Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Claiming Pandora

New Zealand’s Prime Minister is applauding the news that James Cameron will film not one, not two, but three sequels to his hit movie Avatar in this country. According to John Key, the deal with Cameron means that Pandora, the world of skyscraping trees and floating mountains which provides the setting for Avatar, will become associated closely with the landscapes of New Zealand. Avatarians wearing blue face paint will join pointy-eared Tolkien geeks in queues at New Zealand’s airports and gift shops.
But New Zealand is not the only place laying claim to the strange landscape of Pandora. Some of the people of ‘Eua, a Manhattan-sized island in the far south of the kingdom of Tonga, believe that James Cameron developed the setting for Avatar after visiting their forested highland.

‘Eua is made of limestone, a substance that has always appealed to artistic imaginations. In his poem ‘In Praise of Limestone’, WH Auden celebrated the way that the soft, porous rock encourages ‘secret systems of caves and conduits’ and springs that ‘spurt everywhere with a chuckle’.  Like the Derbyshire downs that Auden loved, ‘Eua’s highland is distinguished by gaping caves, apparently bottomless sinkholes, and streams that disappear and reappear mischievously.
The relatively few tourists who visit ‘Eua are often directed to the highland, and to the giant banyan trees that emerge from the region’s caves and sinkholes. Rearing out of the uncertain earth, in the dank shade of their own uplifted branches, which bulge and knot like strained muscles, the banyans can be an exotic and discomforting spectacle for visitors accustomed to the flat, firm, meticulously cultivated landscape of Tongatapu, the island where three-quarters of Tongans live. The bats that flutter out of the earth and perch by the dozen on the lower branches of the banyans only add to the trees’ eeriness.
During the seven visits I have made to ‘Eua since 2010 I have repeatedly heard suggestions that James Cameron journeyed to the island, toured its highland, and took away with him the setting for the world’s most popular movie.

Some ‘Euans see a similarity between the Hometree, which rises a mile or so above the surface of Pandora, and their banyans. They also note that in Cameron’s movie the goddess of life, who is identified with the forests of Pandora, is known as Eywa. Cameron famously employed a team of linguists to create the language spoken by the indigenes of Pandora, but every invented tongue must have some real-life inspiration, and his employees have admitted borrowing certain words from Polynesian languages. The ‘Euans I have talked with maintain that the name Eywa is meant as a coded acknowledgement of Cameron’s debt to their island.
And yet the ‘Euan claims to ownership of Avatar only go so far. The islanders I have talked with about the film have proudly claimed the landscape of Pandora as their own, but have resisted identifying themselves with its indigenous heroes, the slender, blue-skinned, half-naked Na’vi.

With its portrayal of a clash between the simple, sensuous Na’vi and a gang of avaricious, technophiliac human miners, Avatar is a retelling of a very old European fable. Since the eighteenth century, when Rousseau and his disciples hailed the inhabitants of newly ‘discovered’ societies like Tahiti and America as ‘noble savages’ with lifestyles and values inimical to the grubby commercial world of Europe, Western intellectuals and artists have been idealising and patronising indigenous peoples.
The myth of the noble savage reached its intellectual apogee in the 1940s, when Alan Moorehead published The Fatal Impact, a book that argued for the complete incompatibility of indigenous culture and modernity. Surveying the recent history of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific, Moorehead could see only cultural corruption, and could predict only assimilation and extinction.

Moorehead’s perspective has been discredited amongst most scholars of Pacific history and culture, who point out that Tahitian or New Guinean culture is no less compatible with modern technology and economic development than German or Chinese culture, but his ideas have a lingering influence amongst well-meaning members of the First World left.

When Avatar appeared in 2009, a number of leftist commentators tried to see it as an allegory for the situation of indigenous peoples in the Pacific. The Kiwi activist Omar Hamed, for example, decided that Cameron’s movie celebrated the guerrillas armed with homemade, one-shot rifles and unexploded World War Two bombs who defeated Western-trained Papua New Guinea troops and shut down a huge copper and gold mine on Bougainville in the 1990s.
But where James Cameron’s noble savages see the very act of digging up the earth in search of precious metals as an act of unforgivable sacrilege, and want only to be left alone to live as hunter gatherers in the forests of Pandora, the members of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army were upset that they had not received reasonable royalties and decent jobs from the multinational company mining their island. They wanted to exert control of the mine, not close it down. Many of the BRA’s fighters were recruited from a cargo cult whose leaders had for decades been promising Bougainvilleans an avalanche of Western goods and cash. It was a craving for technology and wealth, not an aversion to these things, that motivated the Bougainvillean rebels.
Like the Bougainvilleans, Tongans have little enthusiasm for the lifestyle and values of the noble savage. The same ‘Euans who lay claim to the landscape of Avatar talk excitedly about the booming market for the tobacco grown on their island. They enthuse about tonnes of tobacco being loaded onto the ferry that connects ‘Eua and Tongatapu, about new land being planted with the crop, and about the much-needed cash the plant is bringing into villages. For them, Avatar seems primarily to be a celebration of the natural beauty of ‘Eua, rather than any sort of treatise about the dangers of economic development or the charms of the noble savage.
The selective appropriation of Avatar by ‘Euans would probably not surprise Sarina Pearson, who has studied the habits and attitudes of Tongan movie and television audiences. In her essay 'Video Night in Nuku’alofa', Pearson describes how audiences in Tonga’s capital are inclined to reinterpret foreign-made entertainments to suit their own values and purposes. In Nuku’alofa’s living rooms Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo movies become celebrations of Tongan military prowess, as John Rambobo is made into a mere adjunct to Tongan soldiers fighting the Japanese during World War Two.
Like Rambo, Avatar is a movie that has been localised. James Cameron’s interstellar drama has become a homage to the beauty of a small Tongan island.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

From the academy to 'Ata

Last week Markus, a long-time reader of this blog, made some pungent and pertinent comments about the difficulty that people outside Western universities often have in accessing the texts produced in those institutions. Most Western universities are funded from the public purse, but too many of the university-based journals in which academics publish research hide their contents behind firewalls. The tragedy of Aron Swartz, who broke into a huge academic database in an effort to liberate the information it held, and was rewarded with a campaign of legal harassment that led to his suicide, has helped to make the private ownership and commercial use of academic literature a topic of discussion over the last year, and a number of important journals have belatedly made their contents freely available online (I could while away a lifetime at the archive of the Journal of the Polynesian Society).

Markus' comments reminded me of an experience I had near the end of my recent stay in Tonga.

A day after the end of the academic year at the 'Atenisi Institute I rushed to Fua'amotu airport, a hot sheet of concrete set amidst the coconut and banana plantations of the southeastern corner of Tongatapu Island, and grabbed a flight on the small aeroplane that connects Tongatapu with 'Eua, the hilly, well-forested island which is home to the Kingdom of Tonga's southernmost present-day inhabitants. Along with Taniela Vao, a lay minister in the Free Wesleyan church and long-time scholar of Tongan society, I had been invited to visit Kolomaile, a village near the bottom of 'Eua with an obscure and tragic history.

The village was founded in 1863, after Australasian slavers raided 'Ata, a rugged but tiny island two hundred kilometres south of 'Eua, and made off with half of its population of three hundred or so. Alarmed by reports that the 'Atans had been transported to Peru, where slaves were being sought to work on plantations and in kitchens, King Tupou I ordered the evacuation of the island's remaining inhabitants to 'Eua.

I talked a little about this tragedy in a blog post which was eventually published in revised form in the Oceania issue of the Kiwi literary journal brief. Much more importantly, the distinguished historian Henry Maude devoted a few pages to the raid on 'Ata in Slavers in Paradise, a book which heroically catalogues the depredations of the dozens of ships that cruised the Pacific in search of captives in the 1860s. Nevertheless, the depopulation of Tonga's southernmost island remains a little-known event outside the kingdom. Even in Kolomaile, which is still home to most of the descendants of the 'Atans, some of the details of the raid and the events which followed it have become confused. Taniela and I had been invited to Kolomaile after a young woman from the village approached me and asked me what had happened to 'Ata, and why the 'Atans had come to live on 'Eua.
When we stumbled down a dark bush road to Kolomaile's kava club to meet a group of descendants of the 'Atans, Taniela and I carried bulging folders. The papers in our folders wouldn't have excited the average academic scholar of the Pacific. They weren't pages from some important unpublished manuscript, like a long-lost diplomatic paper or a missionary's diary. The folders Taniela and I were carrying were filled with texts - research papers, book reviews, archaeological reports, ornithologists' surveys - which had been published in a variety of academic journals, and which could have been downloaded in a few short minutes by any graduate student or staff member at a Western university.

And yet these texts, which are the work of the scholars who have visited 'Ata over the century and a half since the island was raided and evacuated, were treated as both a surprise and a treasure by the men and women we met in Kolomaile. These men and women had been raised with stories, some of them vague or apocryphal, about their ancestors' land, but had never seen photographs of its reefless approaches, high cliffs, and fertile plateau. They had wondered about how their ancestors had managed to survive on such a small and isolated island, but had never known what sort of the birds flew there and how many fish could be caught there. They had wondered how long their ancestors had lived on 'Ata, and debated different dates, but had not known about the layers of soil turned over by archaeologists, and the shards of delicate Lapita pottery which showed that the island had been inhabited two millennia ago.
After we had passed around some of the pages academics have devoted to 'Ata, Taniela and I began to talk with the residents of Kolomaile about their understanding of the past. I soon ran out of Tongan, and was forced to put up with a lecture on theology by a kava-drunk Baptist who had emigrated from Tongatapu to Kolomaile, but Taniela talked for hours with the holder of the Halahala, one of the two traditional titles associated with 'Ata, and made notes in his carefully elegant script.

"Some facts are jumbled or missing" Taniela told me the next morning, when we sat beside the Tongatapu channel scanning the water for passing whales and recovering from kava hangovers. "The date 1887, rather than 1863, is given for the raid. And the 'Atan surnames are sometimes lost. People don't necessarily know the names their ancestors on 'Ata had." He stopped, and grinned wryly. "Or perhaps they do know the names, but are ashamed."

Taniela was referring to the offensive myths about the 'Atan past which have circulated for many years on 'Eua. The young woman who had asked us to help her research her family history reported being teased "for not being Tongan" when she was growing up, and being told that she should leave 'Eua and go home to her remote rock in the sea. The descendants of the leader of the Tongan community in 1863, a man named Paula Vehi who had spent time in Australia and learnt some English, have often been told that their ancestor was a traitor who colluded with the slavers to send his own kin to oblivion in Peru. As the scholarly literature which has been devoted to 'Ata shows, neither of these stories has any credibility. The archaeological record demonstrates that 'Atans were culturally Tongan, and in regular contact with more northerly Tongan islands. And an analysis of the movements of the slavers who struck 'Ata shows that they would never have had the chance to meet and liase with Paula Vehi. Without access to the discoveries that academics have made during visits to their homeland and to Australasian archives, though, the people of Kolomaile have found it hard to dispel laukovi.

As far as I could tell, Taniela and I were the first outside scholars to visit the village of Kolomaile and talk with its people about their past since 1921, when EW Gifford turned up there. Gifford's monograph Tongan Society collects thousands of pieces of folklore from across the kingdom, and has been an important resource for scholars ever since its publication at the end of the 1920s. Nobody seems to have introduced Gifford's opus to the people of Kolomaile, though: when I showed them the sections of the text devoted to 'Ata, they seemed bemused.

The disconnect between the academics who have studied 'Ata and the descendants of the people who lived on 'Ata for millennia symbolises, for me, the sort of indifference that Markus complained about last week. I am planning on keeping in touch with the people of Kolomaile, and making sure they are no longer excluded from the discourse about their ancestors.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, December 12, 2013


 Apologies for the lack of posts here in recent days. Cerian, Aneirin and I have been driving up and down Te Ika a Maui's Highway One in an elderly and possibly consumptive truck, retrieving massive lumps of furniture from the garages and cellars of relatives and friends who may have doubted whether we would ever return permanently from Tonga and resume life in our West Auckland villa. We're moving back in tomorrow, and I'm looking forward to some quality research, blogging, and barbequing time.

In the meanwhile, here are a few shots taken somewhere inside my head, an object which hasn't quite decided whether it is floating down Highway One, through the gorges and pine plantations of continental New Zealand, or along Taufa'ahau Road, past smelly lagoon water and pigeon-hunting mounds and stalls selling bananas the size of mortar shells.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Raiders of the lost Thompson

When I read about the discovery of long-lost manuscripts I feel the same tremor of excitement I got watching Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark in the Papakura Movie Theatre back in 1982. The History Workshop Journal has marked the twentieth anniversary of EP Thompson's death by publishing a hitherto obscure essay by the great man, and they've done me the honour of quoting my book on Thompson in their introduction to this taonga. I'm just sorry that I didn't discover the essay in 2005, when I was a barbarous PhD student ransacking the monkish libraries of Albion in search of Thompsoniana...

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Why Tevita Latu is the new Lou Reed

In a morose and provocative column for the Guardian, Suzanne Moore has argued that the recent death of Lou Reed, the revered frontman and wildman of the Velvet Underground, symbolises the end of avant-garde art. Moore was one of a generation inspired, in the 1960 and ‘70s, by Reed’s droning, gorgeous songs about heroin addiction, gender bending, mental illness, and other subjects considered taboo by postwar Western societies. For Moore, the Velvet Underground was a link to Dadaism, Surrealism, and the other great avant-garde art movements of the early twentieth century. Like Tristan Tzara and the young Picasso before him, Lou Reed rejected the values of the society around him, and made art which celebrated an alternative set of values.

Suzanne Moore can find few twenty-first century artists with Lou Reed’s subversive qualities. Instead of wanting to shock and change the world, today’s artists are content, she thinks, to entertain the masses and make money. Moore regards the success of Lady Gaga, who commercialises old Velvet Underground themes like sexual strangeness and drug use by attaching them to a disco beat and a slick stage show, as proof that avant-garde art is dead.
Suzanne Moore’s column prompted more than four hundred comments on the Guardian website. Many readers complained that Moore had failed to acknowledge the musicians, painters, and writers who are producing innovative work in the twenty-first century, instead of following Lady Gaga’s lead and focusing on money-making. Such complaints are reasonable, but they do not necessarily invalidate Moore’s argument. 
Although there are many twenty-first century artists trying to extend the avant-garde tradition, their work does not have the impact on our culture that the paintings of Picasso had in the 1920s and the songs of Lou Reed had in the 1970s. The truth is that, in the Western world, at least, the avant-garde has lost its ability to shock and excite.
Innovative art no longer moves us because art in general no longer occupies a truly important place in our culture. It is hard, now, to remember the days when avant-garde artists were courted by politicians – when the Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky signed a joint manifesto with Andre Breton, the founder of Surrealism, and the poet Pablo Neruda was invited to run for the presidency of Chile by one of the country’s largest parties. In the early 1970s, when Lou Reed was in his decadent prime, the novelist Norman Mailer was running for the mayoralty of New York City, relying largely on his prestige as a writer to win votes. Where artists were once considered the critics and consciences of Western society, they are now treated simply as workers in a sub-branch of the entertainment industry.
But avant-garde art is not dead everywhere, because not every society has followed the path of the West by trivialising and depoliticising high culture. If Suzanne Moore wants to meet some young artists who are following the same sort of exhilarating and precarious path as Lou Reed, then she should come to Tonga and drink a few cups of kava at the Seleka Club.
Located in an outer suburb of the Tongan capital of Nuku’alofa, beside a particularly polluted stretch of lagoon, the Seleka Club consists of a couple of fale built with coconut fronds and salvaged timber. Almost every night of the week dozens of young painters, sculptors, and musicians gather in the club to drink cup after cup of kava and make art on a long, paint-flecked table.
Inside the Seleka Club all of the conventions of Tongan culture and society are turned upside down. Kava, the sacred traditional drink of chiefs and priests, is consumed from a toilet bowl; female and fakaleiti (transgender) Tongans drink beside men; a Tongan flag vandalised with a satirical swastika hangs in the tropical air; guests are given secret ‘Selekarian names’, based on bizarre and sometimes blasphemous puns; and the sentimentally patriotic songs performed in more conventional kava clubs are replaced with recordings of dubstep and death metal tracks made by Seleka members.
When they are not holed up in their fale, the Selekarians rumble around Tonga in a truck covered in the same psychedelic paintings and half-silly, half-dangerous slogans – ‘GOD DIED OF DARWIN NOT DEATH ITSELF’ is a typical Seleka phrase - as the bus driven across America in the 1960s by Ken Kesey’s Band of Merry Pranksters.
The Seleka Club is led by Tevita Latu, a young man from one of Tonga’s most respected families. Latu’s father was the first Tongan to receive a degree in science and a close friend of King Tupou IV, the autocratic ruler of Tonga for thirty-eight years. In 2005, during the senile last year of Tupou IV’s reign, a general strike shut down Tonga for five weeks, fifteen thousand people marched through Nuku’alofa, and a protest camp was established beside the royal palace.
It was in this febrile atmosphere that Tevita Latu exhibited some of his first art. Giving himself the tag Ezekiel, he covered Nuku’alofa’s walls with graffiti criticising his old family friend and calling for radical change.
Tupou IV finally died in the middle of 2006; a few months later a pro-democracy rally turned into a riot, and half of downtown Nuku’alofa burned to the ground. Martial law was declared, and New Zealand and Australian troops and police flew in to help Tongan security forces detain and torture hundreds of their enemies. Tevita Latu played no part in the riot, but the day after the event he noticed the chauffeured Rolls Royce of Tonga’s new king passing his family home with a military escort. Rushing outside, Latu held his fist in the air and shouted ‘Reformasi!’ He was seized, taken to Nuku’alofa’s central police station, beaten, and charged with treason. After nine days of torture Latu was released on bail; the charge of treason was eventually dropped.
Today Tevita Latu remains an enemy of Tonga’s sclerotic ruling class. While Western artists are either ignored or patronised by their society’s elite, Latu’s paintings both fascinate and anger Tonga’s nobility, its clergy, and its business class. The artist’s exhibition launches are crowded, disputatious affairs, where conservative Tongans demand explanations for his vividly recondite symbols, and ask him about his religious and political affiliations. Sometimes locals buy Latu’s works simply for the pleasure of vandalising them.
The outraged response to Latu reflects the seriousness with which Tongans view art. The Tongan intellectual and educator Futa Helu once said that in his country art had traditionally been considered a means to ‘the perfection of reality’. Whether they were poets, dancers, painters, or carvers, artists turned away from the flux and discord of the world, and made things of harmonious beauty. Art played, and continues to play, a crucial role in almost every Tongan social occasion. Tongan kings and queens have always kept poets, singers, and dancers in their courts. At weddings and funerals poems and dances express gladness or sadness, and mourners or partiers literally wrap themselves in art, by donning mats of beaten barkcloth that are often covered in intricate paintings.
Like the ritual and symbolism of the Seleka Club, Tevita Latu’s art both acknowledges and revolutionises conventional Tongan culture. Latu’s social method of work – his paintings and drawings are made in the midst of the crowd at his club – recalls the collectivism of barkcloth makers, carvers, and dancers, but the smoky, noisy, mixed gender environment of Seleka mocks the taboos which have traditionally surrounded art-making in Tonga. Latu’s works often seem designed to rescue some memorable event – a protest, or a party, or a swim in the lagoon – from the chaos and forgetfulness of the world, but they eschew the traditional Tongan search for harmony and clarity in favour of expressionist brushstrokes and fragmented perspectives. Latu often paints on barkcloth, but he prefers idiosyncratic images to the rigorously public symbolism used by most barkcloth artists. His works are full of Pacific imagery, but they offend cultural nationalists by putting Melanesian sailors in Tongan vaka, and by giving Tongan men and women an eerie, halo-like head dress borrowed from the gwion gwion style of Aboriginal painting.
Recently I bought an untitled painting on barkcloth by Tevita Latu. The work shows two men in pre-Christian dress standing on either side of a naked woman. Phrases of Tongan swirl around them. With their talk of family quarrels and sleeping with pigs most of the phrases made little sense to me, even when I knew their English translations. When I showed Latu’s painting to one of my Tongan students, though, he immediately recognised its allusions to the story of the Prodigal Son from the Gospel of Luke.
The Prodigal Son is a popular topic for Tonga’s preachers, and one of the most-sung hymns in the repertoire of the Free Wesleyan Church, the country’s dominant denomination, retells his story. But not all of Tongans view the Prodigal Son in the same way.
In his extended study of the role of the Free Wesleyans in Tongan society, Heneli Niumeitolu argues that the church has distorted the story of the Prodigal Son and many other passages in the Bible for political purposes. Niumeitolu points that the Free Wesleyan hymn about the Prodigal Son scolds him for ‘Oe ne foki ki ‘api kuo mole kotoa’ (‘Returning home with nothing’), and urges children to emulate his obedient, hardworking older brother. Most Christians regard the story of the Prodigal Son as a lesson in the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation, but Wesleyans keen to ensure support for Tonga’s monarchy have turned it into a lecture about the evils of rebellion and the wisdom of obeying authority.
Latu’s painting can be seen as an attack on the conservative wing of Tongan Christianity.  By depicting the son and his father in ‘pagan’ traditional dress, Latu mocks the nineteenth century Wesleyan missionaries who insisted that Christianity and ‘decent’ Western-style dress are inextricably linked, as well as the Tongan faithful who still swelter through summer services in dark suits and dresses. Latu’s Holy Land is tropical, and his Jews are Tongans.
The appearance of the Prodigal Son’s mother in Latu’s painting may seem strange, because she does not feature in the story told by the Bible. Along with others in the Seleka Club, though, Tevita Latu is critical of the patriarchal nature of Tongan society. Recently a group of Selekarians protested against the absence of women from Tonga’s parliament by producing a poster which showed a strange dragonwoman emerging from the ocean and throwing her shadow over the country’s largest island.
The female figure in Latu’s painting can be seen, then, as a feminist statement. Her nakedness may allude to the fate of the carved females who presided over shamanic ceremonies in the godhouses of pre-Christian Tonga. When the ancestor of today’s king Wesleyanised Tonga in a series of wars in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, he systematically and gleefully desecrated the godhouses of captured villages. Pigs were loosed in the sacred enclosures around the houses, and the carved goddesses were stripped of their barkcloth covering and hung by their necks from the rafters of their homes.
The Prodigal Son’s stolid older brother, who sulked outside the family home while his talented but erratic sibling was welcomed back with a feast, might be a hero to the Free Wesleyan Church, but he has no role in Latu’s painting.
It is not only the Prodigal Son’s brother, though, who is marginalised by Latu. The painting’s text includes ‘Alua’, a word Tongans use to say goodbye when someone is leaving them, and the Prodigal Son’s mother and father might be waving at him. The Prodigal Son has, it seems, returned from his time with the Pharisees, where he slept in a pig sty, but he has not been willing or able to remain permanently in his family home. The painting shows him going out on the road again. The conservative conclusion of the Biblical story as well as the authoritarian propaganda of the Free Wesleyan Church are rejected, and the Prodigal Son is shown as a free agent, neither estranged from nor entrapped by his parents and their culture. He is as proud and as courageous as the young man who raised a fist at Tonga’s king on the day after Nuku’alofa burned.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]