Mitiana Arbon: Primitive Values: Christie’s and Sotheby’s Auction Catalogues and the framings of ‘Oceanic art’

This paper examines the contemporary place of art auction houses – namely Christie’s and Sotheby’s – in the narrative-construction and valuation of Oceanic art objects and collections. In particular, it focuses on the interplay of western anthropological and art historical knowledge in the development of aesthetic value, whilst simultaneously flattening complex indigenous understandings of beauty, temporality, and cultural diversity of Pacific people. Despite attempts to develop a sense of dynamic aesthetic groupings of Oceanic pieces alongside namely African, Pre-Columbian, Inuit, and western Surrealist and Dadaist artists, I argue that these techniques continually imbed and preform Oceanic art’s value within asymmetrical understandings of western art history and in doing so re-establishing primitivistic framings of Pacific peoples alongside other non-western art forms. In tracing discrepancies present in the formation of Oceanic ‘art’ and framing of cultural excellence I draw upon a growing body of indigenous Oceanic artists, writers and scholars to critique the false polarities placed on the framing of a ‘golden age’ of Oceanic creative practices as located only within ‘pristine’ pre-contact culture that confines these pieces and contexts within a distant past removed from the mixtures of cultural exchange, and contemporary indigenous knowledges and politics of the present.

Mitiana Arbon is a Samoan-Australian second-year PhD candidate in Pacific Studies at the Australian National University. In 2017 Mitiana completed a Bachelor of Arts (Art Theory) and a Bachelor of Pacific Studies (Anthropology, Heritage and Museum Studies) with First Class Honours. His doctoral research titled Oceanic Art and Value: The Case of Auction Houses builds upon his honours research that examined the manner in which Pacific creativity was shaped and constrained in various institutional contexts. Mitiana’s doctoral research extends on this, examining the way in which auction houses attempt to incorporate histories and theories of western art canons within the way they shape value both economic and conceptually, whilst simultaneously emitting post-colonial indigenous Oceanic attempts to reframe their creative pasts, presents and futures. Mitiana is a research assistant on the Australian Research Council funded project “Engendering Climate Change, Reframing Futures in Oceania” and is an intern on the School of Culture, History and Language Art & Artefacts Project. His personal interests include contemporary Pacific art and artists both within Oceania and in diasporic communities, Samoan history, and academic blogging.


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