Fiji: Art and Life in the Pacific

Fiji: Art and Life in the Pacific
Yareah Magazine
Constance Gordon Cumming, View of Tokou, Ovalau, 1870s, watercolour (Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, Cambridge)

Constance Gordon Cumming, View of Tokou, Ovalau, 1870s, watercolour (Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, Cambridge)

Revealing stunning sculptures, textiles, ceramics, and ivory and shell regalia, Fiji: Art and Life in the Pacific opens in March 2016 at the Sainsbury Centre, Norwich. The largest and most comprehensive exhibition about Fiji ever assembled, it will take the visitor on a journey through the art and cultural history of Fiji since the late 18th century. A highlight of the exhibition will be a beautiful, newly-commissioned, eight metre-long double-hulled sailing canoe (drua) that has been built in Fiji and shipped to Norwich for display and sailing. Made entirely of wood and coir cord, the canoe is a small version of the great vessels of the 19th century, the biggest canoes ever built.

James Glen Wilson, Feejeeans Resting, 1856, watercolour & ink (Private Collection)

James Glen Wilson, Feejeeans Resting, 1856, watercolour & ink (Private Collection)

Over 270 works of art, including European paintings and historic photographs, are being loaned by exhibition partner the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology at Cambridge, and by the Fiji Museum, the British Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum (Oxford) and museums in Aberdeen, Birmingham, Exeter, London, Maidstone, as well as Dresden and Leipzig in Germany.

This exhibition results from a special three-year project which examined the extensive but little-known Fijian collections in the UK and overseas, and uncovered some significant treasures.

Paintings, drawings and photographs of the 19th and 20th century provide context for the artworks. These include exquisite watercolours by the intrepid Victorian travel writer and artist Constance Gordon Cumming, and by naval artist James Glen Wilson, who was in Fiji in the 1850s.

Fiji has always been a dynamic place of cultural interactions and exchanges. Since 1000 BC sailing canoes have transported people and objects around the region. In the 19th century new voyagers arrived, Europeans, with their new technologies, metal, guns and Christian religion. Sophisticated strategists, Fijian chiefs twice asked to join the British Empire, and a colonial government was established in 1874. Fiji became independent in 1970. Fiji managed the British colonial administration effectively, establishing a close relationship with the British royal family, notably with Her Majesty the Queen.

Fiji has also succeeded in maintaining and adapting many of its proud cultural traditions, and today woodcarvers and textile artists continue to produce sailing canoes, kava bowls (for the preparation of an important ritual drink) and impressive decorated barkcloths, some over 60m long. In the vibrant Pacific fashion scene designers are using barkcloth and other local materials to make gowns and wedding dresses, showing their creations in London and Los Angeles.

The Sainsbury Centre’s large 900m2 suite of galleries will be used to present Fiji’s rich cultural past and its important relationship with Britain. Despite a population below one million, Fiji is known globally as a major rugby nation (they are currently World Champions at Rugby 7s), and as an alluring destination for travellers, for whom Fijian hospitality is legendary.

The Sainsbury Collection, housed at the Sainsbury Centre, Norwich, on the campus of the University of East Anglia (UEA) is world renowned for its works of art from the Pacific, the Americas, Africa and Asia, as well as for its antiquities and modern works by Picasso, Moore, Giacometti and Bacon.

Fiji: Art and Life in the Pacific. 12 March – 7 August 2016. Sainsbury Centre, University of East Anglia, Norwich.

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