Kim Dotcom, Benjamin Work, and the Tongan swastika
In a blog post discussing the controversy over Kim Dotcom’s possession of a signed copy of Mein Kampf, Giovanni Tiso argues that collectors of fascist memorabilia tend to sympathise with that ideology. Giovanni’s argument may well hold true in Germany, in Austria, or in his native Italy, where fascist governments are a polarising historical memory. A German who breaks his or her country’s laws and acquires a copy of Hitler’s rambling, demented magnum opus, or flies, in a suitably obscure location, the Nazi flag, is determinedly stating a very unpleasant interpretation of history.
I am not sure, though, that most of the New Zealanders who collect the remnants of fascist power feel sympathy towards Hitler or Mussolini. I was particularly interested in Giovanni’s post, because I have been writing a review of an exhibition by Benjamin Work, a young Tongan-New Zealand artist who is fascinated by Nazi imagery.
Last October Work covered a wall in Glen Innes, a suburb of Auckland with a large Polynesian population, with a rectangle of bright red paint. At the centre of this rectangle Work painted a white circle, and inside his circle he placed a minimalist portrait of the Tu’i Tonga, the priest-king who dominated the pre-Christian Friendly Islands and built an empire in the Western Pacific. By choosing the paint the Tu’i Tonga and his ceremonial head dress black, Work made viewers think, whether we wanted to or not, of the Nazi swastika.
I never saw Benjamin Work’s mural except in photographs that appeared on the internet. I was living in Tonga when he painted the piece, and I understand that it was soon erased. But I was both fascinated and disturbed by the mural, and began showing photographs of it to my friends and acquaintances in Tonga. In my classroom at the ‘Atenisi Institute and in the kava circles where Nuku’alofa’s artists and intellectuals gather, the painting provoked strong and conflicting opinions.
Some viewers interpreted Benjamin’s image as a condemnation of traditional, pre-Christian Tongan society. They believed that he was equating the Tu’i Tonga, a ruler who had the power to kill or copulate at will with his subjects, with Adolf Hitler, and suggesting that the empire which grew in the fifteenth and sixteen centuries, as Tongans raided and subjugated their neighbours, was the moral equivalent of the realm Hitler conquered in twentieth century Europe. Such a bleak view of the Tu’i Tonga era is not entirely surprising, because the Free Wesleyan Church, which has dominated Tonga’s religious life for the past century and a quarter, is fond of referring to the era before the arrival of Christianity in the Pacific as the ‘time of darkness’, when moral concepts were unknown and pagan priests, led by the Tu’i Tonga, practiced human sacrifice and other abominations. It is no coincidence that the Free Wesleyan church is the religious arm of Tonga’s modern royal dynasty, which used the bible and muskets to defeat the Tu’i Tonga line and unify Tonga in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Other viewers saw the painting as a sinister, because sympathetic, allusion to the little-known activities of Nazis in Western Polynesia during the 1930s and ‘40s. Germany has strong historical connections with Western Polynesia: Samoa was part of the German Empire from 1900 until 1915, and a treaty of friendship between Bismarck and Tonga’s first modern king saw German companies operating in Nuku’alofa and Vava’u as early as the 1880s.
New Zealand’s misadministration of Samoa after its invasion of the country in 1914 helped to create nostalgia, especially amongst locals with German and part-German ancestry, for the era of rule from Berlin. The Nazis came to power in 1933, and were soon demanding the return of the colonies Germany had lost on the battlefields of World War One and in the conference rooms of Versailles. Local Nazi parties were founded in many countries to support this goal, and a ‘world headquarters’ of the Nazi movement was created in Hamburg.
By the late 1930s there was a small but ambitious National Socialist Party in Samoa, whose members planned an uprising against New Zealand rule and engaged in strained conversations with Hamburg about the proper interpretation of Hitler’s views on race (the Samoans’ would-be mentors in Germany were appalled when they learned that many of the party’s members were half-Samoan, and that a couple of them were even part-Jewish). After World War Two began in 1939, the Samoan Nazis began drilling in the bush and talking excitedly of a Nazi naval raid on the South Pacific; New Zealand administrators responded by deporting them to Somes Island, that strange community of refugees from and supporters of Nazi Germany in Wellington harbour.
The quixotic career of Samoa’s Nazi party has over the last decade attracted the interest of several scholars; the extent of Nazi influence in Tonga remains obscure. There are, nevertheless, some clues to suggest sympathy for Hitler amongst a least a section of the German population of the Friendly Islands.
Recently declassified papers written by American intelligence officers during World War Two include a report on a rumour that Germans Tongans were welcoming Nazi U boats to a small island in the northern Vava’u archipelago. Dieter Dyck, who emigrated to the South Pacific in the aftermath of World War Two, mentions in his autobiography that some of the Germans he met in Tonga held pro-Nazi views, even after the defeat of Hitler and the destruction of his Reich (Dieter, who is the father of well-known Tongan-New Zealand artist Dagmar Dyck, had no sympathy at all for such views). Today Tongans still tell stories about Nazi war criminals who supposedly fled to their country to escape justice after the war, and who are drinking themselves into senescence in some beachside bar or kava shack.
It is perhaps not surprising, given Tonga’s long association with Germany and the likely presence there, in the past, of a group of Nazi sympathisers, that some viewers of Benjamin Work’s mural have considered it an expression of sympathy for fascism. “I don’t think a Jewish person would like to look at that” ‘Ilaisa Helu, the son of legendary Tongan intellectual Futa Helu and an authority in his own right on Tongan history, told me after examining a photograph of the mural.
Some viewers, though, took a much more positive attitude to Benjamin’s mural, seeing it as an anti-imperialist declaration of Tongan pride. By appropriating the most infamous symbol of European racism and stamping it with a portrait of a Polynesian king, Work was, these viewers argued, celebrating the triumph of Tonga over the European nations that tried, unsuccessfully, to colonise it in the nineteenth century, and also reminding us of the prestige of the Tu’i Tonga’s ancient empire.
During the talk he gave at Fresh gallery in Otara, which is hosting his debut solo exhibition I See Red, I See Red, I See Red, Benjamin Work offered an interpretation of the Glen Innes mural which seemed, to me at least, to support the view that the painting was intended as a celebration of Tongan independence, rather than as a condemnation of the past or an expression of sympathy for fascism.
“I grew up, as a half-caste in New Zealand, saturated with Western TV” Benjamin remembered, after I had asked him about the origins and meaning of the Glen Innes mural. “I was fascinated by movies about the war that played on television, and by the power of symbols like the swastika. Without in any way endorsing them, I wanted to use their power.”
Benjamin went on to explain that the streets close to the wall he painted in Glen Innes are full of Tongans, but that the kids who watched him at work on his mural didn’t even recognise the pala tavake and the Tu’i Tonga. Like Benjamin in the 1980s, and ‘90s, these kids were growing up with portrayals of World War Two, and they immediately recognised the Nazi origins of the imagery in his painting. By putting the sacred king of ancient Tonga into a shocking context, Benjamin hoped to make the young Tongans of Glen Innes think about their heritage.
When Benjamin talked at the Fresh Gallery about taking over the power but not the meanings of Nazi design, I was reminded of a passage in the acclaimed study of Maori architecture that Deidre Brown published in 2009. After noting that the followers of the prophet Wiremu Ratana adopted a Romanesque style when they raised temples in rural strongholds of their faith like Raetihi and Mangamuka, Brown argued that the Maori use of European architectural forms has to be understood in terms of whakanoa, a word that can signify both appropriation and desecration. Like an iwi seizing a waka from an enemy and redesigning it for their own use, Ratana’s followers were laying their hands on a style from imperialist Europe, defying the tapu surrounding this style, and making their use of the style into a source of mana.
If we interpret Benjamin Work’s Glen Innes mural in terms of whakanoa, then we might compare it to the appropriation and desecration of Nazi flags by Polynesian soldiers fighting their way through Europe in the last year of World War Two. When members of the Maori Batallion pulled a Nazi banner from the ruins of a captured fort and wrote their names and iwi over its formerly sacred white circle, they were desecrating an icon of white supremacism and expressing pride in their whakapapa and rohe. In the same way, Benjamin has arguably found a way to ‘use the power’ of Nazi imagery whilst overturning its meaning.
Giovanni is troubled by the extent of the contemporary trade in fascist memorabilia, because he has observed neo-fascists delighting in and profiting from that trade in Europe. I don’t mean to dismiss his concerns, but I wonder how many of the New Zealanders who collect memorabilia from the era of Hitler and Mussolini are acting on the same impulse that led Benjamin Work to create his extraordinary mural in Glen Innes. How many descendants of members of the Maori Battalion and other forces that battled fascism choose to collect objects like Nazi flags out of a desire for something resembling whakanoa?
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]