Pluralism and paganism
Now Siasau's work is going out into the world, and receiving new interpretations. EyeContact's Peter Dornauf has reviewed the massive series of ngatu paintings that won Siasau the Wallace, after these paintings were exhibited in the Waikato. I wanted to differ somewhat with Peter Dornauf's reading of Siasau's Wallace-winning work, but I am delighted that he and many other New Zealanders have been enjoying 'Onetu 'ofiuli - 'Onetuofekula'. I should emphasise, as well, that my interpretation of Visesio Siasau's art is not necessarily shared by the man himself.
Dornauf observes that 'Onetu'ofiuli - 'Onetuofekula' might be translated loosely as 'Strands of colour inextricably connected to red and black'. Dornauf suggests that this title refers only to the formal aspects of Siasau's work, and gives little sense of the meaning of the images he has painted on ngatu.
I am far from an expert on either the Tongan language or the semiotics of Tongan culture, but I know that red and black have very powerful connotations for Tongans, and that the connotations of kula are often contrasted to those of 'uli. Red is associated with masculinity and worldly power, while black connotes femininity and sacredness.
In 2014 the Tongan-New Zealand painter Benjamin Work held an exhibition called I See Red, I See Red, I See Red at Otara's Fresh Gallery in which he reconnected kula with power, and linked the use of red paint and feathers by Tongan monarchs to the red crucifixes of palangi missionaries and the red flags of China's communist emperors. In a talk held to celebrate Benjamin's exhibition, 'Okusitino Mahina suggested that the colour red had become associated with males because in traditional Tongan society men worked outdoors, fishing and gardening and fighting, and got sunburnt. Women, by contrast, stayed out of the sun.
I want to suggest that the title of Visesio Siasau's epic series of ngatu is not a simple statement about his colours, but rather a declaration of his desire to reconcile qualities that are often today treated, in Tongan and in many other cultures, as opposites. Because palangi cultures have tended to use the colours black and white to represent opposites, we could perhaps almost translate Siasau's title into English as something like 'All colours blend into black as well as white'.
If we interpret Siasau's title in the way I have suggested, then we can reconsider Peter Dornauf's claim that the images on many of his ngatu are 'satirical', and reflect an anger at the influence of Christianity on Tonga.
It is true that Siasau has rejected the Catholic faith of his parents. It is also true that his sculptures of crucified Polynesian gods and his paintings of a Jesus adorned by a dollar sign have angered some pious Tongans.
But I think it would nevertheless be simplistic to consider Siasau a satirist of Christianity. He is not like the Samoan rapper Bill Urale, who ridicules not only the symbolism but the theology of Christianity, and argues that his people need to stop believing in 'an imaginary friend'. King Kapisi criticises Christianity because he is an atheist, and does not believe in a spiritual reality. Visesio Siasau, by contrast, criticises contemporary Tongan Christianity because he considers that it is not equal to the grandeur and the multiplicity of the spiritual universe. (When I counterpose Urale and Siasau, I don't mean to denigrate Urale's atheism, which is both brave and eloquent. I only mean to clarify what I see as Siasau's ideas.)
Siasau was for some time a Baha'i, and he is still on friendly terms with many members of that faith. Baha'i theology insists that all the world's religions are instruments of the same god, and that the different prophets and icons and rituals found on different continents and islands should be celebrated and reconciled. Thousands of Tongans have in recent decades abandoned the kingdom's Christian churches for Baha'i temples.
Tongan Baha'is have often been criticised as atheists or even Satanists. A veteran Baha'i that I talked with at a kava circle remembered how stones had been thrown through his windows by neighbours outraged at his conversion. Baha'i defend themselves by insisting that they do not want to deny but rather complicate and enrich god. Jesus is not dethroned by their theology, but rather joined in his lofty place by Mohammed and Buddha and countless other holy men and women.
I think that, along with Baha'i theology, the scholarship of the late great Roger Neich has had an important influence on the development of Visesio Siasau's work. About a decade ago Siasau was standing in a queue in the bookshop of the Auckland museum, waiting to buy a volume by the ethnographer Roger Neich. When Neich walked into the bookshop the two men got talking. Soon they were standing in one of the museum's massive and magnificent storehouses, examining goddesses that Tongans carved out of ironwood centuries ago. Neich had spent years cataloguing and analysing the few pieces of pagan art that survived the fires lit by Tupou I, the Wesleyan warlord who used muskets and the Bible to unify Tonga in the middle of the nineteenth century.
I think that the pluralism of the Baha'i faith and the revisionist scholarship of Roger Neich together helped Visesio Siasau to clarify his thinking and his practice. Siasau ransacked old ethnographic journals looking for drawings of temples and lyrics of chants. He wandered the Tongan bush looking for the sacred pagan groves where Tupou I sent his pigs to graze. His sculptures and his ngatu paintings began to offer images and forms from Tonga's pagan past, and to juxtapose them with images of contemporary Tonga.
Over the last year Siasau has pushed past his old influences, and began to think, sculpt and paint in fiercely idiosyncratic ways. Last year he completed a Masters degree at the Wananga o Aotearoa by writing a thesis. Siasau's text offers a series of stories about his ancestors and his childhood amongst the carpenters and carvers of Haveluloto, then moves into a dense, poetic discussion of Tonga's deep past. In his struggle to communicate something of the otherness and grandeur of Tongan history and autochthonous Tongan religion, Siasau uses many ancient and unfamiliar words, and breaks up and recombines other words to create neologisms. His search for the past through language reminds me of Martin Heidegger's adventures in etymology, and his discussions of the psychic properties of certain words makes me think of Rimbaud's alchemie du verb.
In one of the most beautiful and bewildering passages of his thesis, Siasau tries to explain the title of the massive ngatu work that would win the Wallace Award:
'Onetu'ofiuli - 'Onetuofekula' is the articulation of the word 'Otua. 'Onetu'ofiuli signifies the vowel 'O', which is the noa or zero point, where the colour 'uli-black represents the negative pole of the word 'Otua. 'Onetuofekula' denotes the colour kula-red as a representation of light encoded in the vowel A. A is the positive pole of 'Otua. The syllable Tu is the catalyst for the positive knowledge of this polarity. 'Onetu'ofiuli - 'Onetuofekula' is the dwelling place of the highest level of consciousness found imbued in 'Otua.
I think that, when he puts Tangaloa on the cross or fuses an icon of Jesus with an image of ancient Tonga's shaman-king, Siasau is not so much counterposing the past with the present, and rejecting one in favour of the other, but polemicising against one-sided ways of viewing the world. He believes that polarities like past and future, pagan and Christian, Tongan and palangi, need to be exploded, because they obscure a profound interconnectedness. And that desire to transcend polarities is manifested in the title of Siasau's Wallace-winning work, which is about much more than the colour of paint.
Visesio Siasau's preoccupations might seem fusty, and perhaps even esoteric, but they are a response to the emergencies of twenty-first century Tonga, a place where beggars camp outside salubrious churches, convenience stores and banks have bars on their windows, and teenagers dream of winning a Green Card Lottery.
Despite their country's problems, Tongans remain a proud people. Tonga was the only Pacific society to avoid colonisation in the nineteenth century, and its people thank the Wesleyan dynasty established by Tupou I more than a century and a half ago for this fact. But Tupou I preserved his nation's independence by abolishing its old religion and much of its traditional culture, and imposing Christianity and a slew of palangi institutions and practices on his people. Tongan nationalism therefore has a curious, contradictory quality. When they wave the national flag that Tupou I adorned with a crucifix and sing the hymn to Jehovah that is their national anthem, Tongans stamp on the graves of the pagan gods and practices of their ancient ancestors. To be a Tongan patriot, it seems, is to reject much of pre-Christian Tonga.
Some radical elements in Tongan society, like the late philosopher and pro-democracy activist Futa Helu and the expatriate American educator Michael Horowitz, have suggested that secularisation and even atheism as answers to some of the kingdom's troubles. But very few Tongans have become atheists. To abandon Christianity would mean repudiating much of their recent history, and much of their actually existing culture. Couldn't the wholesale rejection of Christianity be just as simplistic and destructive as Tupou I's rejection of pagan religion and culture?
I think that, by advocating giving the pagan and Christian eras, with their different gods and value systems, equal measures of reverence, Visesio Siasau is trying to offer Tongans an alternative to both wholesale secularisation and the continued domination of Christianity. Siasau believes that, if they can only be recuperated and adapted to the twenty-first century, many pre-Christian ideas and practices can help to liberate Tonga.
Siasau comes from a family of carpenters, and laments the decline of traditional carpentry. The old Tongan tufunga built tall, airy fale out of local timber, using ropes made from coconut hair rather than hammers and nails. They revered the engineer-god Tufunga Tangaloa, and their work was ritualised and very tapu. Today, as Siasau likes to point out, carpenters have been usurped by concrete mixers, and the high ceilings and open plan fale that kept Tongans cool even in summer have been replaced by boxy rooms in low-rooved, unnecessarily expensive houses. Tongans who cannot afford these ugly yet fashionable homes often resort to shacks made of corrugated iron and other imported materials. The kingdom's housing crisis has ideological as well as economic causes. Siasau believes that, if prejudice against the pagan past can only be overcome, arts like carpentry might revive and thrive.
For all his esoteric language and recondite imagery, then, Visesio Siasau is a man with practical ends in mind. The publicity and acclaim that he has won over the last year can only help carry his message deep into Tongan society. [Posted by Scott Hamilton]