Friday, February 06, 2009

War in the head

One hundred and forty-one years ago Gilbert Mair, founder and leader of the feared Arawa Flying Column, chased a man named Aporo into a cave under a waterfall near Tauranga and shot him dead. The killer caught his breath, then began to rifle through Aporo's tatty garments. Mair was hoping to find a message from one of the rebel Maori villages hidden in the densely forested ranges behind Tauranga harbour, or perhaps even a map showing the trails that led into the ranges, and the network of pa that guarded the approaches to the rebel villages.

What Mair found in Aporo's jacket pocket surprised him. The rebel had been carrying a notebook, but instead of instructions from headquarters or maps of the local terrain it was full of strange black and white drawings. Mair turned the pages, bewildered by the depictions of giant pillars, exploding suns, and impossibly large battle machines. Anti-colonial slogans and cryptic, apparently religious phrases were scattered across the pages.

Aporo's Book of Dreams has baffled and thrilled generations of scholars. The massive war machines in several of Aporo's drawings have proven particularly difficult for historians to interpret. How was Aporo able to imagine these devices, which today remind us of scenes from science fiction films? Could he have been making blueprints for machines that he and his fellow rebels aimed to build? How could a small band of bedraggled, poorly armed men possibly entertain such a conceit? Did Aporo hope that supernatural forces would bring the machines of death down to Aotearoa and drive the invaders into the sea?

Scholars have tended to suggest that Aporo's war machines were exercises in wishful thinking, scrawled on rainy nights in the bush by a man caught inextricably in the nightmare of war. For all its plausibility, this interpretation ignores the different levels upon which war can be fought. The anti-colonial struggle of Aporo and his comrades proceeded on a conceptual as well as a military plane. Aporo and his band of fighters were all 'Hauhaus' - followers of the Pai Marire religion which had been founded a few years earlier in the Taranaki by the prophet Te Ua. Like Te Kooti, whose own prophetic career was just beginning when Aporo was shot, Te Ua turned the white man's Bible on its head, making the Old Testament a history of the Maori people and the Book of Revelations a prophecy of the defeat of the invaders. Te Ua's followers pronounced their superiority over the adherants of other religions, and revived many Maori cultural practices that white missionaries had tried to stamp out.

Some historians have bemoaned the transition of Pai Marire from peaceful religious movement to violent resistance struggle, but it was always inevitable that the doctrine of Te Ua would lead to the wars Aporo and others fought. Anglican missionaries had been an essential part of the invasion force which poured into Aotearoa in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Bishop Augustus Selwyn had marched beside General Cameron at the head of the twelve thousand strong army that crossed the borders of the Waikato Kingdom in 1863. Anglican churches in war zones like Franklin and Wanganui were built with especially thick walls, and had rifle holes cut into their sides, so that they could become makeshift blockhouses whenever Maori raiding parties approached. By dethroning the white man's God and proclaiming the righteousness of resistance, Te Ua inevitably provoked the wrath of the invader.

Aporo's drawings can be considered part of the conceputal counter-offensive that Te Ua began. His depictions of invincible war machines and an apocalyptic end to the British occupation of Aotearoa are not just flights of whimsy - they are attempts to make the notion of British defeat and Maori supremacy imaginable, in the face of colonial politicans' talk about racial superiority and missionaries' condemnations of Maori culture. Like Blake's visions of the divine judgement of the Britain's King and London's industrialists, Aporo's Book of Dreams is a righteous and furious thought experiment.

Maori have not ceased to challenge the imagery and mythology of colonialism. Four years ago, at a ceremony held to mark the entrance of the Waitangi Tribunal into the rohe of the Tuhoe people, Tame Iti fired an antique gun into a New Zealand flag laid on the grass outside Ruatoki marae. Iti's act prompted outrage amongst sections of the Pakeha population of New Zealand, and led to the massive police raid on a Ruatoki 'terror cell' in October 2007. With his rotund figure, his outdated rifle, and his high public profile, Tame Iti seems an unlikely guerrilla, yet the New Zealand state sent scores of armed men on a dawn raid to capture him and a few of his followers, and then made a farcical attempt to charge him with terrorism. The fear that Iti continues to inspire amongst many Pakeha comes not from his military prowess, but from his conceptual offensive against the New Zealand state. By attacking the New Zealand flag with the same sort of colonial musket that the Hauhaus used, Iti desecrates a symbolic order which is as important to the legitimacy of the state as the guns of the army and the batons of the police. Like Aporo's visionary drawings, Iti's performance art is a declaration of war.

Brett Graham is an artist from the Ngati Koroki subtribe of Tainui, and his recent exhibition Campaign Rooms was conceived as a response to the October 2007 police invasion of Tame Iti's homeland. Speaking to the New Zealand Herald about his show, Graham noted that Tainui had been given back an old air base at Te Rapa as part of their 1995 settlement with the Crown. 'I've been fantasising about the weapons we might be building there', he said, in an effort to explain the sculptures, drawings and film he placed in the lower floor of Auckland's Two Rooms gallery.

Graham’s show was dominated by two ‘Maorified’ Stealth bombers sculpted from a mixture of wood and bronze. With a wonderful disdain for the principles of aerodynamics, Graham covered his bombers with carvings of a variety of motifs from traditional Maori art. (There are precedents for Maori treating non-traditional weapons in this way: the Auckland War Memorial Museum museum displays a musket which was covered in carvings by an anonymous soldier in Te Kooti’s army.) Graham’s exhibition also included a series of intricate and sinister blueprints for his bombers, a large work called Spirit of Aloha made from scrap metal salvaged in Hawaii, and a short, eerie film showing a young man dressed in hybrid Polynesian-Arab clothing performing a war dance.

Campaign Rooms has the same provocative qualities as Tame Iti’s performance at Ruatoki marae in 2005. Like the shot Iti fired at the New Zealand flag, Graham's exhibition is a symbolic attack on a state many Maori still associate with injustice and violence.

Yet Graham’s art is capable of working at a deeper, subtler level than Iti’s bellicose gestures. Campaign Rooms challenges the ideology of colonialism, as well as the state that the colonial era has bequeathed us. Graham’s unashamed use of ‘gratuitous’ surface decoration, for instance, represents a rejection of the modernist aesthetic that seduced many Maori sculptors in the decades after World War Two. In his Herald interview, Graham noted that his own father was a carver and sculptor who was persuaded to abandon traditional Maori decorative motifs in favour of the ‘clean lines and smooth surfaces’ promoted by modernist gurus like Henry Moore and Le Corbusier. The theoreticians of visual modernism talked about creating a ‘universal style’, and often connected their aesthetics to progressive, internationalist politics. Le Corbusier, for instance, was a socialist who associated gratuitous ornamentation of buildings and sculptures with the decadence of bourgeois society. In retrospect, though, we can see that the universalism of modernism hid a strong residue of imperial hubris. The ‘clean lines’ and ‘smooth surfaces’ that many modernist sculptors and architects celebrated remind us of nothing so much as the skylines of First World cities. Le Corbusier’s disastrous attempts to create an ‘ideal city’ in the heart of India revealed the distance between his chilly sensibility and the culture of the people he wanted to ‘liberate’. In New Zealand, Graham suggests, modernism was the aesthetic corollary of assimilationism, the government policy that sought to ‘mainstream’ Maori by making them abandon their culture.

By creating innovative work which nevertheless acknowledges the baroque, fantastic qualities of his people’s traditional art, Graham reminds us of some of the visionary Maori masterpieces of the nineteenth century, like Aporo’s Book of Dreams and the painted meeting houses of Te Kooti. Despite his intense interest in Maori experience, Graham eschews any sort of cultural nationalism. The work that was gathered in Campaign Rooms reaches out beyond Aotearoa to the northern Pacific and North Africa. Spirit of Aloha is a comment on the situation of the Hawaiian people, who lost their independence at the end of the nineteenth century and have since seen large parts of their turangawaewae turned into an American scrapyard.

For its part, Graham's movie alludes to a painting by Joshua Reynolds which dressed a young Polynesian up in the garb that European painters of the eighteenth century normally gave to North Africans. For Reynolds and many of his comtemporaries, both the Arabs and the Polynesians were defined by their ‘otherness’, rather than by any positive traits. As such, they were the object of both hysterical fear and patronising curiousity. Graham's film reminds us that a similar ignorance has caused some European New Zealanders to make both radical Maori and Muslims into bogeymen in the years since 9/11. The media’s wild claims that Tame Iti had links to Islamist terror groups, and the nicknaming of his non-existent armed group ‘Te Qaeda’ illustrate this phenomenon. In an era when sellout Maori politicians hobnob with Tories on Waitangi Day, Brett Graham's art reminds us that not all of the indigenous people of Aotearoa have forgotten the legacy of Aporo and other rebels against injustice. Campaign Rooms is a worthy successor to Aporo's Book of Dreams and this country's other great works of visionary protest.


Blogger Richard said...

Maps - this is a fascinating post - I didn't know this art gallery existed - I see where it is now and I would like to take a look. Unless it is over?

Here your art history studies and studies of your own on Maoritanga come to fruition - you write so well on these issues...

You could write for art mags, the listener or similar, the TLS or "radical outlets" or working class and others (the "glosseys" pay well) - but it's good you keep us informed on here - that art by Graham is great - get's to the point...

Tama iti is an artist himself is he not? I've always liked him - or what I know of him (the idea of him!) - I did met him briefly once...

I played that You Tube thing of him blasting the flag about a 100 times!
I hate nationalism and Tory flags & crap like that but I love the idea of a Maori flag and Tama iti blasting our stupid flag!!

I see a lot of other people got he same buzz as me!! Thousands of hits...

Those Stealth bombers Graham has "mauled about" and carved on, are the sign that points to the real terrorists... the major Imperialist Murder Powers such Britain and the US and Co in Iraq and Afghanistan etc

11:36 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you are sincere about opposing racism, maybe you should tell art historian Paul Litterick of the blog Fundy Post not to call Tame Iti a big fat stinky Maori:

'After all, the leader of this alleged conspiracy allegedly is Tame Iti, allegedly New Zealand's most ridiculous man. Mr Iti is known to us all for his calculated acts of bombast and self-regard. He blows his nose at the feet of Government Ministers; he rides horses bareback and bare-chested, perhaps trying to imitate the Burger King girls; he struts about in a kilt and a pill-box hat, again bare-chested, obviously unaware of passing of the 19th Century. He is no stranger to controversy but obviously a stranger to Jenny Craig. He fires a gun into the air as an act of defiance, just like all those blowhards in Palestine and points east. He demands, he struts, he proclaims, he makes Brian Tamaki look modest and self-effacing. And he fancies himself as an artist, having exhibited his paintings in a Parnell gallery. Trust me on this, I'm an Art Historian: these pompous, self-important gits always think they are artists.'

9:52 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Info about Te Rapa...

RNZAF Station Te Rapa

This was a dedicated stores depot

Runways - none known, though Te Rapa district had an airstrip nearby

Meaning of Airfield Name - Te Rapa was the name of the rural farming district north of Hamilton where the station was established.

Royal New Zealand Air Force

North of Hamilton

This site was chosen over one being considered in the Franklyn district further north, to become the site of the RNZAF's main stores depot. Prior to 1942 most of the RNZAF's stores were kept at Hobsonville, but after the Japanese entered the war, it was considered that the Auckland station was too vulnerable to attack from carrier-borne aircraft.

Te Rapa was chosen as it was sufficiently inland from both coasts to prevent air attack, and it was also on the main trunk railway line. Plus it was close to Hamilton, and the land at Te Rapa was very rural so a new station would not disrupt too much surrounding it.

Whilst Te Rapa was being planned and built, No. 1 Stores Depot moved to central Hamilton, as detailed above. The construction was undertaken by the Public Works Department, and several large builings were planned as stores hangars. Disaster struck however, after the concrete foundations had been laid for these large buildings, the RNZAF Works Officer arrived to inspect rhe work, and to his horror found the concrete floors were all in the wrong places. They had been planned in a specific way so a branch line from the main railway could be diverted into the station and carriages could load and unload directly into the buildings. However the PWD crew had somehow gotten the plans up the wrong way and the foundations were laid backwards. It was found that the way the layout was now, it was impossible to lay a railway line, which was vital. So it was decided to rip out all the concrete and start again. This caused considerable delay and extra cost to the project. In the end one of the hangars in the plans was dropped to save time and money.

Once open, the station was to house all spares for most of the northern North Island stations. After the war Te Rapa became the stores for all of the RNZAF bases, till the stores system was decentralised and the base closed in 1992.

Opened as RNZAF Station: 10th of April 1942
Closed as RNZAF Station: 1992

After the closure of RNZAF Te Rapa in 1992, the base was given to local Maori tribe Tainui, and for many years it became more and more degraded, till all of the once pristine buildings were run down and eventually removed or demolished. Sadly little was done to preserve the historic and commercially useful buildings and warehouses. Even the modern buildings disappeared. Only the Married Quarters remained.

In late 2004 and 2005 the land, by now a big empty field, was redeveloped to become a retail area, with nothing but chain stores blotting the landscape. And ironically after the base itself had been destroyed and it's warehouses removed, the most prominent blot onthe landscape now is 'The Warehouse', and they've called the retail box area 'The Base'. Oh dear...

11:47 am  
Blogger Richard said...

He's in the public eye and will get this kind of satirical stuff - it sounds harmless - Tama iti is a big boy...

He is rather rotund but then so are many of us ... There is a comical side to shooting the stupid flag after all!!

Good on old Tama this Paul fellow has different views - perhaps Maps will give him a blast though...

Churchill did art - to some he was hero ... to others pompous old fellow - I used to admire the old chap myself. After all he wiped the Jerrys with one had behind his back...despite the huge cigars he smoked and the copious amounts of brandy he consumed...

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Blogger maps said...

Alas, Richard, Graham's show wound up at the end of December. The gallery sent me these pics so I'd been meaning to get round to reviewing it. Nice gallery to check out at any time though - it's in Newton, off Great North Road (I posted a link)

5:17 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Maps - yes I realised it was finished - the gallery looks interesting though -

BTW I am back reading poetry live - see my latest Blog post

2:52 am  
Blogger Skyler said...

One of the most interesting exhibitions I've seen in a long time. He is talented and thought provoking - my current favourite artist

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Blogger Unknown said...

reading your blog about the exhibition sent a shiver down my spine. Its probably the most comprehensive piece of writing I've seen on anything I've made, you get it completely. I don't know if it's against the rules or not but i'd really like to have a chat to you 'kanohi ki te kanohi'


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