In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Contemporary Pacific Art

  • Introduction
  • Edited Books, Surveys, and Special Issues
  • Tradition, Contemporary, Kastom
  • Gender and Representation
  • Oceans and Oceania
  • Indigenous Knowledge
  • Nation Building
  • Migration and Diaspora: Home/Homelands
  • Pacific Artists in/and the Museum
  • Digital Art/Post-Internet Art
  • Art Worlds and Art Markets

Art History Contemporary Pacific Art
Caroline Vercoe
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 October 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0132


Pacific art and visual culture spans a rich and varied body of objects, dance forms, song, painting, and sculptural practices as well as adornment—both permanent and temporary, textiles, performance, and oral histories. It also encompasses the harnessing of digital media technologies as a means of creating new networks of communication and expression, and a crucial agent in maintaining and developing cultural traditions both in the homelands and diaspora. This article focuses specifically on Pacific artists whose practices engage with the economy, environment, and dynamics of the art gallery and museum system. A broad survey across a range of Pacific art forms is the focus of a separate Oxford Bibliographies article in Art History, “Arts of the Pacific Islands.” There are multiple synergies, relationships, and interconnections between what can be described as gallery-based and non-gallery-based art forms. Distinctive yet diverse, the visual culture and heritage of the Pacific emerges as a vital and important expression and vessel of cultural knowledge, memory, emotion, and experience. Contemporary Pacific art highlights the intersections, relationships, and connections between a wide and diverse range of forms, including performance, tapa cloth, tatau, and carving, and cultural concepts like Talanoa (open-ended dialogue), Ta (temporal), Va (spatial), kastom (customary practices), and Turangawaewae (“a place to stand,” a sense of belonging or association grounded in one’s genealogy and tied to a particular place). It firmly positions the artists both within an intersectional art historical framework; indigenous knowledge systems; and the contemporary, global world. Pacific artistic practices often reflect an interface or fusing of binaries such as public and private space, art and craft, and object and performance, often exploring and interrogating issues that have inscribed indigenous cultural practices within colonial hegemonies for centuries, and which continue in the present. These include the general failure of the Western art world to acknowledge and embrace the holistic and elastic nature of indigenous art forms. It embodies a diversity of cultural forms of expression and reflects challenges and developments in the face of widespread patterns of settlement and transition. While some forms have ceased to be produced as societies changed and adjusted, others have been maintained and developed in new ways, reflecting the innovation and resilience of Pacific cultural heritage. In the early 21st century, art and creative expression continues to play a vital role in the lives of Pacific communities both in the islands and in the diaspora. This article does not contain the hundreds of books, essays, and catalogues on individual artists. Outside its scope, too, are art blogs and websites.

Edited Books, Surveys, and Special Issues

This section features books and essays that provide a broad and largely thematic overview of important developments in contemporary Pacific art. Brunt and Thomas 2012 is a comprehensive regional survey of a wide range of art forms, which contextualizes contemporary art within discussions including migration, tourism, war, and popular culture. Cochrane 2001 and Cochrane 1997 are also structured thematically and provide valuable overviews of contemporary art from across the region and in Papua New Guinea. McClean 2011 and Queensland Art Gallery 2013 offer a broad survey of contemporary Aboriginal artists as well as key texts by artists, curators, and art writers. Chiu 2004 features a range of essays by Maori and Pacific art writers that focus on issues including representation, cross cultural encounters, and migration. Leota-Ete, et al. 2002 (cited under Gender and Representation) and Stevenson 2008 focus predominantly on the 1990s, in Aotearoa New Zealand, a remarkable decade in which two generations of Pacific artists established themselves in New Zealand and set the platform for a strong and thriving Pacific arts scene.

  • Brunt, Peter, and Nicholas Thomas, eds. Art in Oceania: A New History. London: Thames & Hudson, 2012.

    An edited collection of essays written by leading academics and researchers in the area, this major text offers an engaging and well-illustrated introduction and overview to art in the Pacific. Its broad scope spans from the arrival of the early Lapita settlers of the Pacific to contemporary Pacific artists in the 21st century, exploring a range of issues including gender, migration, and diaspora.

  • Chiu, Melissa. Paradise Now? Contemporary Art from the Pacific. Auckland, New Zealand: David Bateman, 2004.

    The catalogue for a major contemporary exhibition at the Asia Society Museum in New York in 2004, featured contemporary artists from New Zealand, Samoa, Hawaii, Fiji, New Caledonia, Niue, Rotuma, and the Torres Strait Islands. It includes essays by Maori and Pacific curators and art historians, Karen Stevenson, Ngahiraka Mason, and Caroline Vercoe, focusing on the emergence of contemporary Pacific art in New Zealand, issues of representation, and cultural change.

  • Cochrane, Susan. Contemporary Art in Papua New Guinea. Sydney, Australia: Craftsman House, 1997.

    Cochrane structures her book, which focuses on art practices emerging in Melanesia up until the late 1990s with a particular focus on Papua New Guinea, into thirteen chapters entitled “art +” an accompanying thematic, including life, kastom, diasporas, urban clan, and cultural politics.

  • Cochrane, Susan. Beretara: Contemporary Pacific Art. Rushcutters Bay, Australia: Halstead, 2001.

    Published in 2001, just a few years after the opening of the Tjibaou Cultural Centre in New Caledonia in 1998, Cochrane’s book offers a valuable survey of artists from across the Pacific including Vanuatu, Wallis and Futuna, Niue, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and Australia. Thematically driven, a diverse range of artists are discussed in relation to village and urban experience, and in the context of environmental change.

  • Fletcher, Graham, ed. Special Issue: Border Crossings; New Dialogues in Pacific Art and Design. Scope Art & Design 7 (2012).

    A diverse range of essays, poetry, and artists’ pages, including an interview with senior Samoan artist Fatu Feu’u, an essay considering the role of art funding and the gallery system in the Pacific, the development of artist workshops and residencies in the Pacific, and the emergence of a new generation of artists in Papua New Guinea.

  • McClean, Ian, ed. How Aborigines Invented the Idea of Contemporary Art. Brisbane, Australia: Institute of Modern Art, 2011.

    This essential collection of key writings focuses on Aboriginal contemporary art, artists, and art practices. It charts a wide and diverse range of issues and concerns that highlight the compelling and often polemical development and discourse of contemporary Aboriginal art. It features writers and artists including Eric Michaels, Marcia Langton, Banduk Marika, and Richard Bell.

  • Queensland Art Gallery. My Country, I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia. South Brisbane, Australia: Queensland Art Gallery, 2013.

    A major publication accompanying the exhibition My Country, this book is structured around the three curatorial thematics “My History,” “My Life,” and “My Country,” addressing issues of indigenous histories, political and social concerns, and the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to their homeland or “country.” It features indigenous writers and spans across art forms including painting, installation, photography, and moving image.

  • Stevenson, Karen. The Frangipani is Dead: Contemporary Pacific Art in New Zealand 1985–2000. Wellington, New Zealand: Huia, 2008.

    Spanning fifteen years, from the mid-1980s into the early 2000s, this book charts the emergence and development of contemporary Pacific art in New Zealand. It focuses on a diverse range of artists and forms including photography, performance, theater, painting, sculpture, and installation.

  • Stevenson, Karen, ed. Pacific Island Artists: Navigating the Global Art World. Oakland, CA: Marsalai, 2011.

    This collection brings together essays by museums and gallery curators, academics, and artist interviews, with a particular focus on the emergence and challenges for artists to sustain their art practices and livelihoods within developing island nations that do not have established arts support, funding, or gallery infrastructures in place.

  • Vercoe, Caroline. “Art.” In The Pacific Islands: Environment and Society. Rev. ed. Edited by Moshe Rapaport, 236–247. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2013.

    This chapter focuses on a range of art forms produced in the Pacific, taking a thematic approach that includes gender and the impact and legacy of colonial contact, the role of art as a visual symbol of rank and authority, and the idea that Pacific art forms embody material wealth. Contemporary gallery-based Pacific artists who draw on traditionally conceived art forms and incorporate materials, objects, and technologies from their urban environments are contextualized within the discussion.

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