Red in the kava bowl
Benjamin is a veteran member of The Most Dedicated, one of Aotearoa’s most prominent graffiti crews, and in recent years he has begun to cover walls with images that refer both to distant Tongan history and the recent past of Europe and America. In these extraordinary works Benjamin has shown Tongan kings against red and white backdrops borrowed from Nazi Germany’s flag, and given Polynesian doves the colours of Los Angeles gangs.
Your talk was funny and very informative, Benjamin. I hope you'll write an autobiography one day!
When you were discussing the many societies and ideologies that have appropriated the colour red, my mind turned to the workers' movement, which has valued the colour as a symbol of internationalism and sacrifice. My wife comes from a long line of coal miners, and for one of her grandfathers and many of her uncles and great uncles red was the sacred colour of trade unionism and the international socialist movement (Cerian's surviving grandfather, whose politics shifted a long way to the right as he rose from working underground to managing a mine, likes to throw up his hands and say "We've had too many red raggers in this family!" I don't think he was very pleased when Cerian became the president of a large branch of her trade union.)
There's been a long debate, in Aotearoa and elsewhere in the Pacific, about whether the red of socialism, with its emphasis on a global consciousness and its insistence that indigenous peoples as well as Europeans should think in terms of class, can be reconciled with the indigenous cultures of the Pacific, with their emphasis on genealogy and local places as key parts of identity. I find this debate fascinating, and I don’t know if it has been settled.
I certainly think that, in the 1970s and '80s, when numerous Pacific peoples were fighting for their freedom from colonialism and socialism seemed like a credible alternative to capitalism, Pacific scholars and artists were forced to struggle with the question of whether the red flag of socialism and the red of cultures like Tonga could be reconciled. One of the my favourite writers, Epeli Hau'ofa, made this question part of a magnificent poem called 'Blood in the Kava Bowl'. When I looked at the poem today, I thought it resonated with your exhibition, so I'll quote it.
Blood in the Kava Bowl
In the twilight we sit
drinking kava from the bowl between us.
Who we are we know and need not say
for the soul we share came from Vaihi.
Across the bowl we nod our understanding of the line
that is also our cord brought by Tangaloa from above,
and the professor does not know.
He sees the line but not the cord
for he drinks the kava not tasting its blood.
And the kava has risen, my friend,
drink, and smile the grace of our fathers
at him who says we are oppressed
by you, by me, but it's twilight in Vaihi
and his vision is clouded.
The kava has risen again, dear friend,
take this cup...
Ah, yes, that matter of oppression -
from Vaihi it begot in us unspoken knowledge
for our soul and our bondage.
You and I hold the love of that inner mountain
shrouded in mist and spouting ashes spread
by the winds from Ono-i-Lau,
Lakemba and Lomaloma
over the soils of our land, shaping
those slender kahokaho kaumeile
we offer in first-fruits to our Hau.
And the kava trees of Tonga grow well,
our foreheads on the royal toes!
The Hau is healthy,
our land's in fine, fat shape for another season.
The professor still talks
of oppression that we both know,
yet he tastes not the blood in the kava
mixed with dry waters that rose to Tangaloa
who gave us the cup from which we drink
the soul and the tears of our land.
Nor has he heard of our brothers who slayed Takalaua
and fled to Niue, Manono and Futuna
to be caught in Uvea by the tyrant's son
and brought home under the aegis of the priest of Maui
to decorate the royal congregation and to chew for the king
the kava mixed with blood from their mouths,
the mouths of all oppressed Tongans,
in expiation to Hikule'o the inner mountain
with an echo others cannot hear.
And the mountain spouts ancestral ashes
spread by the winds from Ono-iLau, Lakemba and Lomaloma
over the soils of our land, raising fine yams,
symbols of our manhood, of the strength of our nation,
in first-fruits we offer to our Hau.
The mountain also crushes our people,
their blood flowing into the royal ring
for the health of the Victor and of Tonga;
the red waters from the warm springs of Pulotu
only you and I can taste, and live
in ancient understanding begat by Maui in Vaihi.
The kava has risen, my brother,
drink this cup of the soul and sweat of our people,
and pass me three more mushrooms which grew on Mururoa
on the shit of the cows Captain Cook brought
from the Kings of England and France!
I've talked about 'Blood in the Kava Bowl' with three men who knew Epeli Hau'ofa: 'Okusi Mahina, 'Opeti Taliai, and Tom Ryan, who is an anthropologist at Waikato University. Ryan reckoned that the 'professor' in the poem is Michael Howard, an American who worked with Hau'ofa at the University of the South Pacific in the 1980s and wrote a Marxist history of Fiji. Howard apparently had a somewhat arrogant manner, and lost credibility at the USP after he reacted to Rabuka's military coup in 1987 by fleeing Fiji.
When I asked him about the poem, 'Okusi felt that it expressed Hau'ofa's yearning, in his later years, for the traditional Tongan society he had criticised and left behind as a younger and more radical man. 'Opeti told me that Hau'ofa spent so long away from Tonga that when he returned in the 1990s for a ceremony at 'Atenisi he could barely speak the language. He too felt that Hau'ofa had a yearning to reconnect with his culture.
Like a lot of great poems, 'Blood in the Kava Bowl' seems reasonably simple on the surface, but keeps revealing new layers of meaning and new paradoxes when it is reread. For me, one of its really strange features is the way that it makes a bloody and somewhat infamous episode in Tongan history, the invasion of 'Uvea and the execution of a series of enemies by the Tu'i Tonga Kau'ulufonua Fekai, into an emblem of peace, egalitarianism, and national pride.
After his mother was assassinated Kau'ulufonua Fekai chased the men he suspected of the deed to 'Uvea, where they had taken refuge, captured them, pulled out their teeth, made them chew kava and spit the blood from their gums into a bowl, and then drank the blood. Lose Miller-Helu, who enjoyed your talk yesterday and has studied 'Uvean accounts of Kau'ulufonua Fekai's deeds as part of her PhD, told me that she thinks the king deserved his nickname of 'savage'!
In the warm narcotic evening of Hau'ofa's poem, the bloody kava bowl seems to lose its sinister meaning, and become a symbol of brotherhood. This is, of course, only one interesting aspect of the poem: I think it is a text that is very rich in meanings, and as an outsider to Tongan culture I am only able to glimpse some of them.