Peter Brunt and Nicholas Thomas – Art in Oceania: A New History, Thames & Hudson, 2012, 536pp, £60.
This is a magnificent book. The editors have brought together a team of expert contributors from New Zealand and the United Kingdom who between them cover the whole period of human habitation of the Pacific.
The creative forms it covers extend beyond the more familiar masks, figure sculpture and wood carving to include early Lapita pottery, rock engravings, tattooed and painted bodies, stained fabrics, sand drawings and architecture. The book includes over 500 illustrations, most of them in colour, all beautifully reproduced. The illustrations alone justify the price, and are perfectly complemented by the authority and readability of the accompanying text.
The book is arranged in six parts: Art in Early Oceania; New Guinea 1700-1940; Island Melanesia 1700-1940; Eastern and Northern Oceania 1700-1940; Art, War and the End of Empire 1940-89; Art in Oceania Now 1989-2012. Nicholas Thomas, Director of the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology provides the introduction, and Peter Brunt, Department of Art History at Victoria University, Wellington, an afterword. Both editors also contribute essays to several of the sections.
The other contributors are: Lissant Bolton, Keeper of the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the British Museum; Deidre Brown, School of Architecture, University of Auckland; Susanne Kuchler, Professor of Anthropology, University College London; Sean Mallon, Curator of Pacific Cultures at Te Papa; Damian Skinner, Curator of Applied Arts & Design at Auckland Museum.
It is unusual to recommend a book costing £60 as a bargain, but this one is. The publisher, the editors and the contributors have between them produced both a very beautiful book and a work of outstanding scholarship.