When walking into the Oceanic gallery on the third floor you may be struck by a mix of the familiar and the unusual. This occurs with both the art and the display. The pieces that comprise the collection include shields, masks, clubs, and figures. There is nothing too unusual about them until you take a closer look and discover the unfamiliar carved designs or shapes whose culture you can’t quite place, that are if you didn’t catch Gauguin & Polynesia. While the works are within a familiar museum setting—some behind glass or on a pedestal—you probably noticed, almost immediately, that they are given an environment. As you walk into the gallery Asmat War shields confront you. They burst out of the forest. Lush New Guinea flora in various shades of green backdrop the shields, rejuvenating them.
Oceanic arts curator Pam McClusky decided that in creating this gallery the artwork’s origins required elaboration in order to offer clues about their original function and cultural tradition not only through text, a traditional museum approach, but also through installation. When considering the works from SAM’s Oceanic collection, Pam realized just how unusual these objects were in terms of their origin and context. As most of us approach art from a Western perspective and a Western tradition, the works from Oceania are a bit of a puzzle. For us, art falls into definable categories where the ancient arts of painting and sculpture are favored and in which most art adorns the walls of our houses for decoration or honored in the rooms of our museums for contemplation. While not all Western arts are removed from functional contexts, our history favors these more traditional arts. In the region of Oceania the arts are steeped in culture and context. Their strange context derives from their function and the cultural traditions of the people who made them.
The Asmat War shields, Jamasji, for example are not static parts of their environment. They are beacons painted in red and white that contrast from the greens of the forests. They protect the warriors handling them. They twist and turn as they fend off opponents in the fields. Pam decided that installations designed to reunite the objects with their original visual context would facilitate our approach; bridging the gap between Western artistic traditions and the abandoned visual environment and foreign culture of the islands of the Oceania. This approach allows for the animation of the Asmat shields along with the other objects of the gallery.
While contemplating the art and its context and relation to the human scale, Pam walked past the windows of SAM Gallery which were displaying the work of Allyce Wood. Allyce’s two dimensional layered environments were just what Pam was looking for. Starting with sketches and images from Pam along with her own research Allyce reproduced the visual elements required to reunite the work with its artistic environment and cultural context. The installation elements allow the glass to disappear and for the objects to return to their original setting. This is one of the most striking aspects about the gallery space. It is amazing how the objects and the installation negotiate the museum space and environmental context. Some objects are intricately paired with Allyce’s installations while the installations for other objects are subtle additions. Each object and its installation are unique, as the installations reflect the origins of the art. A painstakingly reproduced Asmat man stands next to one of the shields, providing human scale and emphasizing the object’s use for warfare.
Take the time to explore the gallery. You will discover the interplay between the museum and the origins, the art and the installation. Perhaps you’ll be drawn to the Marquesan man or the male figure from Rapa Nui. The Marquesan man, a reproduced figure created by Allyce sits with a War Club or u’u. The design for this installation derives from an engraving of a Marquesan warrior by Emile Lassalle in 1843. The man stands out for his tattoos, tattoos that identify his power and prestige, and for the u’u that he holds. Compare this u’u to those on display upstairs at Gauguin & Polynesia. They are all very similar with craved heads and a deep, rich color, although the club in the Oceanic gallery lays across the lap of the plywood tattooed figure, mimicking the weapon’s handling by a warrior and merging the object as one of both function and of art. This dynamic counter-play between installation and art demonstrates the seamless method of display created by Pam and Allyce.
More subtle installations occur on the walls opposite the entrance with the Rapa Nui male figures, Moai Kavakava, and Melanesia canoe figurehead, nguzu nguzu. Wall paintings contextualize the pieces. A painting of a massive stone statue behind the Maai Kavakava links the figures with their iconic counterparts that encircle the Chilean Island of Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island. A similar method is used for the canoe figurehead, behind which extends a prow of a canoe. Originally Pam and Allyce planed for a three-dimensional canoe model to extend from the wall, with the nguzu nguzu nestled in the right location. The painted model demonstrates not only a subtle reminder of the work’s functional relevance but also an example of the installation’s developed. Besides the difficulties of mounting and the conservation requirements, Pam and Allyce decided that a three-dimensional model would overshadow the art, taking the installation aspect too far. Furthermore, the painted model allowed for new opportunities; Allyce researched Melanesian figureheads and this model includes a figurehead in a different style from piece on display.
When recalling the process Allyce notes the challenges of the work and the differences between her own creations and those for the installation. For the installation pieces, Allyce researched the works and their environment to create the most accurate reproductions possible. As she notes, “I did the research. I embodied the research,” and it shows. The painstaking reproductions of male warriors, both the sitting Marquesan and standing Asmat, demonstrate how her lively approach contributes to the Oceanic gallery. Reproducing the environment, etchings of indigenous population, or other intricate works of art are only one aspect of the installation. Another important aspect of the installation involved collaboration with the mount makers who were tasked with determining how to seamlessly merge the art with the installation in way that protected and conserved the works while allowing them to interact with their less museum-like environment.
Part Two, Mounting and Yam Masks at the Oceanic Gallery, continues the discussion on the Oceanic Installation. In this part, which will follow in a few days, we will look behind the scenes at the mounts of the gallery and the collaboration between the mount makers and installation artist, Allyce Wood.
– Sarah Lippai, Public Relations Intern