Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Why Tevita Latu is the new Lou Reed

In a morose and provocative column for the Guardian, Suzanne Moore has argued that the recent death of Lou Reed, the revered frontman and wildman of the Velvet Underground, symbolises the end of avant-garde art. Moore was one of a generation inspired, in the 1960 and ‘70s, by Reed’s droning, gorgeous songs about heroin addiction, gender bending, mental illness, and other subjects considered taboo by postwar Western societies. For Moore, the Velvet Underground was a link to Dadaism, Surrealism, and the other great avant-garde art movements of the early twentieth century. Like Tristan Tzara and the young Picasso before him, Lou Reed rejected the values of the society around him, and made art which celebrated an alternative set of values.

Suzanne Moore can find few twenty-first century artists with Lou Reed’s subversive qualities. Instead of wanting to shock and change the world, today’s artists are content, she thinks, to entertain the masses and make money. Moore regards the success of Lady Gaga, who commercialises old Velvet Underground themes like sexual strangeness and drug use by attaching them to a disco beat and a slick stage show, as proof that avant-garde art is dead.
Suzanne Moore’s column prompted more than four hundred comments on the Guardian website. Many readers complained that Moore had failed to acknowledge the musicians, painters, and writers who are producing innovative work in the twenty-first century, instead of following Lady Gaga’s lead and focusing on money-making. Such complaints are reasonable, but they do not necessarily invalidate Moore’s argument. 
Although there are many twenty-first century artists trying to extend the avant-garde tradition, their work does not have the impact on our culture that the paintings of Picasso had in the 1920s and the songs of Lou Reed had in the 1970s. The truth is that, in the Western world, at least, the avant-garde has lost its ability to shock and excite.
Innovative art no longer moves us because art in general no longer occupies a truly important place in our culture. It is hard, now, to remember the days when avant-garde artists were courted by politicians – when the Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky signed a joint manifesto with Andre Breton, the founder of Surrealism, and the poet Pablo Neruda was invited to run for the presidency of Chile by one of the country’s largest parties. In the early 1970s, when Lou Reed was in his decadent prime, the novelist Norman Mailer was running for the mayoralty of New York City, relying largely on his prestige as a writer to win votes. Where artists were once considered the critics and consciences of Western society, they are now treated simply as workers in a sub-branch of the entertainment industry.
But avant-garde art is not dead everywhere, because not every society has followed the path of the West by trivialising and depoliticising high culture. If Suzanne Moore wants to meet some young artists who are following the same sort of exhilarating and precarious path as Lou Reed, then she should come to Tonga and drink a few cups of kava at the Seleka Club.
Located in an outer suburb of the Tongan capital of Nuku’alofa, beside a particularly polluted stretch of lagoon, the Seleka Club consists of a couple of fale built with coconut fronds and salvaged timber. Almost every night of the week dozens of young painters, sculptors, and musicians gather in the club to drink cup after cup of kava and make art on a long, paint-flecked table.
Inside the Seleka Club all of the conventions of Tongan culture and society are turned upside down. Kava, the sacred traditional drink of chiefs and priests, is consumed from a toilet bowl; female and fakaleiti (transgender) Tongans drink beside men; a Tongan flag vandalised with a satirical swastika hangs in the tropical air; guests are given secret ‘Selekarian names’, based on bizarre and sometimes blasphemous puns; and the sentimentally patriotic songs performed in more conventional kava clubs are replaced with recordings of dubstep and death metal tracks made by Seleka members.
When they are not holed up in their fale, the Selekarians rumble around Tonga in a truck covered in the same psychedelic paintings and half-silly, half-dangerous slogans – ‘GOD DIED OF DARWIN NOT DEATH ITSELF’ is a typical Seleka phrase - as the bus driven across America in the 1960s by Ken Kesey’s Band of Merry Pranksters.
The Seleka Club is led by Tevita Latu, a young man from one of Tonga’s most respected families. Latu’s father was the first Tongan to receive a degree in science and a close friend of King Tupou IV, the autocratic ruler of Tonga for thirty-eight years. In 2005, during the senile last year of Tupou IV’s reign, a general strike shut down Tonga for five weeks, fifteen thousand people marched through Nuku’alofa, and a protest camp was established beside the royal palace.
It was in this febrile atmosphere that Tevita Latu exhibited some of his first art. Giving himself the tag Ezekiel, he covered Nuku’alofa’s walls with graffiti criticising his old family friend and calling for radical change.
Tupou IV finally died in the middle of 2006; a few months later a pro-democracy rally turned into a riot, and half of downtown Nuku’alofa burned to the ground. Martial law was declared, and New Zealand and Australian troops and police flew in to help Tongan security forces detain and torture hundreds of their enemies. Tevita Latu played no part in the riot, but the day after the event he noticed the chauffeured Rolls Royce of Tonga’s new king passing his family home with a military escort. Rushing outside, Latu held his fist in the air and shouted ‘Reformasi!’ He was seized, taken to Nuku’alofa’s central police station, beaten, and charged with treason. After nine days of torture Latu was released on bail; the charge of treason was eventually dropped.
Today Tevita Latu remains an enemy of Tonga’s sclerotic ruling class. While Western artists are either ignored or patronised by their society’s elite, Latu’s paintings both fascinate and anger Tonga’s nobility, its clergy, and its business class. The artist’s exhibition launches are crowded, disputatious affairs, where conservative Tongans demand explanations for his vividly recondite symbols, and ask him about his religious and political affiliations. Sometimes locals buy Latu’s works simply for the pleasure of vandalising them.
The outraged response to Latu reflects the seriousness with which Tongans view art. The Tongan intellectual and educator Futa Helu once said that in his country art had traditionally been considered a means to ‘the perfection of reality’. Whether they were poets, dancers, painters, or carvers, artists turned away from the flux and discord of the world, and made things of harmonious beauty. Art played, and continues to play, a crucial role in almost every Tongan social occasion. Tongan kings and queens have always kept poets, singers, and dancers in their courts. At weddings and funerals poems and dances express gladness or sadness, and mourners or partiers literally wrap themselves in art, by donning mats of beaten barkcloth that are often covered in intricate paintings.
Like the ritual and symbolism of the Seleka Club, Tevita Latu’s art both acknowledges and revolutionises conventional Tongan culture. Latu’s social method of work – his paintings and drawings are made in the midst of the crowd at his club – recalls the collectivism of barkcloth makers, carvers, and dancers, but the smoky, noisy, mixed gender environment of Seleka mocks the taboos which have traditionally surrounded art-making in Tonga. Latu’s works often seem designed to rescue some memorable event – a protest, or a party, or a swim in the lagoon – from the chaos and forgetfulness of the world, but they eschew the traditional Tongan search for harmony and clarity in favour of expressionist brushstrokes and fragmented perspectives. Latu often paints on barkcloth, but he prefers idiosyncratic images to the rigorously public symbolism used by most barkcloth artists. His works are full of Pacific imagery, but they offend cultural nationalists by putting Melanesian sailors in Tongan vaka, and by giving Tongan men and women an eerie, halo-like head dress borrowed from the gwion gwion style of Aboriginal painting.
Recently I bought an untitled painting on barkcloth by Tevita Latu. The work shows two men in pre-Christian dress standing on either side of a naked woman. Phrases of Tongan swirl around them. With their talk of family quarrels and sleeping with pigs most of the phrases made little sense to me, even when I knew their English translations. When I showed Latu’s painting to one of my Tongan students, though, he immediately recognised its allusions to the story of the Prodigal Son from the Gospel of Luke.
The Prodigal Son is a popular topic for Tonga’s preachers, and one of the most-sung hymns in the repertoire of the Free Wesleyan Church, the country’s dominant denomination, retells his story. But not all of Tongans view the Prodigal Son in the same way.
In his extended study of the role of the Free Wesleyans in Tongan society, Heneli Niumeitolu argues that the church has distorted the story of the Prodigal Son and many other passages in the Bible for political purposes. Niumeitolu points that the Free Wesleyan hymn about the Prodigal Son scolds him for ‘Oe ne foki ki ‘api kuo mole kotoa’ (‘Returning home with nothing’), and urges children to emulate his obedient, hardworking older brother. Most Christians regard the story of the Prodigal Son as a lesson in the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation, but Wesleyans keen to ensure support for Tonga’s monarchy have turned it into a lecture about the evils of rebellion and the wisdom of obeying authority.
Latu’s painting can be seen as an attack on the conservative wing of Tongan Christianity.  By depicting the son and his father in ‘pagan’ traditional dress, Latu mocks the nineteenth century Wesleyan missionaries who insisted that Christianity and ‘decent’ Western-style dress are inextricably linked, as well as the Tongan faithful who still swelter through summer services in dark suits and dresses. Latu’s Holy Land is tropical, and his Jews are Tongans.
The appearance of the Prodigal Son’s mother in Latu’s painting may seem strange, because she does not feature in the story told by the Bible. Along with others in the Seleka Club, though, Tevita Latu is critical of the patriarchal nature of Tongan society. Recently a group of Selekarians protested against the absence of women from Tonga’s parliament by producing a poster which showed a strange dragonwoman emerging from the ocean and throwing her shadow over the country’s largest island.
The female figure in Latu’s painting can be seen, then, as a feminist statement. Her nakedness may allude to the fate of the carved females who presided over shamanic ceremonies in the godhouses of pre-Christian Tonga. When the ancestor of today’s king Wesleyanised Tonga in a series of wars in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, he systematically and gleefully desecrated the godhouses of captured villages. Pigs were loosed in the sacred enclosures around the houses, and the carved goddesses were stripped of their barkcloth covering and hung by their necks from the rafters of their homes.
The Prodigal Son’s stolid older brother, who sulked outside the family home while his talented but erratic sibling was welcomed back with a feast, might be a hero to the Free Wesleyan Church, but he has no role in Latu’s painting.
It is not only the Prodigal Son’s brother, though, who is marginalised by Latu. The painting’s text includes ‘Alua’, a word Tongans use to say goodbye when someone is leaving them, and the Prodigal Son’s mother and father might be waving at him. The Prodigal Son has, it seems, returned from his time with the Pharisees, where he slept in a pig sty, but he has not been willing or able to remain permanently in his family home. The painting shows him going out on the road again. The conservative conclusion of the Biblical story as well as the authoritarian propaganda of the Free Wesleyan Church are rejected, and the Prodigal Son is shown as a free agent, neither estranged from nor entrapped by his parents and their culture. He is as proud and as courageous as the young man who raised a fist at Tonga’s king on the day after Nuku’alofa burned.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

lou reed was also tortured...shock teatment

4:14 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


4:32 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


7:00 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

This is very interesting Scott. I had forgotten the details of that parable. Many people who are not "believers" (my parents were atheists, only one of my sisters is a strong Christian): I am not sure about it all - but many who are not "believers" forget the fascination of those apparently simple stories in the bible. Samson, The Fall,even the start of Genesis. Also the Book of Job which Harold Bloom includes as one of the great books in his "Canon" - and he is right - it is powerful and moving literature.

Tevita Latu's art looks great: especially considering some of the background to it.

I think the problem of Art you refer to is real. I'm not sure if Art (literature, art as art, and all other aspects of what we might call art) is depleted. But certainly the very fact that art (as art rather than maybe lit.) or music (of various kinds) means "big money": means that the meaning of any "rebellion" is taken away from it and, indeed, there may be a kind of hollow centre.

But artists and writers need to live.

The ability to keep alive integrity and fervour as well as artistic creativity is what is needed.

I think the despite the absorption (or partial) into the main stream of the art market etc most artists, regardless of how much they are paid or not, still retain a desire to create vital art. And I think Moore is simplifying a complex subject.

But the Club in Tonga seems as though it is very enthusiastic and vital.

My neighbour is Tongan and his sons seem rather "lost" (sometimes the police visit on what I think are basically trivial matters caused by the young men not finding any "centre" or real purpose (perhaps also caught between 2 cultures). It may refect a wider malaise in Auckland and Tonga - and NOT just with Polynesian young people. My own son went through some heavy shit in his teenage years. So maybe you can visit them or someone from Tonga and talk about what is going on in Atenisi.

And indeed the message still probably needs to go wider than Atenisi to New Zealand - as well as Tevita who reminds me of Andy in some ways, the message of that poet-singer you featured on your blog a while back, who is a bit of a legend with his innovative lyrics.

The message of the Prod. Son seems to be overall one of mercy (albeit this relies on quick visit to Wiki) even divine mercy so the Wesleyen interpretation seems limited for sure.

The Dadaist Movement was partly a reaction to the massive stupidity of WWI so it had a kind of "political" force. A lot of the stuff is on Kenneth Goldsmith's "UBU Web" (or was I haven't "been there" for some time.

All good. Futa Helu seems like a magician both wise and almost foolish who reappears, and like all wizards, "Is never early or late: he is always exactly on time." (Victor told me this re Gandolf but check with Dr Ross for the exact wording!)...so Futa Helu's words can be used, and are used exactly as they need to be! I think though that he is a bit like those enigmatic Buddhist monks...In any case a fly in the smooth ointment of the State!

9:25 pm  

The niece of a friend of mine was a brilliant and gifted young artist. She won a scholarship to one of the world's most prestigious art schools - where she presented a portfolio of her stunning drawings and watercolours. By the time she graduated, she had not picked up a brush or pencil in over a year and was stapling bird feathers to a old shipping pallet as her graduation work. She now works as a receptionist at a dental clinic.

7:06 pm  
Anonymous Zemelapis said...

Great example of works and interesting discusion, espacially Richard's comprehensive comment, thank you for sharing your opinion.

8:51 pm  
Blogger Peter Bradburn said...

psoptiyouThank you for this post.

3:33 pm  
Blogger Peter Bradburn said...

...oops wrote the wordverf in front of comment above.

3:35 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting article Scott! Your mention of the avant garde and 21st century artists brought to mind one of your fellow countrymen, Paul Amlehn.

He is working on projects with two of the great figures of the avant garde: William S. Burroughs and John Cage, courtesy of their Estates.

I think you can hear some of the work on the internet.

I live in New York and the avant garde is alive and well here. People like Philip Glass still have a major impact and inspire people.

Lou Reed's passing was sad, I recently went to a memorial at the Lincoln Center, it was great, and Laurie Anderson was there.


1:05 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Found this, here you go:



1:08 pm  
Anonymous Linda said...

Does anyone know if this is the same Tevita (David) Latu who studied in Sydney at St George TAFE? He won his final years prize and was exhibited at Hazlehurst Gallery. I have three pieces of his early work and I know he went back to Tonga after he finished at TAFE. The pictures are in the same style. I think it must be him but confirmation would be great. I would love to buy more of his stuff if it becomes available in Australia.

1:30 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Linda,

that's one and the same Tevita! I believe he paid a return visit to Sydney over the summer. I keep in touch with him and with some of the other Selakarians via facebook, which seems to be their preferred mode of communication with the outside world. I bought several of Tevita's works for ridiculously low prices when I was living in Tonga last year and also hope to keep collecting them...

Scott shamresearch@yahoo.co.nz

10:18 pm  
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11:43 pm  
Blogger Charles Lomu said...

Yes it is the same David

4:52 am  
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6:13 pm  

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