An exhibition in London next year promises to be the biggest exhibition of Māori art overseas since Te Māori toured the world in the 1980s.
The four-month Royal Academy of Arts exhibition Oceania will feature Māori and Pasifika artefacts that have not been shown publicly in hundreds of years.
It will also include ancient objects and contemporary artworks borrowed from more than 30 museums around the world, including several New Zealand museums and art galleries.
The artistic director of the Academy Tim Marlow says it was seeking to celebrate its 250th birthday with several special exhibitions and wanted to include some more expansive and keeping with the international status it now had.
“The idea that while we were being founded in 1768, Cook was boarding the Endeavour and going literally to the other side of the world, from our perspective, seemed a really nice trigger.
“We were very interested in the world he encountered, and how that whole region developed and now what’s happening there culturally because it seems incredibly rich territory. So that will be the finale of the 250th anniversary of the academy and the start of the next chapter.”
As well as sourcing material from New Zealand and other regions in this part of the world, Marlow, an art historian, says there were many great collections of Oceanic art in Europe and a lot of it was not on public display.
Curators spent the past seven years travelling around Europe looking for this material and some of it will feature in the public domain for the first time, he says.
“In Britain, there is a lot of material that has never seen the light of day.”
He is hopeful the exhibition will result in more Oceanic art being found in Europe and trigger other shows featuring Māori art.
“I’m hoping contemporary New Zealand art gets a real push in London as a consequence of this. We want certain works to tour Britain if we can make that happen.”
While the exhibition would cover hundreds of years of art, the Academy is also keen to make it feel as alive as possible, with several contemporary works, Marlow says.
“It looks at the complexity of how artists today are informed by and work around and with and sometimes break from the traditions. Rather than seeing it as something sealed, there is something fluid and dynamic about it.”
Mr Marlow has been in New Zealand to discuss the exhibition with institutions and organisations here.
New Zealand has played a pivotal role in helping organise it, with about 250 works due to make the journey across to the other side of the world, including waka, fragments of dwelling places, cloaks and ceramics, he says.
But he pointed out that it wasn’t just about New Zealand Māori, there are a range of cultures to be represented.
“There are three major themes: encounter, the idea of place-making or settlement and then voyaging. So it gives us the opportunity to explore objects and artefacts and artworks over 800 years, across a vast region in ways that are culturally exciting, but also there is a sense of history and perspective and scholarship, but also a visual spectacle and a kind of immersion.”
He said the Academy was looking at the possibility of performances and tattooing in a programme in parallel with the exhibition.
This was still being organised, but Mr Marlow said there was certain to be “huge interest” in the exhibition and the art and culture of the region.
“That’s why it’s so important that the exhibition is seen to have the support of the region, and New Zealand in particular.”
About half a million visitors are expected to visit the Royal Academy of Arts while the exhibition is on.