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Polynesia exhibition opens at Musée du Quai Branly

PAPEETE, Tahiti (Tahitipresse, June 19, 2008) – French Polynesia President Gaston Tong Sang and French Overseas Junior Minister Yves Jégo were among officials participating in the opening of an exhibition of 18th and 19th Century Polynesian collections at the Paris museum Musée du Quai Branly.

The exhibition's more than 250 rarely seen art objects from European museum collections is named "Pacific Encounters—Art and Divinity in Polynesia 1760-1860" and will continue through Sept. 14.

Before opening Monday at the Musée de Quai Branly, the exhibition made its debut at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, in 2006. It was later shown at the British Museum, one of the exhibition's major partners.

Bringing together major Polynesian material from British and other collections, the "Pacific Encounters" exhibition has previously been described as substantially extending appreciation of one of the world's great art traditions. Presenting rare and visually stunning god-images, sculptures, ornaments, textiles and valuables to a wide audience, this exhibition" explores "Polynesia during the early period of contact with European voyagers, missionaries and settlers".

The objects now on display in Paris include "major sculptures in wood and stone, feather and basketry images, feather cloaks, wooden bowls, decorated bark cloths, ornaments and valuable of ivory, shell, bone and nephrite, and other ritual items, such as fly whisks, fans and drums.

The exhibition presents objects from Polynesia's major regions—French Polynesia's Society Islands, Austral Islands and the Marquesas Islands, the Cook Islands, Hawaii, Easter Island, Tonga, Fiji, Samoa and New Zealand.

Dr. Steven Hooper, director of the Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the University of East Anglia, is the curator for the exhibition.

"Through this exhibition, we've traveled through a century, from 1760 to 1860, with this collection of Polynesian objects, testimony of the highlights of our history," Tong Sang said at the end of his visit. He was accompanied by his culture minister, Joseph Kaiha. Anne Boquet, the French High Commissioner in Tahiti, was also present.

Visitors were "greatly impressed" by the sophistication of the objects on display, which were "created at a time when the Polynesians had few tools", the French Polynesia delegation in Paris reported in a media communiqué.

For Tong Sang, the delegation reported, this exhibition shows that despite the arrival of the missionaries and the end of ancestral worship, which disrupted Polynesian society at the time, "values have remained", such as the traditional warm Tahitian welcome and kindness".

Tahiti's president said the Pacific Encounters exhibition "is a tribute to French Polynesia" at a time when it needs the French state "in order to attract attention to this little corner of France in the Pacific". He was referring to Tahiti's declining tourist results for the first four months of this year.

Tong Sang, who is in the French capital to attend two tourism conferences, said the Musée du Quai Branly exhibition also highlights tourism in Tahiti and Her Islands. "Cognizant of the large number of visitors to the Quai Branly, I'm convinced that a good part of them will visit us soon."

As for the number of Polynesian objects that are part of museum collections in the United Kingdom and France, Tahiti's president was philosophical. "Indeed, in a selfish way, we could keep everything for ourselves, but I think, on the contrary, that it's good that these pieces make a tour of the world's greatest museums. We must share our own culture with the rest of the world."

Culture Minister Kahia was enthusiastic about the exhibition, saying he had seen "wonders reminiscent of our ancestors, represented here by these different objects from Oceania".

He described the exhibition as "recognition and reconciliation with other cultures, and especially reconciliation with the European culture". He said for him, the visit of the exhibition was "a voyage and an encounter with my ancestors here in France".

For Kahia, the objects only make the Musée du Quai Branly even more attractive—objects that once were used in the Polynesians' daily lives, objects that were used in ceremonies, reflecting the taboos of the epoch, and many objects "representing the experience of our ancestors".

The museum's Internet Web site description of Pacific Encounters describes it as "the most comprehensive exhibition to date on Polynesia art. It is the first time such a large number of objects have been gathered together in an exhibition.

"These rare pieces—made from precious materials, such as feathers, ivory, nephrite and pearl—played important roles in the cultural and religious life of the Polynesian people between 1760 and 1860. The exhibition explains the role of these objects in their original context, celebrates the creativity of the people who created them and informs the visitor about the history of the collections from which they are taken."

Many of the objects are from the region known as the Polynesian Triangle, formed by Hawaii to the north, Easter Island to the east and New Zealand to the south. During the 18th Century, this entire region "had long been inhabited by the Polynesian people who shared the same roots", the museum's Web site notes.

"There were many types of these encounters. Wherever they went, the Polynesian people always adapted to the different environments and the materials they encountered. They also met other Polynesian people with whom they became allies or in whom they saw a potential enemy.

"Valuable objects were made and exchanged with the goal of establishing and maintaining important relationships—between family groups, between chiefs and between mankind and the gods."

But as the museum observes, "Polynesia's cultural landscape fundamentally changed" between the 100 years from 1760-1860. Instead of the regular contact that existed before 1760 between the Polynesian people on different islands, the arrival of the first Europeans resulted in the development of a pre-colonial relationship with European powers.

No longer did Polynesians ignore Europe, metal, firearms and Western religion. "In less than a century the majority of the Polynesian people had suffered various epidemics and had been converted to one of the competing forms of Christianity. However, paradoxically, strong Polynesian cultural identities survived and further developed," the museum notes.

Those 100 turbulent years form the foundation for the Pacific Encounters exhibition, whose objects were collected by or given to "European navy officers, crew members, traders, whalers, missionaries, travelers, colonists, administrators and artists, in fact with all types of Europeans for whom fate had brought them to Polynesia".

Those first visitors returned home to Europe and North America with their Polynesian objects, while the Polynesians kept European goods that they integrated into their culture.

Tahitipresse: http://www.tahitipresse.pf/index.cfm?lang=2

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