Saint Louis Art Museum Opens Polynesian Sculpture Exhibit | St. Louis Public Radio

Saint Louis Art Museum Opens Polynesian Sculpture Exhibit

Oct 10, 2014

"I knew it wasn't the hair, and I knew it wasn't the eye," Michael Gunn, a senior curator at the National Gallery of Australia, said of a sculpture of Polynesian god A'a. "It became clear that it's that space between the eye and the eyebrow. I realized that's the part of us where our visual imagination is located. It just shows you the attention and the focus that the people had and the value they place on visual imagination."
Credit Courtesy of the Saint Louis Art Museum

The Saint Louis Art Museum's "Atua: Sacred Gods From Polynesia" exhibition takes a closer look at sculpture and religion, but it's not the first time the museum has explored art from the region.

"The museum's been collecting Pacific art since the 1900s," said Nichole Bridges, associate curator in charge of the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the museum. "Most of the permanent Pacific arts collection comes from Melanesia; we have very little that comes from Polynesia. This is a nice complement to our collection."

Oceania refers to a 12 million-square-mile area centered around the tropical islands in the Pacific Ocean. There are three subregions: Melanesia, Polynesia and Micronesia. Before Christian missionaries moved in, the area's religion was "purely genealogical — based on lineage," said George Nuku, a contemporary Māori artist. The Māori are indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand.

Religious beliefs were "based on your descent from the ancestors and ultimately your descent from the gods themselves," Nuku said. "It's the most important thing in the Oceanic thinking: To know your lineage and know your ancestry. It's the one thing in society you cannot change — who your family is."

After Christian missionaries moved in, many of the region's chiefs converted to Christianity. "It was like a marriage had gone bad," said Michael Gunn, senior curator for Pacific art at the National Gallery of Australia and former Saint Louis Art Museum curator. Much of the religious art of the time was destroyed. Gunn estimates that for every 1,000 works of art, only two or three survived.

The sculptures in the exhibit vary in size, but each represents a portrait, Nuku said.

"They are portraits from the psyche. And they are portraits of the world that exists alongside this world — the world of the immortals and the world of the dead," he said.

"Regardless of their physical size, their presence really transcends the physical size of the artworks," Bridges said.

Nuvu created the last piece in the exhibit, which is organized geographically.

"I would say that I'm charged with making the old new," Nuvu said of his work. "I create new visions of the old. It's new but it feels old but it looks new."

Nuvu is hosting a carving demonstration on Saturday, and will speak when the exhibit opens Sunday. The museum will unveil a new piece from Nuvu next week.

Related Events

"Atua: Sacred Gods From Polynesia"

  • When: Oct. 12, 2014-Jan. 2, 2015
  • Where: Saint Louis Art Museum, 1 Fine Arts Drive, Forest Park, St. Louis
  • Tickets: Tickets can be purchased online or at the museum. The exhibit is free on Fridays.
  • More information

Carving demonstration

  • Contemporary Māori artist George Nuku is carving a vitrine that will house his Hei tiki matau.
  • When: Noon to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014
  • Where: Saint Louis Art Museum Sculpture Hall, 1 Fine Arts Drive, Forest Park, St. Louis
  • Tickets: Not required

Artist Talk: George Nuku

  • Contemporary Māori artist Nuku will discuss his work, his influences and his culture.
  • When: 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014
  • Where: Saint Louis Art Museum's Farrell Auditorium, 1 Fine Arts Drive, Forest Park, St. Louis
  • Tickets: Admission is free, but tickets are required from the museum's information centers.

“Cityscape” is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and sponsored in part by the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis.