Teen Screens—Oceania

Learn about the belief system of Papua New Guinea.

Narrator: Millions of ancestors, thousands of tribes, three stages of life, one diverse culture: Oceania. Oceania encompasses the islands off the southeast coasts of Asia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Australia. Each region has its own unique art, history, and traditions. With its diversities come ranging perspectives of the world and its creations. Although the details of each creation story varies depending on the tribes or culture, one common theme is present in most of the tales: people and their relation to their animal counterparts.

Eric Kjellgren: Crocodiles actually played a central role in their creation myth. It was believed that originally the whole surface of the world was actually covered with water and there was no dry land on which humans could live, and that an ancestral being—the crocodile—actually dove to the bottom of the ocean and came up and brought mud on its back, and as it stayed on the surface and the mud hardened that actually formed the dry land on which the Iatmul people live today. Quite often animals and Oceanic art have a particular supernatural significance. In some cases they were actually seen as ancestral beings. There were certain clans and other groups that would trace their ancestry back not simply through human ancestors, but back to a primordial ancestor who might have been an animal or in animal form, or a being that combined, say, aspects of a human and a crocodile.

Narrator: After the creation of humans, people began to band together to form tribes. Religion was an essential part of life for these tribes, and because of this, they performed many ceremonies. These ceremonies focus on many different aspects of life, including social status, warfare, and marriage. Some of the most important ceremonies dealt with honoring the dead.

Eric Kjellgren: Most societies, though, did have a belief that people's spirits, if you will, persisted after they died, and that they became ancestors—and ancestors were very important in the religions of many Pacific peoples. The belief was that in a sense the dead could look after the living, that your ancestors—be they very recent, such as your parents or grandparents, or even the primordial ancestors who lived way back in the creation period and were responsible for creating the world—that these beings still persisted, often living in a separate world, but a world in which they could be contacted by living people and called upon to help the community. The large standing slit gong in the gallery from Vanuatu, the sound that comes out is actually said to be the voice of the ancestor who is depicted on the gong itself, so that, to the people that create them, it also has a strong spiritual quality to it.

Directed, shot, and edited by Nora Cerien-Chen, Alex Greenberger, Erica Rivera-Luquerna, and Orly Vernes as part of the 2010 Art and Film summer workshop for teens at the Museum.

This film was a collaboration between The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Film Academy.

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