Oceanic people

This was one part of a carved frieze of frigate birds and tunoid fish at the Oceania exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts.  Though this was made by Pacific peoples, it reminded me of gannets diving off the Scottish coast.

In my teens, I was fascinated by a television documentary about cricket in the Trobriand Archipelago, in Melanesia.  Matches are played by teams of no fixed size with ritualised violence and dance accompanied by sexualised taunting, charms and incantations.  Under colonising powers and the influence of missionaries, cricket replaced warfare, but with a character unique to these islands.

My mother told me about Bronislaw Malinowski, the Polish anthropologists who studied the Trobriand Islanders, sensationalising, for repressed Western European readers, their (often) female-led and polyamorous relationships as “The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia”.  She told me that Malinowski’s description of matrilineal descent challenged Freud’s concept of the oedipal relationship between a boy and his parents: in the Trobriand Islands a young man resents and challenges his maternal uncle not his father, and these strained relationships are about power not sex.

I studied social anthropology as an elective year during my medical degree.  The great social anthropologists of the early twentieth century, like Malinowski, were creatures of their time and of colonialism.  Even so, Malinowski brought wisdom and insight to bear on his subjects of study.  Western economists believe in the paramount nature of money, linked to a founding myth about individuals making rational choices over resource use in an ancestral marketplace.   Anthropologists, by contrast, demonstrate the diversity of exchange systems and their purposes.  The photograph above shows a stick navigation chart showing seas and currents.  Malinowski first described the ritual exchange of trinkets between Melanesian peoples separated by hundreds of miles of dangerous ocean, dignifying these voyagers as the Argonauts of the Western Pacific.   Across a vast network, red shell disc necklaces were gifted clockwise and white shell armbands anticlockwise.  This exchange network was (is?) the foundation of political authority across the islands, the means by which a man gains and displays prestige, not by acquisition but by giving.  The Wikipedia entry on this Kula exchange network references later studies of which I had been unaware: Malinowski had neglected the economic and political power held by women in Trobriand society: renown won in the Kula network was balanced by the value of landed property held by women.

Many of the museum artefacts from Oceania were objects of great prestige given or exchanged freely.  In their very nature, though, perhaps it was never the intention that these treasures should leave the gifting network to find a resting place under glass.  Conversely, we have been gifted the privilege to be included in some way in that Oceanic culture.

 

 

 

Oceania

I joined the artist who blogs as Outside Authority at the Royal Academy of Arts a couple of weeks ago.  We made three forays into the “Oceania” exhibition of artefacts from the Pacific diaspora, one to Renzo Piano’s achitectural display “The Art of Making Buildings” and had a timed ticket into the Klimt/Schiele “Drawings from the Albertina Museum, Vienna“.

OA and I have made previous drawing expeditions together but with longs gaps between.  At New Year two years ago, we draw water in Cromford in the cold.  As so often, later, I reworked sketches to find the picture I failed to capture outdoors.  Many months later, we visited the Kathe Kollwitz exhibition and, reflecting on that experience, we wandered, drawing, through Birmingham.  As usual, my medium was soluble ink, moved around with water and covered over with conte crayon. That day, I adopted an idea from OA to limit myself instead to using just three felt tip colours.

However, smudging the sketch with water had led me to be lazy with the lines.  In recent sketches I have used water-fast ink, line and block, to render tone and texture, denying myself the option to alter the picture with water.  This was the approach I took to drawing the Oceania artefacts.

I much admire the work of the German artist Susanne Rempt who blogs under the appropriate monicker Sue Blackpenart.   She frequently draws artefacts in museums and her drawings have such simplicity and carry so much narrative.  On occasion, she illustrates the thought-provoking posts and fiction published by blogger CakeorDeath.  He has posted several times about the importance of the Pacific peoples’ art to the western Surrealist movement in the twentieth century.  Susanne’s influence is obvious in my drawings.  In the first two of these drawings I started with and later erased pencil lines, but in the third, like Blackpenart, I committed myself directly in ink.

The last gift

Fire they had already in abundance.  They had no need to steal it, nor to commission its theft for pity.  What heaven’s burglar gained them was the hearth, and later metal casings to make the fire work.

After fire, though, came the gifts, freely given.  They unwrapped these in awe, each miracle more wondrous than the last.

The waves were tamed, accepting the actual oceans were unruly.  The sails were filled, though of course they could not direct the wind.  The baby’s head was guided.  Skins could be made more durable with piss and fibres woven into cloths.  Water was directed and fields sown with bland food so rock could be hewn and cities built.

Sisterhood they had had for ever, but brotherhood through shared ideas was new: yes, empire and slavery were among the gifts, and the capture and exchange and use of women too.

Some gifts showed great workmanship and had been long in the making.  From the very first, encapsulated life defended its integrity by capturing, cutting, splicing and inserting invading parasitic genes.  This was the gift, that they might use life’s defences as a tool to change the sequences encoding their own nature.

When the basket seemed empty, they carried on looking, turning it over, shaking it and feeling at the seams.  They knew the story, of course, and were looking for hope.   They wanted a myth they might believe in, so they might act positively, winning against the odds.

They found something almost as good.  The last gift of all was wishful thinking, that this might all go well.

control of space

This is another sketch from “Women Power Protest” at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. As in the last sketch, the foreground shows  “La Feuille”, Germaine Richier’s response to two world wars.  Behind is Melanie Manchot‘s photographic and mixed media portrait of her mother.  By mishap, in my sketch, the proportions of the face are of a younger woman whereas in the original, Mrs Manchot has the gravitas of age.