Fiji: Art and Life in the Pacific (SCVA Exhibition)

Fiji: Art and Life in the Pacific BookSteven Hooper, Exh. Cat, Norwich,: Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania & the Americas, University of East Anglia, 2016. Texts by Steven Hooper, Adi Meretui Ratunabuabua & Katrina Talei Igglesden, 288 pp., £22 (paperback), £35 (hardback).

Exhibition schedule

Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich, October 15, 2016 – February 12, 2017. £12 entry.

Fiji: Art and Life in the Pacific

The night before Fiji: Art and Life in the Pacific opened to the public, the President of the South Pacific island nation, officially opened the exhibition. His Excellency Major-General (Ret’d) Jioji Konousi Jonrote, his wife, Fiji’s First Lady Sarote Konrote, and Fiji’s High Commissioner to the UK, His Excellency Mr. Jitoko Tikolevu, were joined by the likes of Lord Sainsbury and Sir David Attenborough, on a tour of the installation before partaking in a special Fijian opening ceremony. (Knights: 2016)

Fiji: Art and Life in the Pacific revealed itself to be one of the most fulfilling exhibitions I have attended. It is quite remarkable. The exclusivity of the exhibition and its significance became even more distinct when Her Majesty the Queen visited the exhibition, on the morning of January 27th. The visit certainly increased exposure, and on my latest visit, post January 27th, was by far the busiest.

The exhibition features over 260 Fijian artefacts, mostly by unknown men and women, from the last 200 years. The exhibition is in partnership with the Fiji Museum and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, displaying artefacts from multiple museums around the world. Not only does it celebrate the men and women who made these remarkable everyday items, but also preserves their ‘delicate heritage, natural and cultural.’ (Hooper: 2016, 7). Adi Meretui Ratunabuabua, acting director Fiji Museum, also hopes that it sends a reminder to other museums as to the importance of looking after and sharing the artefacts and their story, which he believed would benefit everyone, especially the people of Fiji.

It is Hooper’s intention to not only ‘enlighten vulagi (guests/foreigners) but also inspire Fijians of all backgrounds to have pride in their nation’s heritage.’ (Hooper: 2016, 8) Galleries one, two and three, in the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art, are chosen for the installation. The vast size and volume of exhibits takes at least one and a half hours to view, with many visitors spending in excess of two hours. It was ‘organised thematically to convey particular understandings of Fiji, its history and the roles of artworks.’ (Hooper: 2016, 114)

Fijian Art - James Glen Wilson
James Glen Wilson (1827-1863). Feejeeans Resting, 1856, Watercolour, 22.8 x 32.6 cm (Private Collection)

There has not been a Fiji exhibition quite like this one before, and very few texts written on the subject. Hooper does recommend Yalo i Viti/Shades of Viti: A Fiji Museum Catalogue by Fergus Clunie, former director of Fiji Museum, for anyone who has an interest in Fijian art.

The exhibition is typically everyday items, a selection of photographs of some of the utmost important Fijian’s – such as their Chiefs, and a range of paintings chosen not only for their aesthetic qualities, but also because of their ‘biographical trajectories’ – the life stories they carry. Most of the paintings are very intricate watercolours that vary in size, but all have very natural aesthetic using earthy tones. One of the most striking paintings was Feejeeans Resting. Watercolour by James Glen Wilson, 1856, 22.8 x 32.6 cm. ‘The two companions are shown with bulibuli and iula tavatava clubs together with a musket, fan, neck pendant, armlet and head scratcher. A distant canoe completes the scene. (Private Collection)’. (Hooper: 2016, 109)

The iula tavatava is a missile club made from wood saturated in coconut oil. Star and crescent shapes made from whale ivory decorate the club, and is 47.6 cm long. The handle carved with the most intricate pattern, makes this weapon of war look like crafted artwork, and not for practical use. The clubs were also representations of status – the more elaborate the design, the more influential the owner would be.

Because of how the exhibition is installed, you are able to indulge in the artefacts and absorb the importance an item held in the lives of the Fijians. The realisation that these skilfully crafted items were part of the everyday life of a Fijian becomes overwhelming whilst progressing through the rooms of the exhibition.

Fiji Club
IULA TAVATAVA (MISSILE CLUB) Fiji: early to mid-19th century. Wood, whale ivory; l. 47.6 cm

Barkcloth is a feature from start to finish. The extent in which barkcloth is used is magnificent. It is worn, it’s a shroud for the dead, and as screens within a room, to name just a few uses. Fijian women produce these handcrafted barkcloths, and is to this day, still crafted. Each sheet is unique with stencilled designs forming patterns often in black, red and naturally tanned. A piece of Masi Kesa dates from the mid-1870s, and is one of the few surviving pieces, which is decorated with musket-shaped stencils. Muskets were objects of status. This particular piece on display is paper mulberry inner bark, pigment, 92 x 42.5 cm. Cambridge, MAA: Z30483. Collected by Baron Anatole von Hügel, 1875-77.

One of the most extraordinary artefacts is The Polynesian Gazette, which is basically a newspaper printed on barkcloth. Fiji, Levuka: Tuesday 27 October 1885, vol. II, no. 78. Barkcloth, ink; 90 x 61 cm (when open). Private Collection. The exhibition tells us that there is no real understanding for this obscure finding, however, the condition is excellent.

Next to The Polynesian Gazette is a small screen showing Her Majesty the Queen’s three-day visit to Fiji in 1953, not long after her inauguration. The clip shows footage of the Fijians performing the Tabua ceremony, which is where the Fijians presented Queen Elizabeth II with the gift of a sperm whale tooth. This ritual is of extreme importance to the Fijians, and also a mark of respect. The Royal visit on January 27th, 2017 now has context.

Several Tabuas were on display at the Fiji: Art and Life in the Pacific exhibition. The most striking one was a Tabua (Shrine for a God) from the ‘early 19th Century. Whale ivory, coir; l. 28 cm (tooth). Cambridge, MAA: 1936.380. Donated by Alys Thurston; collected by her father, Sir John Bates Thurston (in Fiji from 1866; Governor 1888-97); given to him by Ratu Peni Tanoa, who took it from a temple in Naitasiri, Viti Levu.’ (Hooper: 2016, 119)

The exhibition demonstrates not only the craft that goes into any one of their pieces, but also the resourceful use of materials. Another use for the whale ivory is the Civa Vonovono, or breastplates, which were worn by many Fijians. The exhibition displays a variety of designs and sizes, some with a more simple design than others do. The breastplates are all made from whale ivory, pearl shell, coir and fibre.

The Fijians adorned many pieces made from whale ivory. It was used for many of the neck pendants and armlets. In the collection, there is a unique Necklace from the  early 19th century. Whale ivory, coir; l. 52 cm. Cambridge, MAA: Z 2752. Collected by Sir Arthur Gordon 1875-1880, which has eight ivory figures and nine shorter pendants situated between each of the forms.

Female Wood Carving - Fiji Art
MATAKAU (FEMALE FIGURE) Fiji: early 19th century. Wood; 61.2 cm.

The figures depicted on the necklace simulated a style for carved wooden sculptures. A female figure called Matakau from the early 19th century; h.61.2 cm, sits in the entrance of the exhibition. This particular figure has deep cut holes as eyes, which Fergus Clunie suggests that they originally held shell eyes. On the top of her head is the residue of makadre resin with a few strands of hair attached. Clunie believes this indicates that this figure once had a full head of hair.

There is one other phenomenal example of Fijian craftsmanship, which stands separate to the rest of the exhibition due to its sheer size, and that is the Drua (Double-hulled canoe), Fiji: 2014-15. Wood, coir, pandanus leaf, hibiscus fibre, cowrie shells; l. 800 cm. It was commissioned by the Sainsbury Research Unit; funded by the Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn,Germany; purchased in 2015.

If the exhibition tells us anything it is that the Fijians were master crafts people, utilising special materials such as bark, whale ivory, wood and coir. Their eye for detail, their patience, and their story is told with conviction through the 260 exhibits on display in the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts.

The information conveyed through this exhibition, the stories it tells, demonstrates Hooper’s passion and dedication to Fiji and the people of Fiji, but also his love and respect for the memory of his grandfather who birthed his passion for Fijian heritage.


Hooper, Steve (2016) Fiji: Art and Life in the Pacific. Norwich. Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania & the Americas, University of East Anglia

Knights, Emma (2016) The President of Fiji opens Norwich exhibition celebrating the island nation’s art. Eastern Daily Press. Available from [Accessed February 09, 2017]


Clunie, Fergus. (1986) Yalo i Viti/Shades of Viti: A Fiji Museum Catalogue. Fiji. Fiji Museum

D’alleva, Anne. (2010). Arts of the Pacific Islands. Reprint ed. Yale University Press

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