It was linguists, not archeologists, who discovered Austronesia. That culture begin about 3000 B.C. in what we now call Taiwan. It had nothing to do with China (then), though it’s about as ancient as the Chinese Bronze Age, and older by far than the Phoenicians and Greeks. Over millennia Taiwan’s early seafarers and their descendants came to encompass a global “empire” without parallel, from Easter Island to Madagascar. Of course, most of it was ocean, and it was never a communicating political or economic whole. As far as art history goes, Austronesia has been hiding in plain sight. Western modernists and encyclopedic museums have long prized “Oceanic” art, referring in effect to the Austronesian diaspora. But the indigenous art of Taiwan is rarely shown. (At top, early 20th-century clubs and mid-19th-century bark cloth from Fiji.)
With about 200 objects, the UCLA Fowler Museum’s “Art of the Austronesians: The Legacy of Indo-Pacific Voyaging” is the largest such exhibition ever presented in the U.S. It puts the Austronesian homeland of Taiwan front and center and gives substantial treatment to the Philippines and Borneo, the culture’s first major outposts. Most of the objects from the Fowler’s collection, many here exhibited for the first time. There are sections on the more familiar art of Java, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands; and the exhibition closes with a few summary examples from Hawaii, Easter Island, and Madagascar.
Although the galleries seem to be filled with an assortment of very different things, certain motifs of Austronesian art (pointed out in gallery labels) have survived centuries and sea voyages. Most of the objects are wood, textile, or basketry, dating from the past two centuries. They are thus a hybrid of Oceanic antiquity and modern globalism, sometimes incorporating Chinese, Spanish, Indian, or other influences.
The freakiest thing in the show is the Fowler’s 19th-century Door Guardian from New Caledonia. Demonstrating why French surrealists “got” this art, it calls to mind the Japanese dildos with heads in the likeness of famous sumo wrestlers. But there is also classic beauty, as in the Admiralty Islands Ancestor Figure formerly owned by Paul Éluard and Andre Breton. It’s a kouros, dated 19th-early 20th-century, which makes it earlier than the Getty’s.
“Art of the Austronesians” is that rare thing, a scholarly blockbuster. You don’t have to know anything about ancient Taiwan to appreciate it, and children of all ages will relate to the profusion of large, colorful, and unfamiliar objects. But it also packs a paradigm shift in understanding of Oceanic history, culture, and art.
(Below: A 2002 Javanese shadow puppet by Daniel Mulyana; objects from Indonesia with a 19th-century triangular Granary Facade at center; a selection of parrying clubs and dance wands from the Solomon Islands; a 1940s navigational chart from the Marshall Islands; a 2003 royal mantle by Lamba Sarl, Madagascar.)
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