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From Water: Shifting Perspectives on the Pacific

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Pacific Views, 2022, installation view. Courtesy Chau Chak Wing Museum. Photograph by David James.

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Unlike other continental groupings organised around land masses, Oceania is a unique exception in that it is the sea that links the region together. Nearly thirty years have passed since the publication of Epeli Hau‘ofa’s ground breaking essay, Our Sea of Islands, and yet its call to adopt an Oceanic perspective, one that emphasises the importance of water, has never been more relevant. In this richly poetic polemic, Hau‘ofa contends:

There is a world of difference between viewing the Pacific as ‘islands in a far sea’ and as ‘a sea of islands.’ The first emphasises dry surfaces in a vast ocean far from the centres of power. Focussing in this way stresses the smallness and remoteness of the islands. The second is a more holistic perspective in which things are seen in the totality of their relationships.(1)

By rejecting the dominant land based logic which perpetuates an internalised sense of belittlement linked to smallness, Hau‘ofa draws power from the knowledge that ‘Oceania is vast, Oceania is expanding, Oceania is hospitable and generous.’(2)

In Australia, museum collections are an important source of information about the nation’s place within Oceania and the lens through which these collections are viewed is constantly shifting. Two exhibitions in Sydney demonstrate the influence that curatorial choices can have in either reinforcing or challenging the predominance of Eurocentric land based views, and the expansive potential inherent in adopting the holistic viewpoints promoted by Pacific writers like Hau‘ofa. At Pacific Views, an exhibition of historic landscape photography presented at the University of Sydney’s Chau Chak Wing Museum, and Maps of the Pacific at the State Library of NSW, audio emerges as an important tool to introduce voices from the Pacific into the gallery space. This augmentation of the display suggests one means through which museums might generate more layered dialogues around objects and artefacts closely related to contested histories of colonial exploration and expansion.

Eruption of Vulcan [Kalamanagunan] 1937, Rabaul, East New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea, HP.90.28.2470. As seen in Pacific Views, Chau Chak Wing Museum, University of Sydney.

Oceanic moments

Pacific Views is drawn from the University of Sydney’s Macleay Collection of historic photographs. Of some 50,000 images dating from the 1840s to 1980s, an estimated ten percent are related to the Pacific. In 2014, the university presented Points of Focus: historic photographs from the Pacific, exhibiting a broad cross section of the collection’s holdings including many images of Indigenous peoples and communities. Pacific Views departs from its predecessor by focusing specifically on landscape imagery. While not explicitly stated by the exhibition curators the decision to exclude figurative images cannot have been incidental. For this absence of portraits works to mitigate the intrusiveness of the western gaze that anthropological images, often gathered during fieldwork exhibitions, tend to introduce into the museum setting.

In avoiding a taxonomic approach, Pacific Views thus reflects a greater sensitivity towards ethnographic content that has developed over the past several years and a concern to generate open-ended dialogues around its collection material. Instead of arranging images by nation or country, for instance, which might have reinforced a western emphasis on land boundaries, the photographs are presented as a suite of cross-cultural conversations. Departing from distinct themes, the exhibition is concerned rather with ‘sporadic photographic moments.’(3) These moments reflect turning points in the region’s history, some dramatic and others more subtle.

On display, the immense plume of ash billowing from the volcano at Rabaul in Papua New Guinea in 1937 is visually spectacular but its deeper significance lies in the redistribution of colonial power that occurred in the fallout from the eruption. A sense of latency pervades other images ‘pregnant with future events.’(4) A serene Pearl Harbour photographed circa 1930 becomes eerie in the knowledge of its bombardment a decade later during WWII. Likewise, the quiet beauty of Funafuti, Tuvalu, as captured in 1897 is disrupted by a section pipe of diamond drill on the reef platform—evidence of more than a century of resource extraction in the region.

Landscape imagery has long served a commercial purpose in promoting the Pacific as an idyllic tourism destination. As such, it would be tempting to assume that the focus on landscape imagery in Pacific Views is not political. In fact, the exhibition is intensely engaged with the politics of the region’s ecologies. While subtly executed, the non-hierarchical hang is a nod to the notion of talanoa, a traditional word used in Fiji and the Pacific naming a process of inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue that was adopted as the framework for the UN climate change talks in 2018.

Building on this notion of radical dialogue, the visual content of Pacific Views is enriched by an invitation to ‘hear from Pacific Islanders through audio recordings, oration and poetry.’(5) In audio accessible via QR codes voices from the past reverberate in song to ancestral spirits, clips of rhythmic percussion, and excerpts from independence songs made available through PARADISEC, the Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures. This archival content is brought into dialogue online with the work of contemporary poets, writers and activists bringing renewed urgency to the perspective of coming from water.

In Praise Song for Oceania, a panegyric to the sea, Craig Santos Perez amplifies his voice through a multi-disciplinary collaboration with Hawai’ian filmmaker Justyn Ah Chong transforming his spoken word verse into an eco-poem-film. Santos Perez first affirms the sea’s “capacity for renewal, your rise into clouds and descent into rains” until the long duration of Oceanic time collides with modernity and the rhythm becomes tumultuous. Now the sea must “endure the violence of those who claim dominion over you / who map you empty ocean to pillage / who divide you into latitudes and longitudes / who scar your middle passages.”(6) Articulating the lived reality of the Pacific, works like ‘Praise Song for Oceania’ reveal the inseparable relationship between art and activism in the region and the need for historical truth-telling that acknowledges the destructive legacies of European exploration and colonisation.

Chart of the Pacific Ocean [cartographic material] : drawn from a great number of printed and ms. journals / by A. Arrowsmith, geographer ; engraved by T. Foot, Weston Place, Battle Bridge ; George Allen, sculp. State Library of NSW

Renavigating the Pacific

If the decolonisation of the Pacific is not a finished project, what then is the status of the cartographic holdings in Australian museums? In particular, how do we reckon with the legacy of the European navigators who raced to claim and appropriate the island territories of Oceania? These questions frame the reception of Maps of the Pacific, an exhibition drawn mostly from the extensive collection of the State Library of NSW, home to one of the largest holdings of maps and charts in Australia.

The exhibition in many ways reflects the current push to increase the visibility and accessibility of collections to the public. Yet in doing so it is forced to grapple with the difficult reality that European maps are inextricably linked to the dispossession of land from First Nations peoples. Rather than adopting an inherently critical standpoint, Maps of the Pacific responds to this conundrum with a focus on rebalancing the record, foregrounding the sophistication of Indigenous Pacific way-finding and navigation techniques alongside maps and charts produced by Europeans. As the exhibition entry announces:

The mapping of the Pacific is a tale of many worlds—the European world sketched through compass lines and coastlines, controlling and claiming the physical world on paper; and the worlds of Pacific people built on the knowledge of ocean paths, prevailing winds and rising stars, memorised and shared orally.(7)

While it is debatable whether Maps of the Pacific goes far enough in this direction, the exhibition is productive nonetheless in revealing some of the opportunities and constraints inherent in creating dialogues between western and non-western modes of knowledge in a museum context. In this case, there is a significant imbalance in the quantity of material objects available for display due in part to the manner in which Pacific navigation methods were ‘memorised and shared orally.’ One means through which this unevenness is redressed is through audio, accessible via QR codes like those installed at Pacific Views. Here though it is the voice of scholars and experts from the Pacific, rather than poets and authors, whose reflections introduce multi-faceted perspectives to the display.

For example, in a section focused on the expeditions of Pedro Fernandes de Queirós titled A Spanish Quest, the notion of quest is unpacked in audio from Richard Shing, Director of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre. For the Spaniard’s journeys were as much about conquest as they were about mapping, and where European navigators treated the sea as a battleground, for Pacific Islanders the ocean was a highway; a vast network of trade and migration routes crisscrossed by diverse cultural groups. Appreciation of these navigational capabilities, Shing argues, has been hindered by “the rigorous approaches of missionaries condemning the local cultures and heritage.” As such “people on the islands have lost important aspects of their cultural heritage.”(8) Now the challenge is to “look within,” in order for Vanuatu to develop in a sustainable way.(9)

Indeed the move to revalue Pacific culture in exhibitions like Maps of the Pacific follows a long period of neglect and even derision of Indigenous knowledge. This reversal of fortunes is especially apparent in the shifting attitudes towards a chart of the islands of Oceania drawn by Tupaia, the master eighteenth century Tahitian Polynesian navigator and arioi (priest) best known for assisting Captain Cook in his navigation of the Pacific. The most famous version of Tupaia’s map is held in the British Library, however the State Library holds an alternate chart similarly based upon Tupaia’s accounts. For centuries, Tupaia’s map was “misunderstood, and at some point, despised, looked down upon as being just roughly a draft,” explains Dr Josiane Teamotuaitau of the University of French Polynesia in accompanying audio segments.

Yet there was genius in Tupaia’s presentation of ‘two conceptions’ through which he sought to “translate his vision of the world, so that his British friend [Cook] could understand what he meant.”(10) While the precise meaning of the navigational codes is contested, it is broadly accepted that the map shows sea routes, providing instructions on how to sail between islands. Thus, it is ‘not a map, nor a representation of Cartesian space, but a mosaic of subject-centred sailing directions or bearings to distant islands.’[11] The scale of Tupaia’s chart is modest relative to the larger European maps that surround it at the State Library. These maps and charts of Cook’s era represent the apotheosis of western navigation when mapping achieved new levels of technical and scientific accuracy, ultimately working to overshadow the accomplishments of traditional wayfinding practices.

Poinciana regis, unknown Pacific location, c. 1935. Archaeology department Lantern Slide, Macleay Collections, HP2008.1.141. As seen in Pacific Views, Chau Chak Wing Museum, University of Sydney.

Today the use of audio in museum exhibitions is not new, however the care taken to create dialogues around objects and collections in Pacific Views and Maps of the Pacific points to a growing desire to broaden the voices and stories heard in these settings. The exhibitions also reveal the limits of audio in so far as sight remains the dominant mode of perception and sonic interventions can be overlooked by visitors. This shortcoming is arguably more a symptom than a cause, as audience appreciation of the recovered knowledge and devalued histories made tangible through multi-sensory collaboration requires holistic shifts in how we engage with the world around us. Adopting an Oceanic perspective founded in oral traditions and centred on the ecology of water is just one example, a readjustment that is urgent in light of the present environmental emergencies. The work of writers like Epeli Hau‘ofa reveal that Pacific voices have been vocal on these matters for decades. Which only leaves the question of why we haven’t listened sooner.


A chart representing the Isles of the South Sea … chiefly collected from the accounts of Tupaya, 1778 from Observations made during a voyage round the world, on physical geography, natural history … by John Reinhold Forster printed for G Robinson, London engraved print in bound volume bequest of Sir William Dixson Q77/44. State Library of NSW