Lighting in museum displays is generally, to the photographer at least, something of a horrific ordeal. That, coupled with layered arrangements, reflective barriers and deeply unhelpful backdrop colours conspired to make the gathering of decent images pretty trying. Full credit then to my Lovely Assistant then for his technical expertise under such adverse conditions. Next time we will definitely bring a large black backcloth to block reflections (durr); if you are ever given the opportunity to photograph inside an institution, don't leave home without one.
Although we collect ethnographic items from around the Pacific ourselves, we don't know nearly enough to speak with any authority on the subject and thus we've confined our remarks to personal observations and the little we have gleaned as residents of the region. We hope these will be particularly interesting to northern peeps who might not have been exposed to too many objet from beneath the equator.
This first batch is in black and white. I have a particular skepticism about monochrome photography in that it tends to lend a spurious and sometimes entirely counterfeit majesty to both the subject and perpetrator, employed like some sort of wizard's cloak, as though it confers seniority or expertise per se. We don't roll that way and generally prefer colour because it is the joyous language of the entire universe and all those rods and cones are there for a reason. These images were desaturated largely because of problems with the source; irreconcilable colour casts and other artifacts of unsatisfactory capture.
Please note that the Museum of Otago retains copyright of this material; please do not reproduce them without permission.
Drum, Marquesas Islands.
The Marquesas, or Te Henua Kenana/Te Fenua Enata lie about as close to the middle of the Pacific Ocean as it is possible to be at random. Peopled by Polynesian settlers about 2000 years ago, they were largely depopulated by the introduction of European microbes but in looking at images of the place its easy to see why Gauguin settled and eventually died there.
This drum, in common with many around the Pacific, has slits cut into the lower body, and when struck probably shares its sharp, resonant tone with the the horizontal slit drums still in use by related peoples. Unfortunately, the mellow allure of the hardwood cylinder and patinated binding were lost to the camera as a result of the hideous colour cast produced by a lime green backdrop. Sorry about that.
A chiefly object.
Polynesian society is generally strictly hierarchical, separated into classes of varying and sometimes mutable rank with priestly and chieftain families occupying the highest positions.
They are deeply concerned with the acquisition and preservation of mana, which equates very loosely to prestige, although this is unsatisfactory; mana encompasses everything from demonstrable personal worth to supernatural energy to familial standing. It has something in common with the Subcontinental concept of caste in that it can be lost through inappropriate actions; tapu attends the possessions of people who have accrued a lot of mana and these items are forbidden to those of lesser status. In the flesh, this object has a lot of mana, though it is made from materials Europeans might consider humble; the concept of having to be qualified to use it is obvious, even to the uninformed.
An enterprising early collector had removed this figure from Rapa Nui and installed it on his plantation in (I think) Tonga, which is an act probably equivalent to ripping memorial plaques out of Westminster Abbey and using them to pave your front yard. The OM acquired it from this brass-necked plonker in the twenties and thusly this is the only Moai or ancestor figure in a New Zealand museum.
It's always seemed lonely to me. I would have preferred to see it contained within the gallery alongside related figures instead of standing outside in isolation.
Whilst checking out the Wiki page to make sure I had my facts straight, I ran into the theory that the Moais' physiological expression is characteristic of leprosy, to which I say bitch, please; these same pathological pathologists would see psoriasis in Monet's dappled beauties or palsy and pituitary disease in Picasso's tortured whores.
These impressive timber figures flank the entrance to Kanak Great Houses, tall conical structures with densely-thatched roofs topped with a totemic hardwood finial.
New Caledonia is the home of the ancient Lapita culture, currently the subject of much anthropological conjecture regarding its origins and antiquity. Kanak sculpture has a highly individual quality that is obvious when set alongside pieces from Polynesian islands, and to my eye it seems much closer in spirit to various New Guinean idioms.
Kanak people were mercilessly exploited by French colonialists and exported as slave labour all around the Pacific, with captives shipped as far away as Japan and South Africa. 'Blackbirding' ships called at New Zealand ports with cargoes of impressed and abducted islanders; there is a rumour that one of the old local pubs here in Port Chalmers once sported an underground passage to the nearby dry dock, its cellar holding these human cargoes while their ships underwent repair. Considering the history of this little town and human nature in general, very little about this story surprises me, and while it probably is rubbish, I can't rule it out altogether.