The colours and patterns of the art of the Pacific Islands - spears and shields, carved canoe prows, feather capes or tortoisehell ornaments - have interested Western audiences since the voyages of Captain Cook and Bougainville. Oceanic art in particular, had an influence on the development of the European modernist movement, influencing artists such as Gauguin, Picasso, Giacometti and Kirchner. Until recently, the tendency in the West has ben to view the art of Oceania as "primitive", mysterious, shrouded in taboo. Nicholas Thomas, in this survey, goes beyond this view to discover the meaning and significance of art for the people of the Pacific. While each region has certain art forms and practices that characterize it - the ancestral carvings of Maori and Sepik ceremonial houses; rituals of exchange and warfare in the Soloman Islands; body art in Polynesia; and women's art forms, such as barkcloth - Oceanic art as a whole is continually being shaped by cross-cultural stimuli within the Pacific and beyond, combining local motifs and materials with new styles and techniques. The illustrations cover the works that evoke the most deep-rooted customs to those which address contemporary political issues.
Nicholas Thomas was born in Sydney in 1960. He visited the Pacific Islands first in 1984 to research his PhD thesis on the Marquesas Islands, and later worked in Fiji and New Zealand. He has written many acclaimed historical and anthropological books, but also collaborated in exhibition and book experiments with artists including John Pule and Mark Adams.
His many books include Entangled Objects (1991), a celebrated exploration of the changing lives of things in the Pacific; Oceanic Art (1995), an innovative survey; Discoveries: the voyages of Captain Cook (2003); and Islanders: the Pacific in the Age of Empire (2010) which was awarded the Wolfson History Prize.
Thomas's exhibitions have included Skin Deep: a History of Tattooing for the National Maritime Museum, London, and Cook's Sites, for the Museum of Sydney (both of which toured extensively) as well as Kauage: Artist of Papua New Guinea and several other exhibitions at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, where he has been Director since 2006.
Nicholas Thomas lives in London with his partner Annie Coombes, and their son.