DOMA’s collection features a wide range of indigenous art from all across the globe. Oftentimes information available about the daily lives of these indigenous peoples is sparse, with only anthropologists and travelers’ accounts to provide us with information. By examining the art they have produced, however, we are able to glimpse into their cultures and ways of life. In many cases, these artworks have a specific purpose to them, often functioning as a spiritual or ritual item. Here are some of the indigenous works of the Oceanic peoples in DOMA’s collection.
New Guinea, divided today into the countries of Papua New Guinea on the east side and part of Indonesia on the west, is located off the northern coast of Australia. Indigenous New Guinea has a long history of sculpture-making, paintings, and body ornamentation. New Guinean accessories were made for practically every life event, including funerals, weddings, and warfare, as well as for everyday use. DOMA’s Bridal Headpiece, from the Sepik River Region, was worn by brides when entering their husbands’ homes. The shells and animal forms represented various aspects of their lives, such as their family’s wealth, or specific clans or totems.
The island of Borneo, located in the Malay Archipelago north of Australia, is home to a group called the Dayaks. Although not practiced today, Dayak peoples were known for their headhunting rituals. During warfare, Dayaks would take the heads of their slain enemies and hang them in a communal longhouse. They believed that the heads sustained life and would bring prosperity to their community. Hair from the fallen enemy would be placed onto the warrior’s shield as a way for him to display his power and accomplishments.
Melanesia consists of many islands and archipelagos in the southwest Pacific Ocean. Although the cultures of Melanesian people is widely diverse, their art mainly focuses on themes similar to other Oceanic art, including spirits, nature, and functionality. Some Melanesian art is focused on male-centered social activities and communal duties such as canoes, weapons, and fishing gear, which would be embellished, much like DOMA’s Club (Gata). Oftentimes ornamented with geometricized patterns, these clubs were used for warfare, for which they were the weapon of choice for Fijian people, as well as for ceremonial gifts that elevated a warrior’s status in the community.
Polynesia is located in the “Polynesian Triangle,” formed by New Zealand, Hawaii, and Easter Island. Polynesian art is derived from the Lapita culture, a group existing since 1500 BCE. The aesthetic traditions of the Lapita people, such as geometric patterning and stylized figures, is oftentimes seen in indigenous art as well, which is mainly used for religious purposes. Polynesian sculpture, such as DOMA’s Gable Peak Figure (Tekoteko) from the Maori people of New Zealand, serves a specific function via its symbolism. The tattooing on the face represents an ancestral figure. The club in the hand also signifies the ancestor’s role as a protector. This gable would have been placed on the peak of a Maori village meeting house.
These artifacts from the indigenous regions of Oceania provide us with an indication of the values, culture, and spirituality of various groups of people. Through these works of art, we see the importance of functionality, regardless of its religious or utilitarian context. Often serving a range of purposes, such as rituals, social status, and warfare, this art played a significant role in the lives of indigenous Oceanic people.
View these fascinating works of art, located in the Pacific Islands portion of the African and Pacific Islands gallery of DOMA, on the west side of the Sculpture Court.