Thursday, September 12, 2019

From kumala to kumara

Ethnogenesis is continuous. In the little Northland town of Okaihau a new culture, a blend of Tonga & Aotearoa, has been made over the last forty years. I've written about Okaihau artist Matavai Taulangau for EyeContact.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Two signals from a wrecked star

In 1863 the troopship Orpheus foundered on a taniwha-shaped sandbar. Pressganged soldiers swam ashore, hid in the Waitakeres, on Fenian farms, at mill camps, using new names, rising from the dead. Others found refuge in the earth. In 1974 commemorators formed an honour guard along the bush track to Cornwallis' Orpheus cemetery. The dead refused to rise and march.
Light from a dead star can reach distant worlds. The Orpheus sank in 1863, but its relics - booms, boards, soldiers' buttons, bones - keep landing on Auckland's western shores. In 1976 Bill Barr posed with the iron bolts that had found him through Whatipu's surf. They were burdens. They pulled him deeper.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Art for a drowned island

Image result for manukau harbour from air

I've written for EyeContact about drowned islands, time travel, and Ihumatao.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Tiny's tradition

Clashes between far right & anti-fascist protesters in the Oregon city of Portland have made global news. But few journalists have mentioned that one of the leaders of Portland's neo-fascists is a Samoan. His name is Tusitala 'Tiny' Toese.

Toese was born in American Samoa, & apparently returns there regularly. He's considered the right hand man of Joey Gibson, the leader of the neo-fascist outfit Patriot Prayer, & also associates with the more famous Proud Boys outfit.

Toese has 17 convictions in the US, many for assault. He attends demonstrations wearing body armour, as well as a T shirt emblazoned with the slogan 'Pinochet did nothing wrong' & the acronym 'RWDS', which perhaps stands for Right Wing Death Squad.

According to a journalist who investigated Portland's far right scene, Toese features in a number of photographs that show members of Patriot Prayer & Proud Boys giving white supremacist hand signs. Toese himself does not make the signs.

How can a man with brown skin help to lead a white racist group? When I read the story of Tiny Toese, my mind went back to some eerie images that journalist & historian Michael Field has acquired, & posted on the internet. The images show members of the Samoan Nazi Party, which thrived in the 1930s.

The Samoan Nazi Party was founded & led by Alfred Matthes, an expatriate German, but many of its members had Polynesian blood; others were Jewish. Matthes' wife was Tongan; two of his afakasi sons died fighting for Hitler on the Eastern Front during World War Two. The Samoan Nazis engaged in a bizarre correspondence with Hitler's regime, which was less than happy with the non-Aryan complexion of Matthes' party. The Germans even commissioned a report into the racial status of Polynesians.

In The Politics of Nostalgia, his 1987 book about NZ's far right, Paul Spoonley reported that some members of Christchurch's skinhead gangs were Samoan. They justified their membership by saying they had German ancestors; this lineage made them superior even to their Anglo-Saxon gangmates.

Like the Samoan Nazi Party, Tiny Toese makes us aware of the essential irrationality of racism, & the arbitrary nature of the boundaries drawn up between races. It is politics & prejudice, & not any sort of science, that separates the chosen from the untermensch.

In his superb book The Devil's Handwriting, George Steinmetz shows how many early German visitors to Samoa insisted locals were 'white'. These visitors were both impressed by Samoans & sure whiteness was a measure of value; hence their determination to make Polynesians white.

In 16th & 17th centuries, the people of Cornwall were regarded as dark-skinned barbarians by England's rulers & writers; their county was named West Barbary, after the region in North Africa. Irish & Highland Scots were also often considered 'black' by England's establishment.

Northumbrian historian Alastair Bonnett has tried to trace arbitrary & shifting understandings of race by reading old texts. He reports that in the 19th century the English working class was regarded by many of that country's elite as dark-skinned & barbarous.

Bonnett reports a visit that an aristocratic English general made to the trenches of the Western front during World War One. Soldiers were washing themselves during a lull in fighting. 'I did not think the working class was so white!' the general exclaimed.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Reviving Zealandia

I will be verbally desecrating central Auckland's New Zealand Wars memorial & statue of Zealandia tomorrow, at an Artspace event. The event is perhaps pertinent, because a new white supremacist outfit has chosen Zealandia as a mascot.
Zealandia was conceived by 19th century colonists as the younger sister of Britannia, the female personification of Britain. For decades Zealandia was popular. Statues & stamps honoured her. She was almost forgotten, but now white supremacists want to redeploy her.
Action Zealandia has apparently risen from the ashes of the Dominion Movement, an alt-right outfit that dissolved itself after the terrorist attacks in Christchurch. The new group offers the same old cliches about white power & the evils of multiculturalism & miscegenation.
At Auckland's memorial, a bare-breasted Zealandia lays a wreath in honour of British troops, colonists, & 'friendly Maoris' who supposedly won freedom in the NZ Wars. Last year activists put a tomahawk, feared weapon of Kingite guerrillas during the Waikato War, through her head.
The New Zealand Wars were fought with symbols as well as rifles. In many of the towns of the Waikato, space itself groans under the demands of the past. Conquerors of Ngaruawahia, the Maori king's capital, relaid the town's streets, so that they made the shape of the Union Jack.
I see white supremacists' embrace of Zealandia as a sign of their cultural confusion. On the one hand, they claim to be New Zealand nationalists; on the other hand, they defer to European ancestors, & deny the rights of the indigenous people of these islands.
Zealandia was the creation of Britons, & she is clearly junior to, & subordinate to, Britannia. She makes a poor symbol for nationalists, which is perhaps why she was largely abandoned by the NZ state in the late 20th century.
The name of the Dominion Movement, the predecessor to Action Zealandia, also showed up a cultural confusion. It was supposed to allude to ARD Fairburn's long poem, which criticised & satirised Depression-era NZ.
But Fairburn's 'Dominion' was hardly a clarion call for New Zealand nationalists. Like his friend Allen Curnow, Fairburn mocked colonial New Zealanders as avaricious & ignorant: poor material for a culture.
I suspect that the white nationalists who latched onto Fairburn's poem were keen to find a local intellectual they could identify with. But the sceptical temper that Pakeha intellectuals have tended to adopt towards their country makes such an appropriation difficult. 

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Going nuclear

We drive up South Kaipara Peninsula, towards the nuclear power station the Holyoake government planned in '66. I look over mud and mangroves, looking for three concrete chimneys t rise from the harbour, like the necks of taniwha or the rotten fangs of anglers' landings.
Cerian tells me, again, that the plants was never built. But I sense another iteration of reality, where protesters never raised placards, where the Maui gas field sat undiscovered, where the mangroves were pulled up like toheroa, where theodolites rooted themselves in vacant mud.
We reach the lagoon, which is greay and heavy, like Chernobyl's concrete sarcophagus. Cracks spread across its surface. I roll down the window, feel the ions prick my cheek, taste metal on my tongue. In an hour the sun will set, an A bomb in reverse.

Saturday, July 13, 2019


Modern consciousness is medieval. Reports in our newspapers repeat narratives told by campfirelight centuries ago. Recently police went searching through a Northland wood; they found a meth lab, guarded by huge sodden ferns, and a missing man.

The man's family had declared him missing; they had no idea he had a secret lab, a secret life, in the bush. Out there, away from the panoptic gaze of townsfolk, the man turned from an ordinary citizen into a drug-making monster. The transformation is ancient.

For centuries Europe's witch hunters were tormented and titillated by stories of Satanic sabbaths, of men and women sidling away from their villages, and gathering, in moonlit forest clearings, to win occult powers with orgies and other offerings. Witches were ordinary people transformed by trees, night, secrecy.

The obsession with witches' sabbaths found its way into early European accounts of Pacific religions. In his book The Savage South Seas, E Way Elkington gives a gothic account of ni-Vanuatu men meeting in the jungle to drum and dance through the night.

The New Zealand Herald's report on the missing man and his meth lab is structured like an inquisitor's report on a witches' sabbath. The man entered the forest, shed his social identity, was possessed by evil, and used occult technology to produce a poison he planned to bring back to civilisation. He was, is, a witch; he will be tried, condemned.