Oceania: Australia and New Guinea


Oceania is term for islands dotting the seas around the Pacific. In the 18th century, this was divided into 3 parts, not including the continent of Australia: Micronesia (the small islands), Melanesia (the black islands, which reflects European prejudices of the time), and Polynesia (many islands). Although each has specific characteristics, there are some similarities shared by many of the cultures of Oceania, including headhunting, the making of tapa cloth, and a focus on the sea. Tapa cloth, which is considered to be a women’s art form, is made from the bark of the paper mulberry or breadfruit tree which has been soaked and pounded flat. It was was used to make clothing, ritual objects, and funerary shrouds. The designs that are painted on the cloth are generally culturally specific, and contain a protective element to them. In many Oceanic cultures, the more cloth a person was wearing, the higher their status. European explorers talked of instances such as the one in the 1870s where Tui Nadrau, chief of Nadrau, was wrapped in more than 600 feet of tapa cloth for a ceremonial presentation.

Republic of the Fiji Islands, ceremonial or ritual dress Inner bark of the paper mulberry plant, 19th century and A traditional Samoan male tattoo from the waist to below the knees seen from the side and back. (photo By Image: http://collections.lacma.org/sites/default/files/remote_images/piction/ma-34603986-O3.jpgGallery: http://collections.lacma.org/node/222475, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27333854 and By CloudSurfer – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3660719)

Tattooing was practiced throughout Oceania on both men and women. Often, it was done to contain the mana, or power, of the individual, and sometimes had to do with rank. The designs on a person’s body often formed their signature, and were placed in different places according to culture and gender. The tools used were often simple bone and shell tools, and the ink was generally made from ash mixed with water. Tattooing in Oceania, though, was only one form of body art practiced by the different culture groups. Others included face painting, piercings, and elaborate headdress and jewelry. 


Map of Australian Aboriginal Cultural Territories

In Australia, Aboriginal artists create paintings on behalf of the local community. These artists are custodians of vital community traditions. They typically made art to increase magic, tell the stories of the ancestors, and for initiation and other rituals. Colors were, and still are, very important within Aboriginal art. The typical colors are red, which signifies blood, fire, and power; black, which signifies the earth and ancestral fires; yellow, which signifies liquid and water; and white, which signifies the stars, the sky, and the ancestors in heaven. Most Australian Aboriginal art relates to The Dreaming. The Dreaming is a collection of stories that recount the adventures of supernatural beings in the Dreamtime, a mythical past before people. These stories were given to people by the ancestral spirits, called mimis, by different tribal groups, and passed down through oral and visual tradition. The stories are tied to specific places, and tell the creation stories of the people who live in that area, which helps assert a group’s claim on a certain place. Many of the spirits have very specific powers and attributes, such as the Wandjinas of the north-west Kimberly region of Australia.


Australian Aboriginal, Man with Body art, 2011 and Smoking Ceremony 2 Major Sumner, a Ngarrindjeri elder, in a smoking ceremony, as part of the repatriation of Old People remains, 2009 (photo By Steve Evans from Citizen of the World (Australia: Aboriginal Culture 001) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons and By Kevin Walsh [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Australian Aboriginal, Tjurunga and shields, n.d. (photo http://www.alconet.com.ar/varios/mitologia/poesia/fototrdaustraliat.jpg and By Travis from Sydney, NSW, Australia – Ian_Potter_Centre_9, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46850125)

The Aboriginal people, one of the oldest cultures in the world, were semi-nomadic groups who combined a simple material culture with a complex intellectual life. Scarification was practiced for a variety of reasons, including initiation and mourning rituals, social status, and increase one’s attractiveness to the opposite sex. Body paint was also used, and the painted designs were owned by individuals, but could be bartered or sold. Feathers, jewelry, body tassels, and headdresses were also added as body decoration. Most objects that were made were easily portable to fit within the semi-nomadic lifestyle of the Aboriginal people. Some 3-D objects were made, including tjurungas used in rituals. These were flat, oval, or circular slabs of wood or stone with complex painted and incised patterns. Even objects such as spear throwers were made beautiful to increase their magical efficacy. The dead were treated with ritualized respect, and their bones were placed in these hollow log coffins. The treatment of the dead varied from place to place in Australia, with the Tiwi people of Arnhem land carving tutini from ironwood as grave markers for the Pukamani ceremony. They represent an number of aspects or associations of the deceased, and high ritual status people have twenty.

Australian Aboriginal, Rarrk Style Bark Painting, 20th century and Rock Art, date unknown (Photo By Unknown – pwHJvKThfLTgLQ at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21987946 and By Unknown (Australian) – XQHDq0CyBjBcZg at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21881654)

On the Barnett River, Mount Elizabeth Station

Australian Aboriginal, Aboriginal rock art on the Barnett River, Mount Elizabeth Station (photo By Graeme Churchard from Bristol (51.4414, -2.5242), UK – On the Barnett River, Mount Elizabeth Station, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30873440)

There are regional styles of painting, and this painting was originally done on bark or the rock outcroppings of the Outback. The paintings done on the rock outcroppings continue to be sacred to the Aboriginal people, and are often repainted, as the Aboriginal groups see these spaces as inhabited by the spirits, and the painters as filled with the spirit’s energy when they paint. The Aboriginal people of Arnhem Land use rarrk, or cross-hatched patterns, within the bodies of their figures. Groups from other areas made dot-style paintings, many of which also served as maps of tribal territory. Many of these paintings have ritual knowledge that only the initiated know, and modern Aboriginal paintings sold in galleries have subtle changes made to them. The motif of a spirit vomiting refers to creation and renewal, and the concepts of transformation and renewal through the cyclical change in nature. The Aboriginal artists represented things with a subjective vision, meaning things were represented as the mind knows them to eternally be, and these designs and spirit images were also conventionalized. Ground paintings are also made of earth-pigments and other natural materials on a prepared ground. These are highly sacred and often secret, although some have been made in a public context.

The performing arts were also important. Initiation ceremonies were performed to sustain the realm of humans. Art was made in an effort to obtain the desired results, and was a conduit that conveyed the needs and wishes of mortals to Dreamtime spirits who are still present in the world, but have changed into landscape features or totemic animals. The body can be a vessel of the Dreamtime spirits during rituals.

Australian Aboriginal, Toas, early 20th century and Yirrkala Bark Petition, 1963 (photo by https://classconnection.s3.amazonaws.com/527/flashcards/2889527/png/screen_shot_2013-05-05_at_125701_pm-13E75A1452112A21D52.png and http://www.mabonativetitle.com/info/YirrkalaBarkPetition.jpg)


Barunga Statement, 1988 (photo http://treatyrepublic.net/images/2009-general/barunga-statement.jpg)

Toas, although described by the Diyari as direction markers at abandoned camps to let people know where they had gone, or as signposts for the next party on the ancestral landscape, appear to be an innovative form of sculpture using the prevailing system of iconography and meaning. These may have been made as a response to European desires to purchase Aboriginal art and objects in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is one example of Aboriginal people using their art and culture as a means to engage in the political and cultural dialogue of colonization. Another is the Yirrkala Bark Petition, created in 1963 to assert Native land ownership and protest mining on Aboriginal native lands. This was the first time a Native petition had been recognized by the Australian Parliament, making them the first documentary recognition of indigenous people in Australian law. These led to the 1976 Aboriginal Land RIghts Act, granting access to ancestral lands (somewhat at least). The Barunga Statement was presented to the Prime Minister of Australia on June 12, 1988. This called for self-management, a natural system of land rights, compensation for loss of lands, respect for Aboriginal identity, and an end discrimination, with a granting of full rights. Contemporary Aboriginal artists continue to create art that is meant as a dialogue between their culture and the dominant European derived one.


New Guinea is a large island divided into 2 political regions: Irian Jaya in the Western half, part of the Republic of Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea, an independent nation in the east. This is the largest of the Melanesian islands in Oceania.


Asmat, Bisj Poles and Shields (photo By Marsupium – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49413553 and By Wolfgang Sauber – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30147751)

The majority of native people in Irian Jaya are the Asmat, a village-dwelling hunter-gatherer society. They lived without sustained contact with the West until after World War II. They are a warlike culture that still preserve vestiges of a Neolithic culture, and live in lowland, coastal swamps. There are 2 primary themes in traditional Asmat art: ancestor veneration and headhunting. These are the subjects and motivation for making the art, and many of the symbols used derive from creation stories, and include the fruit bat, the praying mantis, and the sago palm. The sago palm is the primary food source of the Asmat, and the mythological material used for the creation of humans. Fruit bats eat the fruit, the “heads,” of the trees, linking back to headhunting, and the female praying mantis eats the head of the male during the mating rituals. Headhunting was associated with male initiation rites. Large, carved spirit poles, called bisj, were used as receptacles for wandering spirits, and have canoes at the base to take the spirits out to sea. This was typically done one a year to collect the spirits of the recently deceased. The poles represented deceased ancestors, and were carved from the roots of the mulberry trees. These were traditionally placed in the sago palm groves after use, and to rot, and therefore symbolically contributing to agricultural fertility. Shield feasts were held before headhunting raids. Man-sized war shields called jamasji were carved from plants of mangrove root for these, and were also typically phallic in shape, and covered in symbols related back to headhunting. The Asmat also had masking traditions. Masks were used in the jipae festival, in which the recent dead are permitted to briefly revisit the world of the living.


Map Sepik River Region, Papua New Guinea

In Papua New Guinea, the Sepik are one of the largest, and most artistically prolific cultures. Some Sepik groups practiced headhunting and cannibalism into the 20th century. They are all primarily village-dwelling that subsisted on farming supplemented by hunting and gathering. Men dominate, or at least appear to, public and private life, and descent is partilineal. Women’s status among the Sepik is higher than the ideology implies. Women provide the vital part of creation by giving birth while men are traditionally the takers of life. Art is a semi-specialized occupation practiced part-time. Commissioned artists are paid in food. Most art serves religious purposes, although secular and semi-sacred arts are created, such as neck rests, shields, and hooks. Sepik art reflects a preoccupation with the ancestors, and, in those groups that practiced it, headhunting. Most of the art serves a religious function. The sago palm is also an important food source for the Sepik. Some pottery is made, as are textiles made from crocheting or finger weaving. 


Most religious activities have a graphic component. Art embodies the supernatural and mortal spirits, and symbolizes adult, male, initiated souls. Art is men’s work. There is a general aesthetic disenfranchisement of women and a pervasiveness of phallicism in the art. Red in face paint symbolizes menstrual blood, and white is semen and bones. Society is believed to be endangered on 2 fronts, through female sexuality and hostile neighbors. Men go to great lengths in art to claim superiority. Art is intended as a statement of dominance of men over women and other adversaries. Urgency is indicated by the symbolism of phallic aggression. 

Sepik, Itamul people, Haus Tambaran, c. 2010 (photo By Eksilverman – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51350514 and By Eksilverman – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51350516)

Sepik (Abelam people), Painting from a Haus Tambaran, before 1975 and Sepik (Abelam people), House post, n.d.  (photo By User:Mattes – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5886602 and By Hiart – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29443692)

One of the most important spaces in the village is the Men’s House, or Tambaran, in which the ritual objects are kept, and the initiation rites take place. These houses are seen as representing the body of an ancestor, and often are decorated with images of the ancestors and of the male creators.  Many of the paintings for these houses are done on palm leaves or tapa cloth. Roof spire ornaments are often carved as bird/ancestor hybrids, and often use female ancestors as their primary image. These are the spaces in which the most sacred ritual objects are held, and access to the spaces and levels within the structure is tightly controlled according to the man’s age-grade and status. Figures which represent the spirits were carved, and had special stools for their display and presentation in shrines.

Sepik (Abelam people), Yam harvest ceremony mask, 1980s and Sepik (Warasei people), Yam cult figure, n.d. (photo By The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15094630 and By hiart – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17402356)

One of the most important rituals centers on the only crop grown by men, the long yam. Yina figures were made for the Yam Harvest ceremonies. These carved heads represent ancient and powerful spirits which when used in a ritual, the village men insert the sticklike base of the figure into a collected yam pile and decorate it with various leaves and feathers.


Middle Sepik, Ambunti Man,Papua New Guinea (photo https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/e4/b2/85/e4b285029f943e495b9809d11b30c719.jpg)

Art is a means of displaying social identity with body art delineating age grades and tribal boundaries. The human body is a medium of aesthetic expression, and is at its most spectacular during village dances and feasts. Sculpture in the round that is made is often also painted, with red being the most common paint color. Geometrics are often curvilinear with painted or engraved multiple outlines.  Canoe prows were carved with powerful images of animals and spirits. Sepik shields continue the theme of powerful, fierce imagery.

Solomon Islands, Canoe prow ornament (nguzu-nguzu), n.d. and Kapkap, early 20th century (photo By Hiart – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17506987 and By hiart – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17413637)

The arts of other peoples of Melanesia reflect similar concerns to those of the Asmat and Sepik. On the Solomon Islands, incised paddles depicting chiefs were probably used ceremonially or may have been created for sale to white outsiders. The nguzunguzu, such as the one pictured on this canoe prow, are supposed to personify the kesoko, a spirit tied to headhunting, net fishing and bonito fishing. The frigate birds were prized for their piratical dispositions and for the fact that they follow schools of bonito. Men were often tattooed with imagery representing the frigate bird. Chiefs on the Solomon Islands wore Kapkaps, high status shell and tortoiseshell ornaments worn on the chest or forehead.


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