Monday, October 05, 2020

Warriors in wood


I've written about the syncretic and subversive sculpture of Whare Joseph Thompson for EyeContact

Monday, September 07, 2020

The old gods

Some conservative older Pakeha are complaining about Labour's promise to make Matariki, or Maori New Year, a public holiday. They say Matariki was never part of their childhoods in the '60s or '70s. That's not surprising. Matariki is a Polynesian religious celebration, & indigenous religion was outlawed in New Zealand between 1907 & 1962 by the Tohunga Suppression Act. Tohunga, the priests of Maori religion, were fined or jailed. Whare wananga, where knowledge was passed between generations, went underground. Matariki celebrations would have been unthinkable in mainstream New Zealand society. By making Matariki a public holiday now, New Zealand can make some restitution for the repression of the ancient religion of these islands.

Matariki is a Maori celebration, but it has parallels in many other Polynesian societies. In Hawai'i, for example, the festival Matahiki sees tributes to the god of fertility Lono, cousin of Aotearoa's Rongo. By making Matariki a holiday, New Zealand can remember ancient Pacific connections.
In many parts of the Pacific, Christian indigenous spiritual beliefs and practices are still repressed. My friend the Tongan artist Visesio Siasau, for example, endures abuse & discrimination because he rejects Christianity & follows his country's ancient gods. In Tahiti, the self-proclaimed 'pagan' Moana'ura Walker has overcome a history of Catholic authoitarianism and established a thriving indigenous temple. By making Matariki a holiday, New Zealand will send a message of support to Siasau and to activists in other Pacific nations suffering from Christian oppression.

Friday, September 04, 2020



Many critics say that Rothko is outdated, irrelevant, that his blocks of layered colours & mystical ambitions represent a cul de sac in art history. What do they know? On the walls of the industrial belt of West Auckland Rothko's influence is immediately apparent.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

A wormhole

Aucklanders may not be able to move far in space, but the realm of time is still open. A wormhole took me back to 1887. I wrote about the journey for EyeContact.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Lockdown reading

When I was ten years old Khmer refugees arrived at my school, & my parents took me to see The Killing Fields at St James cinema. Since then I've been fascinated by Pol Pot & the Khmer Rouge; there is something about evil that is compelling as well as repulsive. I've been rereading Philip Short's massive, disturbing, and brilliant biography of Pol. 

I think that the quiet of lockdown Auckland must have subconsciously reminded me of footage of the empty city of Phnom Penh in the years after the Khmer Rouge marched two and a half million urbanites into the countryside. Short shows how the Khmer Rouge appropriated Theravada Buddhist as much as Marxist ideas. He reproduces this photo of Khieu Samphan, Pol Pot's future lieutenant, dancing in Paris in 1955, at a celebration of the Buddha's 2,500th birthday.

Monday, August 03, 2020

Rekohu notes

In one day Rekohu/Chatham/Wharekauri gave us five rainbows. I kept thinking of the back cover of Binney's great biography of Te Kooti, which shows a rainbow over Te Whanga Lagoon. The prophet & his followers escaped from their prison here in 1868, crossing the 'Red Sea' back to Aotearoa.

I visited the statue of Tommy Solomon, who was falsely called the last Moriori. In the '80s Robin Morrison gathered three of Tommy's grandchildren in front of the statue, & made a famous photo, a symbol of continuity. The energy of the ancestor flows into living flesh and blood.

In 1835 Rekohu was colonised not by whites, but by two Taranaki iwi. I am used to hearing fellow Pakeha talk about divisive indigenous activists, about the virtues of assimilation. On this island I hear the same words in Ngati Mutunga mouths. I have entered an alternate reality.

I walked Petre Bay, between sandhills & surf. In 1919 HD Skinner found Maori material on the top dune layers & Moriori middens on the bottom. Thousands of shells still stick out of the sand: I imagine them as old tongues trying to speak over the ignorant roar of the sea.

The woman who guided me through a Moriori forest said trees can communicate thru roots: can thank, warn. Riding home thru a gale, I wondered: can these bent trees & phone poles talk, or have their tongues become mutually unintelligible, like those of long separated peoples?

The frail bookworm Jorge Luis Borges used to listen worshipfully while the knife fighters of his native Buenos Aires talked about their trade. I felt like Borges last night, when a man who dives for paua in the feral seas off Rekohu told me the best way to chase off sharks.

Floating above the tundra of the clouds on the way home from Rekohu, I both hope for & fear severe air turbulence. Only with such tumult could I align myself with the crew of Rangihoua & other waka of ancestors of the Moriori, craft that crossed the southern ocean on storm surges.

Thursday, July 09, 2020

For empty plinths

A lot of Pakeha think that warmongers & land-grabbers are the only forebears we have, but history's more complex than that. At the Spinoff I've suggested four nineteenth century Pakeha heroes who could be elevated to empty plinths.