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August 8, 2011 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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Visual Arts

This month’s opening of Oceania is a landmark collaboration for two of New Zealand’s major public art institutions. The Wellington City Gallery and Te Papa have collaborated on an captivating new exhibition that celebrates the culture and artistic traditions of New Zealand and the surrounding Pacific region. Oceania is timed perfectly to run during the Rugby World Cup season so locals and tourists alike will have the opportunity to imbibe a little culture amongst the sport and the boozing.

The two exhibitions are distinct in their focus but are linked in their overall exploration of the rich resource that artists in the region have provided. Te Papa examines heritage objects, calling on works from the time of early contact when Pacific cultures were influenced by Western materials and the new visual imagery that these visitors brought. The City Gallery provides an exploration of modern and contemporary art that takes life in Oceania as a key influence. Reuben Friend, a curator of Māori and Pacific Art at the City Gallery describes the show as a two-way dialogue, looking at “Western artists being influenced by, and sometimes appropriating from, Oceania and the reverse.” It is not a survey exhibition, but rather it looks at key times in New Zealand art history and key artists that have had interesting conversations.

Oceania mostly draws on New Zealand based practitioners but there are a number of exceptions, including the work by Papua New Guinean Mathias Kauage. His works are remarkable in their vibrant colour and telling symbolic imagery. Other works to note include the iconic work Black Phoenix, 1984-88 by Ralph Hotere. I personally love the work of Lisa Reihanna, who places young Māori women in glossy advertorial photographs, while still clothing them in traditional dress. This raises questions over identity of contemporary women and the commercial exploitation of indigenous images.

I think the significance of this exhibition lies in the unveiling of some lesser-known artists, whose impact on our cultural heritage should be realised. Secondly, the collaboration of the City Gallery and Te Papa is an important step in the strengthening of the arts in New Zealand. After past criticism that these two institutions have faced about their limited relationship, hopefully this is a sign of things to come with possible future crossover in collections and curatorial practice.

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