to Europe. Among the Polynesian works that remain in museum collections are the characteristic greenish pottery of Fiji, remarkable examples of Hawaiian featherwork, exquisite mats woven in Samoa, wooden and stone ritual sculptures from the smaller islands, and pendants carved in jadeite from New Zealand. These peoples, unlike the Melanesians, intended to create enduring works of art. Artists were limited by strict, formal conventions peculiar to the traditions of their island; nevertheless many produced works that revealed great creative imagination within the stylized form.

The few surviving Hawaiian works attest to a strong tradition of sculptural wood carving without surface decoration. Highly decorative printed bark-cloth thickly figured with geometric patterns is typical of Fiji, and this powerful geometry extended to much of the ornamental carved work throughout W and central Polynesia. The Maori peoples of New Zealand continue to produce virtuoso examples of intricately carved wood sculptures. They create stone amulets known as hei tiki in the forms of embryonic birds and humans with heads bent to one side. They employ spiral motifs in intricate combinations, even in tattooing the human face. After death such tattooed faces are often preserved on their dried skulls as ritual objects. The Maori also make spectacular carved ceremonial canoes and houses. The Maori produce fine textiles with complex woven designs.

The Marquesas Islands have sculptures consisting of large monoliths made of stone, or smaller personal objects of shell, ivory, or wood. Double-headed war clubs used there often take on anthropomorphic form. The Marquesas islanders developed the tattoo into a fine art with which they covered the entire body. On Easter Island an economical woodcarving technique of great precision and beauty developed. The reddish volcanic rock, tufa, was carved to create gargantuan, expressive sculptures of humans weighing as much as 20 tons. Much Polynesian work was feathered, and many of the wooden figures were clothed and decorated.


See C. A. Schmitz, Oceanic Art (1971); P. Gathercole et al., The Art of the Pacific Islands (1979); S. M. Mead, ed., Exploring the Visual Art of Oceania (1979)

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