Friday, April 29, 2016

How to paint a motoka

New Zealand's censor has ordered the Wicked Campers rental van company to remove a number of painted images from its vehicles. Denizens of a certain right-wing website are celebrating Wicked Campers' more misogynistic doodles by talking about freedom of speech. Last year, though, these champions of free speech were rather upset when Canterbury museum exhibited a couple of T shirts that made crude fun of Christian doctrine.

I dislike the paintings on Wicked Camper vans not because they are offensive, but because they are ugly and banal. The Wicked Campers should take lessons in vehicle art from Tonga's Seleka Kava Club, whose members rescued and restored a truck then covered it in exuberant and provocative paintings and slogans.

The Selekarians, as they call themselves, drive from their headquarters on the edge of Nuku'alofa into the Tongan countryside, emerging in villages and on beaches to sell their art and hold impromptu parties.

The photograph at the top of this post shows Tevita Latu, tufunga 'i and the founder of Seleka, standing in front of the club's truck with the American artist Sally Richardson in 2013. 'Toua Fekai' means, roughly, savage brewer of kava.

I wrote last year about the night the Selekarians' magic bus visited me.

Footnote: Virginie Dourlet, a representative of Parisian intellection in the Kingdom of Tonga and author of a very interesting twitter feed, tells me that the Selekarians' truck has been out of action for some time now. A pity. Can someone pinch and convert one of the New Zealand diplomatic fleet for them?

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


It was wonderful to spend my last evening in Nuku'alofa at the tenth birthday bash of the On the Spot Arts Collective. On the Spot celebrated their birthday by opening a cafe in a room of the villa they have restored and made a headquarters, launching a show of photographs and ngatu in the villa's exhibition space*, and receiving a cheque for fifteen thousand pa'anga from the Bank of the South Pacific.

A brief but unnerving visit from a truckload of sullen cops reminded us that not everyone in Tonga finds it easy to accept the freedom of expression that the kingdom's artists advocate. 'Tonga is living through a Weimar phase', Maikolo Horowitz of the 'Atenisi Institute said after the cops had come calling. 'We have democracy, but reaction is stirring.'

Later in the evening I had the privilege of talking with 'Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki, the head of Tonga's Women Refuge service and a supporter of On the Spot. 'Ofa told me about the public curses that she and her children have received via Tonga radio from a Wesleyan minister upset by her support for gender equality. The next ten years of Tongan history are going to be fascinating. Faka'apa'apa to On the Spot, 'Ofa and other advocates of mo'ui and freedom.

I wrote for EyeContact about a major exhibition On the Spot held last year, and I'll be writing about their new show.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, April 22, 2016

The sorcerer

It was fun to go down to the 'Atenisi Institute in Nuku'alofa yesterday and crash a lecture Maikolo Horowitz was giving for his paper on European Art and Politics in the Nineteenth Century.

Maikolo was chanting the virtues of Paul Gauguin when I turned up and tried to turn the tide of opinion by reciting a Selina Tusitala Marsh poem with the refrain 'Gauguin, you piss me off'. Marsh charges Gauguin with treating the Pacific as the 'erogenous zone of the world', and with depicting Polynesian women as languorous, lustful, and brainless creatures.

Maikolo was prepared to concede that some of Gauguin's paintings had promoted certain wearying stereotypes of Polynesian life, stereotypes perpetuated today by cruise ship art galleries and tourism brochures, but he insisted that the man had far more to offer than this sort of veve, and brought my attention to the painting 'The Sorcerer of Hiva Oa', the depiction of pagan magic in the fin de siecle Marquesas that became a goldmine for anthropologists and ethnographers wanting to reconstruct the pre-Christian culture of those islands.

Look at that magician, Maikolo urged, and his slyly defiant attitude to the Frenchman painting him. A German anthropologist visiting 'Atenisi, a pentecostal minister studying there, and my 2013 student Alokoulu Ulukivaiola, who is using 'Atenisi as a base as he works on a series of documentary films, all joined in the talanoa, and I found myself dissenting from Marsh's judgment and pardoning at least part of Gauguin's oeuvre.

Critical thinking is a wonderful thing, and I'm pleased to find it alive and kicking at 'Atenisi.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Futa Helu, man of God?

[I've just out this message on facebook. Internet has been scarce up here, but I'm back in Nu'u Sila soon.]

It was a pleasure to give a seminar called 'Tongan Artists and New Zealand Themes' at the 'Atenisi Institute in Nuku'alofa last Monday night. Using 'Atenisi's new and startlingly sophisticated projection system, I was able to juxtapose the paintings of Colin McCahon and Visesio Siasau, and to flash between dendroglyphs carved centuries ago on the Chatham Islands and the equally astonishing murals that Benjamin Work has more recently left on the walls of Auckland.

The fifty or so people who attended the seminar included a set of Mormon elders, who wore identical white shirts and arrived in a small bus. They played happily with my kids, and showed commendable tolerance in sitting through my discussions of Siasau's neo-pagan sculptures of crucified Polynesian gods.

After my talk and a question and answer session, one of the Mormons stood up and gave an impromptu blessing that soon morphed into an impromptu sermon. The sermoniser explained that he was a nephew of Futa Helu, the legendary educationalist, philosopher, and pro-democracy activist who founded 'Atenisi. He denounced the notion that Futa was an 'atheist', insisting that his uncle was a 'man of god' who would have been very happy to get on the Mormon bus, were he alive today.

I didn't know Futa Helu personally, but I have read many of his English-language writings and have watched clips of a number of his public speeches. If Futa was a Christian, then he seems to have done a thorough job of hiding the fact. In a speech at a graduation ceremony that was reproduced in Tongan Ark, Paul Janman's documentary film about 'Atenisi, Chancellor Helu asked his audience to consider the gods of ancient Egypt and Iraq, who were once feared and revered but are now almost forgotten. Today's gods, he suggested, are also doomed to die, as the world and the universe continue to change. In one of the essays he collected into a book called Critical Essays: Cultural Perspectives from the South Seas, Helu argued that Tongans easily adopted Christianity in the nineteenth century because the new faith had the same authoritarian and anti-intellectual qualities as their old pagan religion. Like the old religion, the lotu of Siasi could, Helu argued, be used to justify the rule of chiefs and kings and keep commoners meek.

Both the claim that the Christian faith is doomed to eventual extinction and the argument that there is an essential continuity between Christianity and Tongan paganism are completely incompatible with the teachings of Mormons and of every other Christian sect in Tonga. The kingdom's churches affirm the eternal truth and inevitable triumph of Christ's message, and insist that Christ is different and superior to old Tongan gods like Tangaloa and Hikule'o. I can't see, then, that Futa's nephew has much hope of claiming him for Christianity. I think that he ought to be able to be proud of his uncle and nonetheless disagree with the man's views on religions. We are not obliged to agree with our friends and our families about every or even most subjects.

Futa Helu was a man who believed in and practiced critical thinking. He denied that any idea or individual was beyond criticism, believed that everyone had the right to think and argue freely, and was famous for giving as much attention to the opinions of the small children who followed him around 'Atenisi as those of visiting palangi academics or the king of Tonga. I'm sure that Futa Helu would have been happy to listen respectfully to his nephew's arguments in favour of Mormonism, and that he'd be able to find some merits in the faith and in its followers. I suspect that, like me, Futa would have immense admiration for the brass band of the Mormon high school Liahona, whose members honk and dance their way down Nuku'alofa's main street every year in front of cheering crowds. Futa would surely also appreciate the role that the Mormon church has played in allowing Tongans to emigrate to the United States in general, and Salt Lake City in particular, and secure vital jobs and scholarships there.

But I think that Futa Helu, like virtually every other scholar of the Pacific, would be very critical of the view of Polynesian history that is still advanced by many propagandists for the Mormon church and still believed by many of the church's members. The Mormon insistence that Polynesians came to the Pacific from the Americans, and came to the Americas from the Middle East, where they were one of the lost tribes of Israel, is contradicted by archaeological, genetic, and linguistic evidence, and has done considerable damage to popular understandings of the past in societies like Tonga. I regret not having time to raise the Mormon theory of Polynesian history at 'Atenisi on Monday, and I think that, in the spirit of critical thinking, it would be good to see a debate about the subject at 'Atenisi in the future. I had an online debate with a group of Tongan Mormons about their version of Pacific history a couple of years. I posted the debate to my blog here.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The return of the gods

We found the Sri Siva Subramaniya temple at the southern end of a Nadi street filled with hustling handicraft merchants and hot incensed stores selling saris and samosas. It was strange to find men and women kneeling and chanting before pagan gods on an island in the middle of the Pacific in the twenty-first century. A priest from Tamil Nadu rubbed ash into my oldest son's forehead and handed him a sanctified apple.

God was piled on god in the temple's central pillar, and I was reminded of missionary-turned-scholar professor Niel Gunson's claim, in his complex and ambitious essay 'Understanding Traditional Polynesian History', that the old Polynesian cosmos had points in common with the Vedic universe of Hinduism, and that traces of Hinduism might have reached the ancestors of the Tongans via Malay traders.

If Gunson's highly speculative and controversial claim is correct, then perhaps the temple at Nadi represents a curious sort of return of the ancient Polynesian religion. Perhaps Hikule'o, the Western Polynesian goddess of the underworld, lurks behind the sculptures of Kali, and the mighty Tangaloa's shadow creeps over the dancing ecstatic Shiva?

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Through the Tropic of Capricorn

Today we're catching a slow and salubrious boat to Fiji and Tonga. For decades the Pacific Pearl has carried partygoers and pensioners from wintry southern latitudes across the tropic of capricorn. Since the spread of the zika virus to the tropical Pacific the ship's owners have struggled to sell tickets for their 'Tongan Discovery Cruise', and have had to resort to massive discounts to fill cabins.

The Pearl has its own art gallery, and I'll be reviewing its contents for John Hurrell's EyeContact journal. If I can get away from the kids and into a deckchair, I'll read my way through the literature produced by the palangi of earlier generations who cruised or ferried their way from Auckland to the Friendly Islands. I want to sail slowly through Edward Tregear's lush account of his visit to Tonga with empire-making Premier Dick Seddon in 1900, as well as James Cowan's marvellous article 'A Volcano Factory', which describes a journey north out of a New Zealand oppressed by winter and the First World War.

The Tongan archipelago straddles a tectonic plate that regularly raises new volcanic islands, and Cowan described the 'never-dying lava fires that made lighthouses in the dark for the cautiously steering navigator'. As his ship pushed north, into the Tongan Trench, the world's second deepest piece of water, the writer felt 'a quality of...limitless space...before which the mind is almost appalled'. He realised that ' two peaks like our Aorangi' could fit into the trench and 'leave scarcely a tip to show above the waves'. Today's cruise liners have cocktail hours and casinos and art galleries to distract voyagers from the eerie facts of geography.

Although plangi New Zealanders were distracted from the Pacific in the decades after World War Two, thanks to the emergence of international air travel and the cult of distance and isolation created by a generation of nationalist intellectuals, vestigal longings for the tropical south seas remained. In 1967 n otherwise undistinguished band from the North Shore of Auckland recorded 'The Tropic of Capricorn', a defiant dream of escape to a winterless and cashless north.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, April 01, 2016

Another incredible shrinking conspiracy theory

It's April Fools Day, so I thought I'd reproduce some excerpts from a discussion I had recently at Kiwiblog, the popular site run by National Party pollster David Farrar. Commenters at Kiwiblog and a variety of other blogs and online fora regularly heave me into their discussions about New Zealand history. Usually these discussions revolve around some sort of conspiracy theory (last week this blog was cited on a message board for Kiwis living in Thailand, where some strange ideas about the Moriori people were being aired)
Last year I reproduced my debate with a Kiwiblog regular who believes that an ancient stone city sits somewhere in Northland's Waipoua forest, and that the existence of this city is being concealed by a conspiracy of Marxist academics, corrupt politicians, and land-grabbing Maori. I noted how, as soon as it is considered dispassionately, the Waipoua forest conspiracy theory shrinks into insignificance. 
According to the conspiracy theory that's been discussed at Kiwiblog this week, the history departments of universities in countries like Britain and New Zealand have been seized by hateful left-wing radicals determined to denigrate European peoples and their history. Kiwibloggers have been upset by the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, which has seen students at Cape Town and Oxford universities demanding the removal of statues of the nineteenth century imperialist Cecil Rhodes from their campuses. According to the conspiracy theory being put about at Kiwiblog, both the Rhodes Must Fall campaigners and the men and women who teach history at New Zealand universities are determined to deny freedom of speech and thought to anyone who questions their anti-white prejudices. 
I think that this conspiracy theory just as flimsy as the claims about a coverup at Waipoua forest. 
Here are some excerpts from the exchanges I had at Kiwiblog. Apologies for the variable formatting... 
History departments have become PC-revisionist and more rigidly Leftist, while universities have added bullshit subjects such as PhD’s in social work. Scores of courses, including forensic science and kapihaka, while interesting, are conning youngsters into mountains of debt with no chance of work in the courses’ specific fields...
Do you read much of the work that New Zealand historians produce, and the New Zealand Journal of History? The journal has an online presence: take a look at the contents pages for the last few issues, and tell me when you think the rot set in. 

Sir Keith Sinclair's book The Origins of the Maori Wars would get him into trouble with many of the commenters at Kiwiblog. Sinclair was working on that classic in the 1950s, but historians of earlier generations could also be accused of political correctness. James Cowan’s magnificent History of the New Zealand Wars was written almost a century ago, but is not exactly sympathetic to the colonial government that invaded the Waikato Kingdom. John Gorst’s history of the Waikato War was published almost as soon as the war was over, and is resolutely hostile to that warmonger George Grey. I guess the rot set in very early.
It is student union activists (and largely foreign ones) who have been trying to force the university to take down a statue of Rhodes, for example. Student unions have become more Leftist, IMHO, because there are more bullshit courses such as the “social work PH.D.” Students are less likely to be doing courses related to their future jobs.
I don’t agree with the notion that arguments in favour of taking down a statue constitute an attack on freedom of speech. We exercise our freedom of speech when we debate whether statues should be raised or removed from public spaces. If a group of students blew up a statue then they might be accused of attacking free speech, but I don't think the Oxfordians have done that. 
Some of Rhodes’ left-leaning defenders, like the witty classicist Mary Beard, have argued that old statues ought to stand forever, even if they represent people who did bad things and are no longer esteemed, because old statues are a part of history. I do understand this argument, but I don’t think it should trump all others. I didn't notice any of Rhodes' defenders complaining when an enormous statue of Lenin was recently felled by the government of Ukraine.
Many of the problems come from a wave of historians later than Sinclair giving oral “history” equivalent value to written records. The very latest wave made their names with this. 
It’s curious how you can’t name any of the members of this ‘wave’. I think you’ll find that reckless use of oral history was very much a late Victorian and Edwardian habit, in the work of folks like Elsdon Best and Percy Smith, who were responsible for garbling various stories into the Moriori myth. A much more responsible use of oral history was made by James Cowan a generation later. There’s nothing new about the use of oral history in New Zealand. I’d say we’ve gotten better at it, and we’ve done so precisely because we’ve broken with the old habit of treating it as a mere substitute for or equivalent to text.
I forgot that Auckland academics had unlocked that secret written Maori language in which tribes recorded their history for the last 500 years, and this was the backup for their legends and oral history.
Well, you’re getting closer, Jack: at least you’ve named a place where these nefarious historians are at work. But who exactly are the historians at the University of Auckland who are misusing oral history?
For use of oral-history sources, best-known is Professor Dame Anne Salmond. On checking, I see that her training was as an anthropologist, but she is best known for her NZ historical books.
Another is Dame Judith Binney. Here’s a quote about her from the Encyclopedia of New Zealand blog Signposts:
Judith was thus a pioneer of new ways of looking at Māori history and of translating oral testimonies and tribal memories into the pages of powerful literature. Like Dame Ann Salmond, Judith Binney suggested that Pākehā women have perhaps more success in gaining the confidence of Māori informants than us male historians.

In all honesty, Jack, have you read either Anne Salmond or Judith Binney? Binney’s great achievement is that she does not treat oral history as a factual guide to the past, but rather as a guide to the way the past is interpreted by communities who experienced it. If you read Binney’s masterpiece Redemption Songs you’ll see her working through the various stories about the prophet and warrior Te Kooti doing extraordinary things, and asking what these stories say about the people who tell them. Binney never claims that Te Kooti actually teleported across the North Island, or rode a white horse straight up a cliff. She treats stories like these as symbolic interpretations of the past. To claim that Binney uncritically accepted the literal truth of every story she heard about the past is to misrepresent her egregiously. 
Anne Salmond does look to oral history for information about the past, but tests the stories she hears against textual records and other types of evidence. Hence in her book The Trial of the Cannibal Dog, about the journeys of Captain Cook through the Pacific, she puts the stories that were told about Cook on the islands he visited alongside the journals kept by Cook and some of his crew members. There’s an old story on the Tongan island of ‘Eua, a story I have heard myself, which says that Cook left horses and sheep behind when he sailed off. Salmond checks that against the writings, and writes that Cook indeed did leave stock on ‘Eua. Salmond's use of oral history is a very long way from the unsubstantiated guesswork of the Victorian and Edwardian ethnographers.
So now historians check their facts. Historians have come a long way, General Douglas MacArthur, I’ll now declare victory and move on to the next island, leaving some hapless Aussies or Kiwis to clean up the remaining Japanese.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]