Introduction

In an art market dominated by Western art, Oceanic Art is refreshingly different. The societies and cultures found in Oceania (the Pacific Islands, Australia, New Zealand, and Melanesia) have rich artistic traditions that are outside of Euro-centric Art History, and show different focuses. Their influence on Western art, however, has been enormous; Modernists like Pablo Picasso drew on Oceanic art to create some of their most famous paintings. The importance and beauty of Oceanic art cannot be overstated.

Woven Basketry Creature. Papua New Guinea. 20th century.
Woven Basketry Creature. Papua New Guinea (possibly Sepik River). Woven palms, wood, and cowrie shells. 20th century.

The Spiritual in Oceanic Art

In Oceania, art is not solely something physical and material. Works of art have a spiritual significance, and fit into the worldview of many Oceanic cultures. The best example is the Asmat people of New Guinea. The foundation myth of the Asmat tells of Fumeripits, the first man and a wood sculptor. Fumeripits made more people by sculpting them out of wood and playing the drum. Wood sculpting thus has a religious connotation to the Asmat, who traditionally believe that spirits can inhabit certain sculptures and carved figures.

Yipwon Hook Figure. Yimam people, Papua New Guinea. Wood with Cowrie Shells. 20th century.
Yipwon Hook Figure. Yimam people, Papua New Guinea. Wood with Cowrie Shells. 20th century.

The Media of Oceanic Art

There are many types of Oceanic art, as each culture has its own traditions, culture, and values. There are too many to fully expound on here. However, there are a few types of objects and techniques that are more common than others. Wood is a common medium, and often used to make figures of ancestors or deities, masks, and decorative panels for homes, buildings, and canoes. Woven material, like palms and grasses, are also used for baskets, weavings, and masks as well. Bone is another material commonly used for sculpting, with its significance depending on the object and its use. One popular example of bone artifacts are bone daggers, featuring traditional motifs.

Wooden Masks from New Guinea
Wooden Masks. Sepik River (Possibly Iatmul people), Papua New Guinea. Wood and cowrie shells. 20th century.

Oceanic Masks

In terms of objects, Masks are quite popular, as they are expressive by their nature. On a more anthropological and psychological level, a mask transforms a person into someone else. The wearer takes on the image and likeness of another, and acts as that person. For many cultures, this is often an ancestor or a deity. Masks can also be hung to scare away evil spirits as an apotropaic device. Masks from Oceania are colorful and expressive, showing a vastly different way of depicting the human form than that found in Western art.

Sepik River Wooden Shield
War Shield. Sepik River (possibly Oksipmin or Telefomin people), Papua New Guinea. Painted wood. 20th century.

Shields from New Guinea

Another type of popular artworks are objects associated with warfare. Wooden shields are perhaps the most popular of these. Examples from New Guinea, and particularly those of the Asmat, are decorated with images of one’s ancestors and sacred motifs. These decorations scare one’s enemies and call upon one’s ancestors for aid and defense. The connection of spiritual power with the physical art is markedly different from most artworks in the Western canon, and lends a deeper, more honest meaning behind Asmat art (and Oceanic art at large).

Asmat Sago Platter Shields
Sago Platter Shields. Asmat people, Western New Guinea (Indonesia). Painted wood. 20th century.

Oceanic Art’s Effect on Western Art

Oceanic art, alongside African art, more-or-less ushered in Global Modern and Contemporary art. It was Oceanic art and African masks on view in Paris’s Musee Trocadero that inspired Pablo Picasso to paint his world-changing Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907. Wider interest in the art of Oceania grew exponentially in the 20th century, with Western collectors and museums gradually growing their collections to great size. These materials are just beginning to achieve the respect and scholarship due to them.

Sepik River Ancestor Figure
Ancestor Figure. Sepik River (possibly Iatmul people), Papua New Guinea. Painted wood with rope, feathers, cowrie shells, and tusk. 20th century.

Selling Oceanic Art at Nest Egg Auctions

At auction, works of Oceanic art sell quite well, with fine examples bringing into the thousands and beyond. Nest Egg Auctions has a history selling these objects, as well as a deep and abiding respect for these objects as masterpiece works of fine art. If you are interested in consigning works of Oceanic art for our auctions, we would be happy to discuss it with you further.

Sepik River Mask
Mask. Sepik River, Papua New Guinea. Woven grass, mud, and paint. 20th century.

Further Reading

Michael C. Rockefeller, The Asmat of New Guinea: The Journal of Michael C. Rockefeller. Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic  Society / Museum of Primitive Art, 1967.