Portraits of Oceania
Art Gallery of NSW 1997

Paul Foelsche, Portrait of a girl, Bunitj or Woolna NT, aged 15 years 1880s
Alfred Burton l-r Te Hauhau, at Te Kuiti, King Country 1885; At Haerahaka, King Country 1885

Portraits of Oceania was an exhibition (and publication) of photographs and documents from the 19th century drawn from the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales and other collections in Australia and New Zealand.

The exhibition was the first by an Australian art museum to look at photographic portraiture of some of the Indigenous people of Oceania during the first 50 years of photography.

European settlement of the South Pacific was documented by early photographers, as were Indigenous peoples. These portraits were initially seen as forensic or ethnographic, or as documentary, and often formed part of the Views Trade. Now, these photographs are often all that remains of individuals and families whose lives and cultures were irrevocably changed by European settlement.

Some of the portraits form tableaux which show how photographers invented an exotic mythology about the people they photographed, others indicate the limited comprehension photographers had with regard to their subjects, that is, the subjects were seen as objects in a clinical sense. Other photographers documented in a straightforward manner families and groups in local environments.

Portraits of Oceania was developed to coincide with the first year of the Cultural Olympiad – 1997 – which was designated the Year of the Dreaming.

© authors, artists, AGNSW 1997

catalogue design Analiese Cairis