In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Arts of the Pacific Islands

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews of Oceanic Art, 1940s to 1990s
  • Recent Overviews of Oceanic Art/Arts of the Pacific, 1990s to Present
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Anthropology, Art, and Aesthetics
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • The Emergence of Contemporary Art Movements in the Pacific
  • Pacific Art in the Global Art World

Art History Arts of the Pacific Islands
Susan Cochrane
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0099


This article treats the arts of the Pacific Islands, often referred to in literature as Oceanic art. In geographical terms the Pacific Islands/Oceania specifically refers to the island groups lying within the Pacific Ocean basin. Pawley 2005 (cited under Early Oceania: The First Colonizers) surveys the earliest settlers, non-Austronesian ancestors of the Papuan language groups, who arrived in New Guinea and settled the landmass of New Guinea and several adjacent archipelagoes up to 40,000 years ago. The Lapita culture, a precursor of Austronesian settlers, was a prehistoric Pacific Ocean people from c. 1600 BCE to c. 500 BCE, described in Kirch 1997 (cited under Early Oceania: The First Colonizers). Mobile, resourceful, and capable, the Austronesian peoples, masters of the art of long-distance voyaging, arrived in waves of migration over the past three millennia, The high-quality production Vaka Moana (see Howe 2007 [cited under Early Oceania: The First Colonizers]) is an excellent online resource on the settlement of Austronesian people within the Pacific Ocean basin and coastal fringes of New Guinea, adapting their language, culture, and lifestyle to its diverse environments. Since Magellan sailed into what he named the Mar pacifico in 1520, the European naming of the Pacific region exemplifies how geographical and art historical terminology and lines of demarcation have shifted over two centuries. Charles de Brosses coined the names Polynésie and Australasie in his compendium of the South Seas (Brosses 1756 [cited under the Pacific Region/Oceania]), followed by Jules Dumont d’Urville, who devised the name Austronesia and developed the idea of the regions of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia (Dumont d’Urville 1832 [cited under the Pacific Region/Oceania]). From approximately the 1940s to the 1990s, when the term Oceanic art predominated, d’Urville’s schema was adapted to describe the culture and style regions determined as Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia. Polynesia was mapped as a triangle traced over the Pacific Ocean from Hawaii to Easter Island (Rapanui) to New Zealand (Aotearoa), encompassing Tonga, Samoa, Niue, the Cook Islands, Wallis and Futuna, Tokelau and Tuvalu, the Marquesas, the Society Islands, the Austral Islands, and New Zealand (Aotearoa). Melanesia extended from the great island of New Guinea and its outlying archipelagoes to the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu to New Caledonia and the Torres Strait Islands. Fiji is considered to be partly Polynesian and partly Melanesian. In the North Pacific, Micronesia includes Guam, Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae, the Mariana and Caroline Islands, Kiribati, Palau, the Marshall Islands, and Nauru. Numerous outliers traverse the designated zones, such as the Polynesian outliers of Rennell, Bellona, and the Santa Cruz group, which lie in the waters of the Solomon Islands. Bühler, et al. 1962 (cited under General Overviews of Oceanic Art, 1940s to 1990s) includes Australia’s Aboriginal people in its overview of Oceanic art, but Aboriginal Australians and their distinctive cultures are not included in this article. In the era of Western imperialism during the 19th century, the world was divided into culture areas based on race; the indigenous peoples of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, who were non-Islamic, non-Buddhist, non-Hindu, and non-Christian, were lumped together as “primitive” native races. It was not until after World War II that Oceanic art emerged as a subject within Western art history; however, the aesthetic criteria and artistic categories encapsulating it were invested in the Euro-American cultural realm and Oceanic art was dominated by Western art history’s discourses, taxonomies, connoisseurship, collections, and literature. Although some indigenous Pacific writers can be cited, including Mary Kawena Pukui, David Malo, and Te Rangi Hiroa, the early literature on Pacific art was based on the observations and opinions of Europeans and on provenanced pieces acquired on voyages of exploration and scientific expeditions or collected by ethnographers, missionaries and traders, which came to represent the canon of Oceanic art within Western collections of it. Following the demise of the colonial era, the philosophers of the new Pacific, such as Epeli Hau’ofa and Hirini (Sidney) Moko Mead, asserted their independence and identity, informed by indigenous knowledge systems. In contemporary use, “Oceania” and “Oceanic art” are still current terms, but when used by Pacific authors, as in Hau’ofa 2008 (cited under the Pacific Region/Oceania), they have shifted to emphasize the identity and interconnectedness of Pacific peoples. As Pacific Islanders seek self-descriptive terms, the Polynesian word for “ocean” (Moana), as in Moana arts, and “Pasifika,” for people of Pacific heritage, are popular but have yet to enter common use in literature. Today Moana–Oceania encompasses a great diversity of indigenous people, including diasporic and settler populations with disparate cultures and sets of resources. A great diversity of physical environments exists within the vastness of this “continent of islands” as well as in the cultural, social, economic, and political circumstances of the people who now inhabit it. Throughout the region, people have different vantage points—indigenous and nonindigenous, past and present—from which they observe, discuss, and value art and participate in the cultural life of their communities. Interconnecting these realms is what Nicholas Thomas describes as “entangled histories,” a continuous network of encounters and exchanges, influencing both Western and indigenous art and thought. In the 21st century, art historians are particularly aware that the practice of art history is polycentric; it is released from the constraints of its Eurocentric ancestry and includes the ideologies, authorship, and values of Pacific peoples. This article reflects the shift beyond sets of artworks and their historical condition to new avenues of research, driven by indigenous agency and collaborative enterprise, which straddle time periods and delimit categories of artworks. Due to the diversity of Pacific cultures and forms of expression, it has become impossible to contain all the arts of the Pacific Islands within the overview format. The Pacific region includes twenty-four nations and territories and more than 2,000 distinctive cultural groups. Although the Western geographical framework of the region that describes three ethnic-cultural zones—Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia—still predominates, the debate within the region about such imposed criteria is active and recognition is widespread of the need to reposition attitudes, concepts, and discussions about Pasifika artists and their art. The growing body of literature by Moana authors on all aspects of artistic expression, including titles cited throughout this article, is timely and deserving of greater dissemination.

General Overviews of Oceanic Art, 1940s to 1990s

Oceanic art did not have an established place as a distinctive category in the literature on world art history until after World War II. Instead, it shared the rubric of Primitive Art along with the native arts of Africa and the Americas, a vast spectrum of artistic activity that was absent from fine arts museums. Previous recognition of the aesthetic value of the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, such as by Cubist painters or surrealists (see Bounoure 1992), were connected to the art group’s own preoccupations and interests (see Modernist European Artists Interpretations of the Pacific). The publications listed in this section cover the period from the first post–World War II survey in 1946 in the United States through the establishment of Oceanic art in art museums, as a field of research in art history and as prestigious objects in the art market. The Arts of the South Seas exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York displayed magnificent examples of art from the Pacific Islands, locales that had become familiar to Americans in the war years; Linton and Wingert 1946, an edited catalogue, is said to be the first to provide a representative picture of the diverse art styles of Oceania. In 1954, Nelson A. Rockefeller established the Museum of Primitive Art in New York to display the artistic excellence of the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas and their historical significance (Newton 1978). As the term Primitive Art was gradually expunged in art historical and museological use, the term Oceanic art became favored for the arts of the Pacific region. The move toward recognition of the artistic products of Oceanic peoples as “art” in metropolitan cultural institutions was led by influential anthropologists and based on their long periods of fieldwork as well as on extensive knowledge of museum collections, exemplified in Gathercole, et al. 1979. A significant contribution, Leenhardt 1950 views art as a social phenomenon, which, along with language, myths, and customs, has shaped Oceanic societies. Jean Guiart was a student of Leenhardt who became an internationally recognized specialist in the arts and religions of Oceania, especially Melanesia; a major work is Guiart 1963. The aim to establish the prestige of Oceanic art as “art” worthy of the highest level of Western scholarship and connoisseurship was furthered by Carl A. Schmitz (Schmitz 1971). Oceanic art featured in ethnographic museums, although some influential voices advocated for “art from remote places” to be admitted into the Louvre, including the author of Fénéon 1920. The international tribal art market still places high value on exceptional pieces with a proven provenance, which serve the interests of serious art collectors, exemplified in Meyer 1995. The volumes in this section now serve as a benchmark; reading them in conjunction with surveys written after 2000 reveals the considerable attitudinal shift that has taken place toward the arts of the Pacific in recent years.

  • Bounoure, Vincent. Vision d’Océanie. Paris: Éditions Dapper, 1992.

    Exhibition catalogue (French edition) illustrating 175 pieces of Oceanic art from the collection of the Dapper Foundation. The text by Vincent Bounoure provides an interesting perspective on the appreciation of the arts called “primitive,” or “first” arts from a critic and theorist actively engaged with the surrealist movement.

  • Bühler, Alfred, Terrence Barrow, and C. P. Mountford. Oceania and Australia: The Art of the South Seas. London: Thames and Hudson, 1962.

    While appreciating the aesthetics of form and quality of selected types of Oceanic art, the authors express the view that objects made and used within traditional societies were of the most value.

  • Fénéon, Félix. “Enquête sur les arts de lointains: Seront-ils admis au Louvre?” Le Bulletin de la vie artistique (1920).

    The influential art critic Félix Fénéon published the opinions of the “twenty ethnographers or explorers, artists or aestheticians, collectors or dealers” in his 1920 survey, demonstrating that it would be difficult to introduce these objects to museums, despite the excitement that art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas had generated in avant-garde circles. Translated as: “Will the arts from remote places be admitted into the Louvre?”

  • Gathercole, Peter, Adrienne Kaeppler, and Douglas Newton. The Art of the Pacific Islands. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1979.

    A vast spectrum covering four hundred objects borrowed from more than eighty museums and private collections, with interpretive essays on the designated culture zones of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia, which surveys objects from the time of first contact with European collectors that began to stimulate changes.

  • Guiart, Jean. The Arts of the South Pacific. New York: Golden Press, 1963.

    Abundantly illustrated with masterpieces of Oceanic art, the noted French anthropologist Guiart gives consideration to the cultures that produced the artworks. In his extensive fieldwork and career at the Musée de l’Homme, Guiart widened perspectives on how Oceanic art should be discussed and presented.

  • Leenhardt, Maurice. Arts of the Oceanic Peoples. London: Thames and Hudson, 1950.

    French pastor and ethnographer Maurice Leenhardt was a pioneer in participant observation among the Kanak people of New Caledonia from 1902 to 1927. On his return to Paris he founded the Musée de l’Homme and taught ethnography and Oceanic languages. A representative survey concentrating on Melanesia and Polynesia. English translation by Michael Heron of Arts de l’Océanie (Paris: Éditions du Chène, 1947).

  • Linton, Ralph, and Paul S. Wingert. Arts of the South Seas. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1946.

    The first post–World War II survey bringing the arts of the islands made familiar to Americans in the war years, including the Solomon Islands, New Guinea, Truk, the Gilbert and Caroline Islands, and the Marianas.

  • Meyer, Anthony J. P. Oceanic Art=Ozeanische Kunst=Art océanien. Cologne, Germany: Konemann, 1995.

    The author is an art dealer in Paris specializing in Oceanic art; a prestigious volume with magnificent photography, produced for connoisseurs. English, French, and German text with photographs.

  • Newton, Douglas. Masterpieces of Primitive Art. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.

    Introduction by Nelson A. Rockefeller. Rockefeller’s perspective on his vision to establish a Museum of Primitive Art, acknowledging the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas as objects of artistic excellence, illustrated from his own collection.

  • Schmitz, Carl August. Oceanic Art: Myth, Man, and Image in the South Seas. New York: Abrams, 1971.

    Following many years of fieldwork in Melanesia, Schmitz became the director of the Museum für Völkerkunde in Basel, Switzerland. He proposed a systematic method of analyzing ethnographic data into culture, history, art, and religious art. This comprehensive book marks the culmination of his work. This massive volume, structured around the main culture areas he perceived as New Guinea, Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia provides a comprehensive survey documenting the arts of Oceania.

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