“The Art of the Austronesians: The Legacy of Indo-Pacific Voyaging” is the title of a new exhibit at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, but who exactly is an Austronesian, you ask?
“Technically it’s a linguistic name of the second-largest language family in the world,” said Roy Hamilton, senior curator of Asian and Pacific collections. “We’re looking at a group of cultures related through language.”
Believed to have originated in Taiwan around 5,000 years ago, Austronesian descendants progressively occupied the Philippines, Indonesia and the Solomon Islands, eventually reaching as far away as New Zealand, Hawaii and Madagascar.
“In prehistoric times Austronesian-speaking people covered half the globe in the Pacific and Indian oceans, and they did it all in sailing canoes long before Europeans ventured into open oceans,” Hamilton said.
A granary facade of the Sa’dan Toraja peoples of Tondon, Indonesia, early 20th century, is in the Fowler Museum exhibit.(Fowler Museum at UCLA)
Deity figures of the Balinese peoples, probably Sanur, Indonesia, from the 1930s or earlier.(Fowler Museum at UCLA)
Door Guardian of New Caledonia from the 19th century.(Fowler Museum at UCLA)
Upon entering the exhibit, visitors encounter a 15-foot seafaring canoe and the similarly impressive, jovial 19th-century “Door Guardian” from New Caledonia. Other pieces, all on view until Aug. 28, include a Javanese shadow puppet, a rare aboriginal Taiwanese grain bin and textile from Sumba. The pairing of birds and reptiles such as hornbills and snakes is a recurring theme as are male and female ancestry figures.
“Lineage was of utmost importance while laying claims to new lands,” Hamilton said. “The status of a new generation depended on their being able to show who their ancestors were.”
The influence of several cultures is evident in a Balinese depiction of the Hindu deity Lakshmi made with Chinese gold coins.
“The exhibit juxtaposes art from related cultures and places that people don’t necessary think of together, like Taiwan and Madagascar,” Hamilton said, referring to art made by descendants in the last two centuries.
With the exception of textiles from Sumatra, Borneo and Sumba on loan from private collectors, the majority of the 200 objects on view are drawn from the Fowler’s Henry Wellcome collection. Some haven’t been shown since 1960, and others are being exhibited for the first time.