The Theme of the Sea in Pacific Art

The Theme of the Sea in Pacific Art
Coming up next: Societal Influences on Pacific Art

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  • 0:03 Life and Water
  • 0:29 Makers of Pacific Art
  • 2:32 Navigational Charts
  • 3:08 Canoes and Accessories
  • 4:10 Other Arts with Ocean Themes
  • 4:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

What kind of art would you make if you spent your life surrounded by water? What materials might you have available to use? In this lesson, we'll learn how the theme of the sea influences Pacific art.

Life and Water

The island peoples of the vast Pacific Ocean live their lives surrounded by water, and it has impacted their art and culture. Makes sense, right? Being surrounded by water makes these islands vulnerable to nature's fury. It's the source of waves that impact the shoreline and deposits floating materials behind. Have you ever been on a boat in the ocean? Think of how small you feel when you look at all that water.

Makers of Pacific Art

Oceanic is the term often used to describe Pacific art, which often has water at the forefront. In the broadest sense, Oceanic art includes objects made by people of the Pacific Islands, including Australia and New Zealand. Scholars identify three main geographic areas within the Pacific Islands: Polynesia, with 1000 islands scattered through the central and south Pacific; Micronesia, which includes 2500 islands between Hawaii and Japan; and Melanesia, the islands north and east of Australia, where more than 1200 different languages are spoken! These three broad areas of people sometimes interacted with each other and might have traded or warred at different points in their history, but each group has general cultural traits that distinguish them.

In all cases, their culture spread via water because it was their main avenue of transportation and a place to find food. Water also separated peoples, many of whom may have never traveled beyond their island homes. As a result, the idea of the sea permeated their lives and appeared in objects made with a religious or social ceremonial purpose. In some cultures, sea birds played a prominent role in religious life. People on Easter Island had a god with an albatross beak as a prominent feature. Images of fish species like rock cod could also be found on ceremonial objects. Objects crucial to survival, like canoes, were often decorated with paintings and carvings.

Pacific Islanders used the materials available to them on limited land. People carved sculptures from rock and sometimes wood (if it was available), made masks and costumes that included bark cloth, bird feathers, and seashells. Clothing was made using grasses and leaves. They decorated their homes, canoes, and paddles with intricate geometric patterns and images of important gods and spiritual figures. Let's look at a few objects in more depth.

Navigational Charts

Pacific peoples depended on the sea to get from place to place, so they had to know how to navigate, or get safely from one location to another, in their canoes. In the Marshall Island of Micronesia, they made navigational charts showing island locations and wave and swell patterns. They constructed the charts of natural fibers, sticks, coconut husks, and shells. Older sailors taught the next generation using these charts, and everyone memorized the information included in them. The charts were not taken on voyages but were preserved to teach future sailors.

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