Through the portal to Tongatapu
In the extended investigation of the magical powers of art he called The Resurrection of Philip Clairmont, Martin Edmond suggested that paintings can emanate light and heat and even health. Edmond described visiting the homes of several very elderly owners of canvases by Colin McCahon, who sat beside their taonga the way other people might sit beside fires on a cold night. McCahon's miraculous arrangements of paint were, Edmond explained, nourishing and protecting their owners.
Outside my Glen Eden home the temperature has dropped to nine degrees; lamps stain the evening mist a mixture of yellow and green, so that it resembles a vast cloud of poison gas. I am protected from the Auckland weather by a heat pump, and by a series of artworks that I bought on Tongatapu, that flat ancient island where winter is no more than a tall story told by returning travellers. It is a quarter to eight, and I know that, two thousand kilometres away, in a shack that leans tipsily over Fanga'uta lagoon, the artists, musicians, and kava addicts of the Seleka Club are beginning their night's work.
I am sitting under a painting by Tevita Latu, who began his career spraying revolutionary slogans on the walls of Nuku'alofa, was tortured and charged with treason after the riot that levelled much of the business district of that city in 2006, and a few years later founded a kava club for Tonga's cultural and political avant-garde.
Some of the posters produced collectively by Seleka members - I remember a strange dragonwoman, who had emerged from the sea to confront Tonga's patriarchal ruling class - will be pinned to the walls, and a few prints of Picasso and Cezanne torn out of old art books will be scattered about a long table, in between pots of glue and a rubble of crayons. A stereo will emit an unpredictable mixture of death metal, rap, and reggae, some of it recorded at Seleka by Ongosia and his friends.
Tevita Latu will be moving up and down the long table, watching the club's young artists draw or paint or paste. Occasionally he will pause to offer praise or advice, or to grab a crayon or paintbrush and add a fish or star or halo to a work in progress.
Outside the shack moonlight and smoke from umu fires will lie over Fanga'uta lagoon, disguising the sight and smell of the sewage that flows endlessly out a pipe from Tonga's national hospital.
I am sitting beneath an untitled image - a mixture of collage and crayon work - by Tevita Latu. Like many of Latu's images, this one is disturbingly ambiguous. Three women stand on a piece of earth, beneath a sky that begins in a peaceable shade of blue and slowly grows purple with cyclonic rage. The women are topless, in defiance of the last one hundred and seventy years of Tongan history, but they are not the erotic South Seas maidens beloved of the palangi imagination: their breasts hang as heavily and ominously as war clubs.
The women's eyes are huge with wonder or alarm, and their three-fingered hands reach towards the sky. Are they waving at me? If they are waving, are they asking me to rise and step forward, into their warmer world, or do they mean to warn me of the storm that is turning their sky the colour of rotten talo? Are the women dancing, and, if they are, do they move in celebration, or for the pleasure of a powerful audience, like the ancient kings of Tonga, who pulled nubile dancers out of palace performances and stowed them in royal bedchambers?
What are not ambiguous, what do not require interpretation, are the heat and light that pour from Latu's image. This work was made in the midst of a permanent summer, where warmth is as reliable as the tapa makers who beat their bark in every village or the waves that wreck themselves on the rotten teeth of Tongatapu's reefs.
The heat has stripped clothes from Latu's women; the light has bleached their wide eyes.
The Selekarians will work until dawn, breaking only to step onto the gangplank at the edge of their shack and piss into Fanga'uta lagoon. They will sleep through the morning, and through the useless hot hours that follow noon, and then rise, and load their art onto the truck they have salvaged, repaired and painted. They will circumnavigate Tongatapu, pausing to swim, to buy bags of peanuts from Chinese shopkeepers, and to hawk their paintings, drawings, and collages to any palangi tourists or middle class Nuku'alofans they encounter. Tomorrow night they will be back in their shack, pouring the heat and light of their island into new images.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]