Although the 'Atenisi Institute has been open for business for nearly five decades in the western suburbs of Nuku'alofa, it has also existed as a sort of loose international intellectual movement dedicated to the promotion of critical thinking, Tongan democracy, and cross-cultural exchange. Former students and staff of 'Atenisi are distributed around the world, from Auckland to Sydney to Salt Lake City to London, and are active in universities, publishing houses, art galleries, and trade unions. Other supporters of 'Atenisi have never made it to the little campus on the edge of Nuku'alofa, but have become enthusiasts after discovering the writings of Futa Helu, or seeing Paul Janman's acclaimed movie Tongan Ark, or encountering an 'Atenisi-trained teacher like 'Okusi Mahina or 'Opeti Taliai in a seminar room or lecture theatre.
Recently I suggested to Sisi'uno Langi-Helu, Futa's daughter and the head of the 'Atenisi Foundation for Performing Arts, and 'Opeti Taliai, the new dean of the 'Atenisi Institute, that there ought to be an online forum where everyone interested in 'Atenisi can gather. Although a number of websites, including this blog, have hosted some interesting discussions about 'Atenisi-related subjects, especially in the wake of the release of Tongan Ark last year, they are the property of solitary individuals. With its decentralised, reader-driven character, a facebook group would, we decided, be a fine way of bringing together everyone active or interested in 'Atenisi.
I hope that some readers of this blog will join the new Friends of 'Atenisi facebook group. Here's the blurb I've put on the group's homepage:
This facebook group has been created to unite supporters of the 'Atenisi Institute, no matter where they live. We'll be posting news about events at 'Atenisi as well as old photos and texts by Futa Helu and other distinguished 'Atenisians. We're up for discussions about subjects like Tongan culture and society, the possibilities and problems of relating Polynesian and European traditions, the politics of Tonga and the wider South Pacific, Greek philosophy, Italian opera, Romantic poetry, and anything else related to the Institute, but it doesn't all have to be serious. Feel free to gossip and reminisce!
Nearly fifty years ago a young scholar named Futa Helu founded a school in a swamp on the edge of Nuku'alofa, and gave it the Tongan name for Athens. Despite poverty and persecution, the 'Atenisi Institute grew in the 1970s and '80s into one of the Pacific's most important intellectual centres, and in the '90s became the headquarters of Tonga's burgeoning pro-democracy movement. Young Tongans tired of the rote learning and authoritarianism of more traditional schools have gravitated to 'Atenisi's high school and tertiary courses, and palangi scholars excited by Futa Helu's vision of a fusion of European and Polynesian traditions have also flocked to the school, despite its meagre resources.
Without adhering to any single intellectual position, 'Atenisi's teachers and graduates have produced a large body of writing on subjects as different as Pacific sociology, physics, and Greek philosophy. The 'Atenisi Foundation for Performing Arts has wowed audiences around the world with its mixture of Tongan and Western music, dance, and poetry.
Futa Helu died in 2010, but the school and tradition he founded live on. Paul Janman's new movie Tongan Ark, which tells the story of 'Atenisi, has been acclaimed by critics and audiences around Australasia and the Pacific, and a fresh selection of Futa Helu's writings was recently published in New Zealand.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]