Maile Andrade, <i>Kapa</i> (detail), 2009.

Maile Andrade, Kapa (detail), 2009.

ART
ART IN OCEANIA: A NEW HISTORY

By Peter Brunt, Nicholas Thomas, Sean Mallon, Lissant Bolton, Deidre Brown, Damian Skinner and Susanne Kuchler
Thames & Hudson, $120

''OCEANIA'' is a word with a history. First used of the Pacific by French geographers early in the era of European ''pacification'', it was still current in the 1920s when the surrealists became enamoured of the region's art. In the second half of the 20th century it fell from favour, and art historians and curators were among those who came to prefer ''the Pacific'' as a more precise term. ''Oceania'' took on a rather ''antiquarian flavour''.

Then, in the mid-1990s, Epeli Hau'ofa, ''one of the region's most imaginative and radical intellectuals'', reclaimed its use as a way of countering an approach that, in his view, had become all too prevalent. Instead of discrete island cultures divided from each other by vast tracts of water, his Oceania evoked islands drawn together over thousands of years by an encompassing sea. ''A large world,'' he wrote, ''in which peoples and cultures moved and mingled, unhindered by boundaries of the kind erected much later by imperial powers.''

<p></p>

Nicholas Thomas bows to the spirit of Hau'ofa's essay in the introduction to this large and magnificent volume. Beautifully illustrated and designed, Art in Oceania: A New History is a collaborative work by seven leading curators and researchers, all of whom have lived and worked in the region, or still do. Among them are two Australians - Thomas, at the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and Lissant Bolton at the British Museum. In a brilliant series of reversals, this ''new history'' casts away any residual notions of Oceanic art as the static product of pre-modern tradition, enabling its writers to reclaim and reinterpret works that have languished in museums for decades. It bursts through the old expectations of masks and carvings to reveal an ''astonishing variety'' of arts, including architecture and body decorations, weavings and fabrics, canoe prows and musical instruments, pottery, headrests and carrying bags.

What makes this history new is that it considers this rich array on its own terms and in its own milieu, freed from judgments too long clouded by Western notions of art and aesthetics. ''Our agenda,'' Thomas writes, ''is, emphatically, to turn the tables.''

So when it comes to the impact of colonialism, with its history of breaches and losses - the destruction of objects considered pagan and sacrilegious; the punitive bans of missions and governments - continuity is emphasised, and a long history of creative adaptation.

A Samoan tapa dress, c.1870.

A Samoan tapa dress, c.1870.

This is not to say the losses were not stark, for they were. Nor is it to say the clash of the old and the new was ever easy, for it wasn't - and it certainly isn't easy now.

That great Italian architect, Renzo Piano, designed the cultural centre in Noumea as an ultra-modern celebration of traditional architecture ''symbolic of progress, flexibility and openness'', but Kanak leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou, for whom it is named, well knew the temptations of modernity and the dangers of cultural loss when he spoke in 1984 of a ''new flowering … which will set new models with their roots in Kanak tradition but adapted to the contemporary environment of Melanesians, which is that of the town''.

With more than 700 illustrations, most in colour, Art in Oceania takes in the most urban of contemporary art and stretches back to carvings of stone and obsidian - gnarled, rounded creatures that are centuries old and echoed in Louise Bourgeois' reworking of ancient female figures.

Tortoiseshell mask, Torres Strait Islands.

Tortoiseshell mask, Torres Strait Islands.

Between these extremes are images as diverse as an early 19th-century figure from Vanuatu painted in Reckitt's Blue (now in the Louvre); a 17th-century engraving of Fletcher Christian's Tongan club; tourists with painted faces while on ''cannibal tours''; the famous double figure that was thrown into Lake Sentani for protection against a government ban, then dredged up in 1929 and sold to the French dealer Jacques Viot; and a graphic portrait of Bob Marley on a bus shelter.

In this history, influence, like the tides of the ocean, runs in more than one direction, and we come to understand the paradox of art practices whose lines of development extend back over centuries, yet are always contemporary in the sense of being of their time - fluid and adaptive as they accommodate and interpret waves of change and exchange that began long before any European ship arrived.

If all this sounds diverse and complex, it is. And yet Art in Oceania opens with disarming ease. As a book it is a beautiful object, curated as if for an exhibition, its complexity resolved by design. The historical essays are rather like canoe paths and navigational routes across a great ocean. Scattered among them are islands made up of the images, and also of ''voices'' and ''features'' identified by separately coloured pages.

Te Hau-ki-Turanga meeting house, 1840s.

Te Hau-ki-Turanga meeting house, 1840s.

You'll come across, for instance, a two-page feature on Gauguin's ''house of pleasure'', where the door was framed by carved wooden panels that are now in the Musee d'Orsay, and where he suffered miserably at the end of his life despite the fishing pole (sketched into his diagram) that was lowered from the back to retrieve an absinthe bottle cooling in the well. Many pages later you'll hear the voice of artist Dan Taulapapa McMullin say that though he, too, can be seduced by Gauguin, he takes him with a ''twist of lime''.

Among the earliest voices is a chant addressed to the sea - ''O violent sea, milk sea, mad sea/ Delirious, numbing sea'' - beseeching it to protect its island people. This was collected by a Hawaiian scholar and published in 1869. Today a Hawaiian rapper cries for the squatters on the beach, ''fishing from our own waters''. And Epeli Hau'ofa reminds the people of the islands as they migrate across the world that ''the ocean in us'' will dry up if not fed by the contemplation of a history that, here, is represented through the prism of art.

At $120, Art in Oceania: A New History may seem an extravagance. But if you consider that these days even the best of novels can be ill-designed, printed on cheap paper and still cost $30, it could be regarded as a bargain.

Drusilla Modejska's most recent book, The Mountain, is published by Vintage.