Thursday, October 01, 2015

From Francis to Visesio

Spare a thought for the more conservative members of the Catholic church - for the folks who hold Latin masses in the Titirangi backwoods, smash up wiccan accessory stores at Glastonbury, and consider a progressive tax system a sin.

Over the last fortnight these folks have had to endure the dethroning of Tony Abbott, the man who sometimes seemed to think he was principal of a Marist high school, rather than Prime Minister of Australia. As if Abbott's fall were not enough, there have been the polemics against neo-liberal capitalism and warning about global warming delivered by Pope Francis during his tour of the United States.*

And now New Zealand's Catholic News has decided to celebrate the work of the heretical Tongan artist Visesio Siasau. Catholic News has run an article about Siasau's recent victory in the Wallace Art Awards, and included some words from me about the man's penchant for mixing Polynesian and palangi gods and saints.
It'll be fascinating to see how Catholic audiences respond to Siasau. In New Zealand and in Tonga, the church has traditionally been more tolerant of the sort of 'heathen' imagery, dances and rituals that Protestant sects repressed. One of Tonga's most ancient and magnificent dances, the me'etupaki, was banned by Wesleyans but preserved in a few Catholic villages for a century, before being reintroduced to the rest of the kingdom.

Siasau comes from a pious Catholic family and attended Apifo'ou, Tonga's largest Catholic high school, but he is no Tony Abbott. During a 2013 discussion about religion that I reported in this essay for Landfall, he resisted palangi scholar Maikolo Horowitz's attempts to argue that Catholicism had exerted a liberal and liberating effect on Tongan society, and insisted that the religion, at least as it has been practiced in the Friendly Islands, has had a 'totalitarian' quality. When he juxtaposes images of old Polynesian gods with the Virgin Mary and her long-suffering husband, Siasau seems to be challenging monotheism, that necessary condition of official Catholicism.

But there are tendencies within the Catholic church - the current led ideologically by the prolific theologian Huns Kung is perhaps an example - that seem prepared to reconsider the notion of God's singularity, and to rehabilitate some of the pagan deities that missionaries denounced and dispersed after they came ashore in societies like Tonga.

Perhaps Visesio Siasau's art is a sort of sanctuary, where some of the motifs and symbols associated with Tonga's ancient religion are being preserved and renewed, so that they can one day be reintroduced to the world?

*As strange as it may sound, there were people who thought that the previous Pope was guilty of Marxism.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


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