Monday, April 07, 2014

Kim Dotcom, Benjamin Work, and the Tongan swastika

In a blog post discussing the controversy over Kim Dotcom’s possession of a signed copy of Mein Kampf, Giovanni Tiso argues that collectors of fascist memorabilia tend to sympathise with that ideology. Giovanni’s argument may well hold true in Germany, in Austria, or in his native Italy, where fascist governments are a polarising historical memory. A German who breaks his or her country’s laws and acquires a copy of Hitler’s rambling, demented magnum opus, or flies, in a suitably obscure location, the Nazi flag, is determinedly stating a very unpleasant interpretation of history.

I am not sure, though, that most of the New Zealanders who collect the remnants of fascist power  feel sympathy towards Hitler or Mussolini. I was particularly interested in Giovanni’s post, because I have been writing a review of an exhibition by Benjamin Work, a young Tongan-New Zealand artist who is fascinated by Nazi imagery.

Last October Work covered a wall in Glen Innes, a suburb of Auckland with a large Polynesian population, with a rectangle of bright red paint. At the centre of this rectangle Work painted a white circle, and inside his circle he placed a minimalist portrait of the Tu’i Tonga, the priest-king who dominated the pre-Christian Friendly Islands and built an empire in the Western Pacific. By choosing the paint the Tu’i Tonga and his ceremonial head dress black, Work made viewers think, whether we wanted to or not, of the Nazi swastika.

I never saw Benjamin Work’s mural except in photographs that appeared on the internet. I was living in Tonga when he painted the piece, and I understand that it was soon erased. But I was both fascinated and disturbed by the mural, and began showing photographs of it to my friends and acquaintances in Tonga. In my classroom at the ‘Atenisi Institute and in the kava circles where Nuku’alofa’s artists and intellectuals gather, the painting provoked strong and conflicting opinions.
Some viewers interpreted Benjamin’s image as a condemnation of traditional, pre-Christian Tongan society. They believed that he was equating the Tu’i Tonga, a ruler who had the power to kill or copulate at will with his subjects, with Adolf Hitler, and suggesting that the empire which grew in the fifteenth and sixteen centuries, as Tongans raided and subjugated their neighbours, was the moral equivalent of the realm Hitler conquered in twentieth century Europe. Such a bleak view of the Tu’i Tonga era is not entirely surprising, because the Free Wesleyan Church, which has dominated Tonga’s religious life for the past century and a quarter, is fond of referring to the era before the arrival of Christianity in the Pacific as the ‘time of darkness’, when moral concepts were unknown and pagan priests, led by the Tu’i Tonga, practiced human sacrifice and other abominations. It is no coincidence that the Free Wesleyan church is the religious arm of Tonga’s modern royal dynasty, which used the bible and muskets to defeat the Tu’i Tonga line and unify Tonga in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Other viewers saw the painting as a sinister, because sympathetic, allusion to the little-known activities of Nazis in Western Polynesia during the 1930s and ‘40s. Germany has strong historical connections with Western Polynesia: Samoa was part of the German Empire from 1900 until 1915, and a treaty of friendship between Bismarck and Tonga’s first modern king saw German companies operating in Nuku’alofa and Vava’u as early as the 1880s.

New Zealand’s misadministration of Samoa after its invasion of the country in 1914 helped to create nostalgia, especially amongst locals with German and part-German ancestry, for the era of rule from Berlin. The Nazis came to power in 1933, and were soon demanding the return of the colonies Germany had lost on the battlefields of World War One and in the conference rooms of Versailles. Local Nazi parties were founded in many countries to support this goal, and a ‘world headquarters’ of the Nazi movement was created in Hamburg.

By the late 1930s there was a small but ambitious National Socialist Party in Samoa, whose members planned an uprising against New Zealand rule and engaged in strained conversations with Hamburg about the proper interpretation of Hitler’s views on race (the Samoans’ would-be mentors in Germany were appalled when they learned that many of the party’s members were half-Samoan, and that a couple of them were even part-Jewish). After World War Two began in 1939, the Samoan Nazis began drilling in the bush and talking excitedly of a Nazi naval raid on the South Pacific; New Zealand administrators responded by deporting them to Somes Island, that strange community of refugees from and supporters of Nazi Germany in Wellington harbour.

The quixotic career of Samoa’s Nazi party has over the last decade attracted the interest of several scholars; the extent of Nazi influence in Tonga remains obscure. There are, nevertheless, some clues to suggest sympathy for Hitler amongst a least a section of the German population of the Friendly Islands.

Recently declassified papers written by American intelligence officers during World War Two include a report on a rumour that Germans Tongans were welcoming Nazi U boats to a small island in the northern Vava’u archipelago. Dieter Dyck, who emigrated to the South Pacific in the aftermath of World War Two, mentions in his autobiography that some of the Germans he met in Tonga held pro-Nazi views, even after the defeat of Hitler and the destruction of his Reich (Dieter, who is the father of well-known Tongan-New Zealand artist Dagmar Dyck, had no sympathy at all for such views). Today Tongans still tell stories about Nazi war criminals who supposedly fled to their country to escape justice after the war, and who are drinking themselves into senescence in some beachside bar or kava shack.

It is perhaps not surprising, given Tonga’s long association with Germany and the likely presence there, in the past, of a group of Nazi sympathisers, that some viewers of Benjamin Work’s mural have considered it an expression of sympathy for fascism. “I don’t think a Jewish person would like to look at that” ‘Ilaisa Helu, the son of legendary Tongan intellectual Futa Helu and an authority in his own right on Tongan history, told me after examining a photograph of the mural.

Some viewers, though, took a much more positive attitude to Benjamin’s mural, seeing it as an anti-imperialist declaration of Tongan pride. By appropriating the most infamous symbol of European racism and stamping it with a portrait of a Polynesian king, Work was, these viewers argued, celebrating the triumph of Tonga over the European nations that tried, unsuccessfully, to colonise it in the nineteenth century, and also reminding us of the prestige of the Tu’i Tonga’s ancient empire.

During the talk he gave at Fresh gallery in Otara, which is hosting his debut solo exhibition I See Red, I See Red, I See Red, Benjamin Work offered an interpretation of the Glen Innes mural which seemed, to me at least, to support the view that the painting was intended as a celebration of Tongan independence, rather than as a condemnation of the past or an expression of sympathy for fascism.

“I grew up, as a half-caste in New Zealand, saturated with Western TV” Benjamin remembered, after I had asked him about the origins and meaning of the Glen Innes mural. “I was fascinated by movies about the war that played on television, and by the power of symbols like the swastika. Without in any way endorsing them, I wanted to use their power.”

Benjamin went on to explain that the streets close to the wall he painted in Glen Innes are full of Tongans, but that the kids who watched him at work on his mural didn’t even recognise the pala tavake and the Tu’i Tonga. Like Benjamin in the 1980s, and ‘90s, these kids were growing up with portrayals of World War Two, and they immediately recognised the Nazi origins of the imagery in his painting. By putting the sacred king of ancient Tonga into a shocking context, Benjamin hoped to make the young Tongans of Glen Innes think about their heritage.
When Benjamin talked at the Fresh Gallery about taking over the power but not the meanings of Nazi design, I was reminded of a passage in the acclaimed study of Maori architecture that Deidre Brown published in 2009. After noting that the followers of the prophet Wiremu Ratana adopted a Romanesque style when they raised temples in rural strongholds of their faith like Raetihi and Mangamuka, Brown argued that the Maori use of European architectural forms has to be understood in terms of whakanoa, a word that can signify both appropriation and desecration. Like an iwi seizing a waka from an enemy and redesigning it for their own use, Ratana’s followers were laying their hands on a style from imperialist Europe, defying the tapu surrounding this style, and making their use of the style into a source of mana.

If we interpret Benjamin Work’s Glen Innes mural in terms of whakanoa, then we might compare it to the appropriation and desecration of Nazi flags by Polynesian soldiers fighting their way through Europe in the last year of World War Two. When members of the Maori Batallion pulled a Nazi banner from the ruins of a captured fort and wrote their names and iwi over its formerly sacred white circle, they were desecrating an icon of white supremacism and expressing pride in their whakapapa and rohe. In the same way, Benjamin has arguably found a way to ‘use the power’ of Nazi imagery whilst overturning its meaning.

Giovanni is troubled by the extent of the contemporary trade in fascist memorabilia, because he has observed neo-fascists delighting in and profiting from that trade in Europe. I don’t mean to dismiss his concerns, but I wonder how many of the New Zealanders who collect memorabilia from the era of Hitler and Mussolini are acting on the same impulse that led Benjamin Work to create his extraordinary mural in Glen Innes. How many descendants of members of the Maori Battalion and other forces that battled fascism choose to collect objects like Nazi flags out of a desire for something resembling whakanoa?

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Nazi blood flag is relevant here.

10:36 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The NSDAP Blood Flag of the Munich (Bavaria) 9 November 1923 Putsch was the company flag of the 5th Munich SturmAbteilung (Stormtroopers) Company. The flag was confiscated by the Munich Green Police after they opened fire on the NSDAP (Nazi Party) revolutionary formation in front of the Bavarian Feldherrenhalle (Fallen Heroes' Hall). The Blood Flag (Blutfahne) was recovered from the Munich Police in 1925, remounted on a two part black pole with a special unique wreath flag top, the pole also contained a dedication plate listing the names of those killed in the Munich Putsch, whose blood by the way was also on the flag. The flag was borne by Traumbauer during the Putsch, and after 1925 at the party rallies by Grimminger. The flag was kept in the Munich NSDAP HQ called the Brown House, which had a flag museum in the downstairs hallway, that is until the U.S. 8th Air Force destroyed the building as well as most of Munich during the war. Parts of the flag were recoved by an American soldier upon the liberation and occupation of Munich in 1945. Copyright © B.Weed Collections 1996, All Rights Reserved.
Ben Weed, 17 November 1996

The statement that the flag was destroyed by American bombing and that an American soldier picked up fragments is probably incorrect. (Most likely vain bragging and wishful thinking if an American truly has fragments of something.) There have been repeated rumours in recent years that the Russians have the intact flag... Jakob Grimminger was the flag bearer. He died in obscurity in 1969. The flag was last seen in public in 1944.
T. F. Mills, 4 June 1999

The Blutfahne was though to have been made sacrosanct by the blood of the martyrs (i.e. the 16 Nazis who died during the Putsch) and was used to bless new party banners during the Nürnberg rallies by Hitler touching the new banner while holding the Blutfahne.
Marcus Wendel, 26 June 1999

10:52 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

If you hadn't said it was something to do with the Nazi flag (or I hadn't read this, and I saw it on that wall - I know where it is as I have photographed a lot of grafitti on it) - I wouldn't have connected it with the Swastika. I had to look it up on the internet. I could only recall the rather strange symbol...

After all a lot of Maori art has red and black in it. I don't think a lot of people would connect it with Nazism round here as (for example) my son couldn't tell me today when WW2 started. I sometimes talk to local Indians (I once saw a local checkout operator (Indian) whose name was Swastika - she didn't know anything about the Nazis) and they have no idea even who Hitler was, some of the locals know - but they are more likely to connect it (the wall art) to a pop group or a rugby team or maybe religion.

We used to see a bloke (married to a Maori woman in GI) and he was a keen Nazi and a collector, but he was pretty harmless - his wife just saw his interest as a kind of hobby. I think you overestimate the education levels round here Scott. Mine included as unless you or Benjamin Work had pointed out the connection. I mean the Swastika itself is missing.

However, flagologists will instantly make the connection no doubt.

But I also think that supression of people who want to deny the Holocaust or want to collect Nazi memorabilia is stupid. It is a restriction of freedom: I can see Tiso loving that. He always wants to have the "I am holier than thou last word" such people are nearly as dangerous as old Hitler and his mates.

I think the art is good. I don't see why it was taken down or erased. It's not as if he is doing it as a statement for Nazism (in which case it is up to those who find it offensive to take action - not the police or the Thought Police of the humourless Tisos of this world).

Interesting history otherwise.

12:16 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sadly the contemporary hard right has seized gio's post and used it
if fascism came to nz...would cam slater not be part of the game....?

9:26 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ben Work is selling his show out.

9:21 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

MPs are calling on the government to ban the sale of Nazi memorabilia after items belonging to Holocaust victims were sold at a public auction.

This comes after a tray presented to Hitler as a 50th birthday present went for £28,000 in Bristol last week.

A Commons motion, tabled by Labour MP Fabian Hamilton, condemns this as "profiteering on items promoting and glorifying hatred and violence".

Nazi memorabilia sales are illegal in France, Germany, Austria and Hungary.

Large UK auction houses like Christie's, Sotheby's and Bonhams refuse to sell such material, as does e-Bay.

The silver tray sold last week by Dreweatts Auction House in Bristol, had been expected it to sell for £1,000.

It bears the Nazi leader's personal German eagle crest and initials, and was a gift from his chief architect Albert Speer, who later became Germany's minister of armaments.

Last month, a surgical equipment set believed to have been owned by Major Anton Burger, commandant of the Theresienstadt concentration camp during World War II, was withdrawn from an auction in Cornwall after phone and email threats.

The parliamentary motion has been signed by Mr Hamilton, who represents Leeds North East, as well as Lib Dem Stephen Williams and Labour's Mike Gapes, MPs for Bristol West and Ilford South.

It says: "That this House deeply deplores the sale of dozens of items of Nazi memorabilia, including items of oppression belonging to Holocaust victims, which was held on 6 March 2012 by Dreweatts Auction House in Bristol."

It also "decries the profiteering on items promoting and glorifying hatred and violence" and "applauds" firms which have banned such sales.

And it urges ministers to "bring in immediate regulation and control of this abhorrent trade".

10:19 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Richard,

interesting that you didn't see a Nazi connection. On facebook, where Ben posted a link to this piece, a couple of folks said the same thing. But at the Tongatopix site, where I posted a link, the connection has apparently been readily recognised - and not necessarily enjoyed. here's a comment:

i have a real hate on the nazi's and their view point, maybe thats why i reject this artwork. I have great grandparents that were taken from tonga to prison camps in nz because nazis and imperialist japan went on a conquering buzz. Germans and Japanese people are algud, but nazi's? The symbols they used to spread fear and propaganda deserve no spotlight in my view. Imagine Tonga started a war against a country and all the Tongans in america, nz, auz are rounded up and sent to prison camps, not really fair ay
Tui Tonga was just like other kings around the world, the ambitious ones seeked to expand their territory.

10:31 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

During his talk at Fresh Benjamin implied that the GI kids watching him work had seen the Nazi allusion.

Ben told an interesting and somewhat depressing story about another recent commission, in a poor suburb of Whangarei, where he was working with a Maori artist. The two of them had created a mural which showed NZ's oficial flag morphing into the tino rangatiratanga banner, but Benjamin was confronted when he began to give the TR flag its necessary red, and informed that the colour was unwelcome, because of its association with the Mongrel Mob. Ben was working in a solidly Black Power neighbourhood, and he began to feel rather unsafe...

10:35 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Here's a link to that Tongatopix discussion:
I think most of the people at that site are busy arguing over which of Tonga's four island groups has the prettiest girls, at the moment...

10:37 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I didn't see that in situ. I would be surprised if many around here would notice it looked like a Nazi flag, especially young people, as we are in a poor, not particularly highly educated area (I doubt many like my son can actually tell the difference between WW1 and WW2 as those wars are so far off - and for people outside of Europe, more or less irrelevant; and while (certain) older people might recognize it I probably wouldn't but then I tend to see things in kind of absolutely literal way. That is I see the thing that is there as what it is in a kind of phenomelogical sense. (Not that I would express it to myself that way). Of course I am aware of symbolism: but I see a picture of (well the picture you showed) [I really wished I'd known it was there as that place is important to me, on the site of my school, and with those fascinating examples of graffiti, many of which I have photographed - like George and Gilbert I love graffiti! but while I have several hundred photographs of graffiti I haven't got the vast collections they have, or their enormous collection of footpath chewing gum!!) as being what it is if that makes sense. I often thus miss the point of a lot of art I suppose.

I like abstract art - Pollock and Rothko etc whereas art that "refers" I find less interesting.

But if an artist such as Benjamin is prepared to talk about it - then all is revealed. The poor old Tiso gets worked up about it as if the world is coming to an end. (My son says that doesn't matter as we all die in any case and we all have immortal souls and we will be loved forever: but I cant share his simple faith). Maybe I'm wrong.

I do indeed include things in my "craft or sullen art" re the Holocaust, as in my long poem 'The Secret of Being Unpopular' which I am still working on. It uses the usual idea of I suppose of "The banality of evil." But in writing that I was intending (actually after I started with quote about Meredith written about 100 years ago - the language the writer used was what interested me) but then I started thinking about death and life and meaning (whether there was a god or any rationale to the Universe and so on!) and so on and as I was writing I glanced to my left where among hundreds of books there was a book about Nazi Germany by Klaus P. Fischer. So I went through the photographs and the captions etc and used them in the poem. I was particularly interested in the picture of Hitler's mother who died in 1907. I read 'The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich', and also a book by a psychoanalyst who 'analysed' Hitler for the OSS (he was able to talk to one of the top Nazis who knew Hitler and had fled to the US). (He came very close, his analysis predicted Hitler's suicide and explained much of his behaviour.)

12:24 am  
Blogger Richard said...

The important thing is to understand how these things happen (I have also read Anne Frank's diary as a teenager and more recently, and I've also seen the movie of it a few times); I read a book about Auschwitz by the chief of that prison who was in charge before the Nazis got to power I think, and it is worth reading Primo Levi's "If this is a Man / The Truce." Then there are Sontag's essays, Celan's poems.

Hence my 'Hopeful Poem' (which uses repeating rhymes) inside the longer work is ironic, or partly so.

As to memorabilia, and talking of G. Brazier!, I was in Mrs Brazier's second had shop once
and I saw these Nazi books (books about the SS in good condition, which were the kind of book this bloke in GI married to the Maori woman had: the uniforms and I suppose the kind of absoluteness is what fascinates some people to Nazism. There is a part of us all that can become like the Nazis or worse.

And I was told she was Jewish, and I was looking in the direction of said books and she actively encouraged me to buy them! Another day her son recommended Brecht! I did think of getting the SS Books as I needed money from books in those days...

I have Abish's book "How German is It?" (haven't read it yet) but for me the answer is not at all. It is a human thing and can easily recur despite all our reading and or art, for we are accidental beings it seems in some kind of material-spiritual nightmare.

There are superficial changes but humans stay the same, as taken overall they either cant know enough history or even if they do, they cant stop the things happening now which will become history again.

Nor will the churches help, as they have been also complicit in endless atrocities in the name of God - the burning of Catholics, Protestants and much else - often the collaboration with the Nazis despite that in some vague way Christians are reputed to do good things such as "Do unto others ..." etc but then, one wades through the carnage of the Old Testament only to end up at the Holocaust and madness of The Book of Revelations.

But I sold a copy of Mein Kampf. Ebay wouldn't let me sell it so I sold it for $100 cash to a chap who loved war (despite the fact he had been shot in the US by the jealous husband of a woman he was involved with and suffered trauma); he thought war was good and for that reason was studying History and Sociology etc! But his big interest were the US Civil War and the 2nd World War.

But what I read of Mein Kampf was pretty "banal" indeed: I wasn't very interested in the book (it wasn't signed of course as it was in English! But it was an early edition, worth more than NZ$100.

But I copied parts of it out and it is part of my so-called "The Infinite Poem"!! I also have quotes from the Bible and Nietzsche, Pound, Berryman (he went through a kind of private Holocaust until he committed suicide) and all kinds of other stuff...

12:25 am  
Blogger Richard said...

People always invoke their grandparents etc in wars, as if that had anything to do with the price of fish in China. My grand father was in WW1 (somewhere in the desert), one uncle was in the RAF, my father wasn't in any war ("It is better to be a live chicken than a dead hero." was his great insight I learned)*; and my other grandfather made good money buying up houses in the East End of London etc to resell at a good profit after Churchill ordered it all rebuilt. So business goes on, Holocausts or not.

*A variant on Falstaff's 'Discretion is the better part of valour.'!

If it wasn't the Nazis it would be someone else. I think one thing we can do is to stop bullshitting ourselves that we are any better than the Nazis and making up stupid reasons for our "heroic" Anzacs etc fighting the Turks (does anyone know why, without consulting Wiki? Or similarly does anyone know what the First WW was about? Very few I would say. Then there's the Boer War which was in...pass, have no idea, cant even really recall what it was about. The Crimean War one perhaps might know via Tennyson's poem or reading the (homosexual/ bisexual?) Lytton Strachey's essays including the one about Florence Nightingale.)

(I read through his essays and while I often had no idea who or in some cases, what, he was writing about, they were well written for sure.)

I learnt about Strachey via the film about the Bloomsbury Carrington (there are two Carringtons, unrelated, both women, who were artists), called 'Carrington' I think. Strachey like Wilde was not popular with the likes of war mongers and manly adventurers of the ilk of Kitchener (who didn't even like the grandson of Marlborough (Churchill himself) the vicious marauder of the 'Low Countries' (according to Swift)...certainly not a lover of the Left as such, so Kitchener who would be proud of our dead, was right of the Great Architect of the madness, and pathetic and stupid effort, in Turkey or Anatolia - soon to be glorified when the 100 year celebration starts all the nonsense up.

They will glorify war ad infinitum and it will probably repeat ad infinitum, in this 'tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing'.

12:56 am  
Blogger Richard said...

But that Kim dot com could lose some weight couldn't he? He has about 10 chins and waddles around like a great tumult of jelly.

People who get so fat are really ugly and they are ugly because being so fat is not good for human health, hence women simply NEVER attract me who are overweight and would look very good, and improve his chances of a good life, if he spent some of his extra doe getting rid of his bodily doe.

Owning a book signed by Hitler wont prevent him dying of cancer, the effects of diabetes, a stroke, or a heart attack at a relatively young age.

1:03 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes, the Mongrel Mob etc. Those people are really not pleasant for sure. They certainly misuse the Nazi stuff, and other intimidatory images.

They need to legislate specifically and heavily against those. They are all involved in illegal activities and some often terrible actions (rapes, murders, and much more).

1:13 am  
Anonymous Uiha said...

what swastika u talkin about ,i don't see no swastika,perhaps u r translating it wrong,to me it looks like da superior is power over inferior,it seems that u r insulting n criticizing a fellow Tongan's artwork ,with your own perspective ,your views on benjamin's art is very negative ,u must be a very sensitive person to be disturped by it ,there r very disturping artwork worth millions ,u can't criticize the truth,of superiority imposing dey will on da inferiors ,it is human nature ,n it is rearing it's ugly head everywhere on this earth today,like Russia in the Ukraine(the strong pushing the weak around)dat is probably Benjamin's approach on the matter n it offend thee ,than u r very critical individual

9:55 am  
Anonymous Barbara Matthews said...

I am interested that you taught at "Atenisi' I studied it at Law School in the South Pacific law course. What did you teach there?

2:14 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Barbara,

I taught history, sociology, and creative writing, and posted bits and pieces of my courses here. Here's a summary of the history course, for instance:

Are you in Tonga now?

11:55 am  
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11:04 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting Uiha, a lot of barking with little knowledge.
Emily Dickinson comes to mind "The brain is wider than the Sky....the brain is deeper than the sea"
Love the article:) I have a lot to learn. I admire Ben, he has come a long way and is doing what he loves, painting.

1:59 am  

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