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Oceanic Art

DATES May 28, 1942 through September 20, 1942
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  • May 27, 1942 Fine examples of the things the primitive peoples of the islands of the Pacific Ocean have developed to use in the various phases of their lives make up the new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. The show is called “Oceanic Art, The Culture of the Pacific Front.” It opens today (Thursday, May 28th) and will be on view through September 20th.

    Objects from islands and island groups that are appearing daily in war communiques dominate the collection. Among things shown are weapons, both for war and ceremonial purposes, costumes on figures, textiles, fishing tackle, paddles, games, masks, house decorations and boat models. Each section has an accompanying map of the area prepared by Dr. Herbert J. Spinden, Curator of American Indian Arts and Primitive Cultures whose department supplies the objects for the exhibition.

    The islands represented are: The Netherlands East Indies, the Philippines and part of New Guinea; Micronesia which embraces the Marshall, Gilbert, Marianne, Caroline and Pelew groups; Melanesia which includes part of New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, the Bismarck Archipelago, New Caledonia and the Santa Cruz and Fiji Islands; Polynesia which takes in the Hawaiian Islands and all of the Pacific south of the Tropic of Cancer bounded by New Zealand and the Ellice Islands on the west, and Easter and Pitcairn Islands on the east. Other territory covered is Formosa and Hainan and the Malay Peninsula. The Formosan material shows that the people of that island have no resemblance to the Japanese.

    Miss May Dorward of the Brooklyn Museum Library has prepared for free distribution a preliminary bibliography on the subject of the exhibition from the material available from the Brooklyn Museum Library.

    The Museum has augmented its own collections in a few instances with loans from: Julis Carlebach, Ralph Linton, S. S. Sarna, John Wise and Arthur Wiesenberger.

    The large Special Exhibition Gallery on the ground floor houses the show. In the first anteroom is the model of a Sumatra house and two scenes from Java, a market scene and a dance ceremony. The last two are shown by means of life-like three inch high figures in the round of natives with a small scattering of European spectators dressed in the style of the period when the figures were made, 1820. Sixty figures are used for the market scene and thirty for the dance ceremony. In this room are also two cases, one of Malasian magic and the other, the Javanese theater.

    In the first bay of the large main gallery is display work from the Philippines, the Netherlands East Indies, and New Guinea. This consists of Philippine and Borneo weapons, Balinese textiles and Philippine, Javenese and New Guinea costumes on figures. From Java are batik sarongs and the Bagobo man’s costume from the Philippines, which could be the basis of a new variation on summer sports costumes, is remarkable for the six techniques used in its production – weaving, tie-dyeing, embroidery, beadwork, appliqué and spangles. Unique examples of the dyed and woven fabric called ikat, from the islands of Sumba, Sumbawa and Flores occupy a liberal section of wall space.

    One section is devoted to the objects that figure in the club life of the bachelors of New Guinea. Bachelors in that island live together in a special building that is in effect a club. The pieces shown are shields, drums, and large wood decorations for the interior of the building.

    Ingenious and finely designed tools and other useful objects are featured in the middle bay by a case of Polynesian fishing tackle and groups of Melanesian eating utensils, war and ceremonial clubs, shell ornaments and examples of navigation items. A bait bowl that is carried hung around the neck, stone sinkers, both utilitarian and to bring good luck, and an Hawaiian bone hook, stout line and net are some of the items of fishing tackle. The case devoted to navigation contains a boat model, the prow of a child’s canoe, a Solomon Island’s paddle and a wooden bailer. Body ornaments for men and women of shell of the Melanesian area are skillfully designed and fashioned bracelets, pendants, headbands, belts and bags.

    Maori, Marquesan, Samoan, Gilbert and Caroline Island objects occupy the end bay. The Museum is showing for the first time its latest important acquisition in the Department of Primitive Cultures, a Marquesan royal costume. It consists of neck, arm, waist and knee bands and breech clout made mostly of human hair and a tortoise and white shell crown. That latter has a plume in front made of an old man’s beard. A separate part of the costume is the large conch shell which the King carries also decorated with human hair. From the same family as the King’s costume is a queen’s crown of porpoise teeth.

    The hair used in royal costumes is contributed by certain female relatives of the eldest son of a family. The hair has a good luck magic significance. Before it is made up into a costume it is given a permanent wave. The appearance of a person wearing a hair costume is that of a freshly clipped French poodle.

    Several fine examples of tapa cloth, a fabric made by beating cut mulberry tree bark, are shown and fine weaving from the Caroline Islands in the form of belts made of delicate fiber threads tied together to make a long strand. Sometimes belts require 15,000 knots. A kind of tough armor exhibited from the Gilbert Islands is made by tyeing together pieces of coconut fiber and weaving it tightly into a form of cuirass with an attached flaring head protection or helmet.

    Two handsome Maori robes of native flax for a man and a woman that are featured draped on figures show how a people drawn from a warm climate by their enemies exerted their ingenuity and protected themselves against the colder climate of New Zealand. Maori feather boxes, containers for fine feathers worn on special occasions, are displayed in conjunction with photographs of tattooed natives to show that the same designs appear on both and demonstrate the general use to which the handsome patterns evolved by the Maoris are put.

    Nearby is hung a remarkable example of an Hawaiian cape completely covered with bright feathers of extinct birds arranged in a bold pattern of yellow and black on a crimson ground.

    Objects from Hainan, the large island off Indo-China in the South China Sea, occupied early by the Japanese, and Formosa, the southernmost island of the Japanese group are shown in the last anteroom. Costumes and textiles from Hainan demonstrate the island’s cultural tie with China and a split bamboo armor vest and helmet, pipes, rice, ladle, blood-brother cup, all from Formosa, show no trace of Japanese culture affected the independent minded natives that Japan has never entirely quelled, especially those in the interior.

    Brooklyn Museum Archives. Records of the Department of Public Information. Press releases, 1942 - 1946. 4-6/1942, 120-3.
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