Friday, September 25, 2015

The Occultation of Lisa Reihana

Maori have constitutional and legal privileges denied to other New Zealanders. These privileges and a series of Treaty settlements have helped Maori become a wealthy and powerful capitalist class. Maori are exploiting Pacific Islanders, who lack their privileges and their wealth. A class war between Maori and Pasifika is beginning, as the islanders resist their Maori overlords.

These claims come not from John Ansell or the One New Zealand Foundation or some other source on the right-wing fringes of New Zealand politics, but from veteran artist and lay Buddhist monk Terrence Hanscomb. In an essay for EyeContact called 'The Occultation of the Sun', Hanscomb moves from his allegations of Maori privilege into a condemnation of Lisa Reihana's work In Pursuit of Venus, which has been on display for months at the Auckland Art Gallery. 

A video made to look like a vast stretch of moving wallpaper, In Pursuit of Venus depicts some of the earliest encounters between European mariners and traders and Pacific peoples in places like Aotearoa and Tahiti. The work has attracted big audiences and garnered praise from many reviewers; for Hanscomb, though, it is an expression of the privilege Reihana enjoys as a Maori. As an 'imperialist' and an 'entrepreneur', she is, according to Hanscomb, exploiting the history of the same Pacific peoples that Maori today oppress.

In the comments thread under Hanscomb's review, Ralph Paine and I have taken him to task for his analysis of contemporary New Zealand society and his lack of interest in Pacific history. I don't find Hanscomb's responses to our criticisms at all convincing - but I would say that, wouldn't I? Read Hanscomb's review and the discussion it has generated here.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A report from the liberated zone

Over at the online arts journal EyeContact I've written about Vataulua, the massive and mysterious immersive environment created by hundreds of painters at a gallery in downtown Nuku'alofa

Vataulua is full of contradiction, controversy, and joy, and some of its panels take defiant aim at violent cops and misogynistic ministers. I've contrasted the work's egalitarian spirit with the openly anti-democratic rhetoric that the theocratic opponents of 'Akilisi Pohiva's fledgling government are increasingly adopting. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Corbyn's silence

It has been fascinating, and very enjoyable, to watch Britain's political and media establishments melting down in response to the election of radical left-winger Jeremy Corbyn as Labour's leader.

Corbyn's only been running Labour for a couple of days, but he's already being damned to hell for a variety of offences, including his refusal to sing 'God Save the Queen' at a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Corbyn released a statement before the ceremony praising the fight against fascism in World War Two, and remembering his own parents' role in that fight, but he didn't move his lips when the national anthem was played. 
The Daily Telegraph was upset by Corbyn's wardrobe, as well as his silence. The staunchly Tory paper complained that the Labour leader had insulted the queen and war veterans by wearing 'mismatched jacket and trousers' and a 'shirt unbuttoned at the top'.
Corbyn is an atheist and a republican, so if he had lustily sung along to 'God Save the Queen' he would surely have been accused of hypocrisy by papers like the Daily Telegraph.
Historically, demands that members of parliament acknowledge god and the queen have been ways to restrict democracy in Britain. In the late nineteenth century some of the first atheist MPs to win election were prevented from taking their seats in parliament, because they wouldn't swear an oath on the Bible. Many Irish republicans elected to Westminster have never taken their seats, partly because they refuse to swear allegiance to the queen. 'God Save the Queen' hasn't just alienated atheists and republicans: the song's call for the queen to 'crush' the 'rebellious Scots' doesn't go down well in Glasgow.
'God Save the Queen' was New Zealand's national anthem for many decades. Kiwis who went to a cinema for a night's entertainment had to stand and sing along to the dirge before they could watch a film or newsreel, and those who tried to remain in their seats risked being beaten up by members of the RSA. Pioneering republican Bruce Jesson became renowned for remaining mutely in his seat when the anthem was played, and suffering the attentions of drunken ex-servicemen.
I suspect that a lot of Britons will applaud Jeremy Corbyn's refusal to be bullied into performing a song whose theocratic sentiments he doesn't share.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

From flags to money: another conspiracy theory

New Zealand Attorney-General Chris Finlayson joked last week about a peculiar conspiracy theory that is percolating through facebook, twitter, and the comments threads of left-leaning blogs. The theory's proponents insist that John Key will gain 'unparalleled power' if Kiwis decide to remove the Union Jack from their flag in the upcoming referendum. The Union Jack apparently represents something called 'due authority', and without the protection of its ancient symmetries New Zealanders will lose their democratic as well as legal rights. 
But it is not only the left that has been busy making conspiracy theories out of changes to national symbols. Recently I whiled away an hour or so talking with a group of commenters at the right-wing Kiwiblog who believe that evidence for a sinister and secret campaign to 'Maorify' New Zealand can be found on the set of revised banknotes recently released by the government. They have noticed that, on the back of these notes, this country's name is given as 'Aotearoa New Zealand', rather than simply 'New Zealand'. 
The terms 'Maorify' and 'Maorification' were of course coined by John Ansell, the adman and former advisor to the Act Party who attempted to set up an anti-Treaty party in 2012. 
Here's the exchange I had at Kiwiblog:
Longknives wrote:
‘Aotearoa’?? Did I miss the Referendum where we voted to change the name of our Country? 
Odakyu-sen wrote:
I didn’t know that Maori had a reserve bank. I guess Aotearoa's a synthetic term created by a language committee years ago. If so, then Maori as a language is doomed. Once a language withers away to the point where academic committees (and not native speakers of it) formulate new vocabulary for it, i.e., the language itself has too weak a gravitational pull to draw in words from other languages into its orbit, then it’s pretty much beyond the point of no return.

SH wrote:
Aotearoa was created by a 'committee' hundreds of years ago. King Tawhiao, who was featured on the original NZ banknote series of 1934, was running a bank in the 1880sIt looks like some people still haven’t reconciled themselves to the Maori Language Act. Once the Act made Maori an official language more of the Maori language began appearing in official documents and on state symbols.
Jack5 wrote:
“Aotearoa” now shares the billing with “New Zealand” on the notes. First, the flag, then the Republic of Aotearoa.

SH wrote:
If you look at the original New Zealand banknotes, which were issued in 1934, you can find the visage of King Tawhiao, leader of the war against the British Empire and printer of his own currency! 
I think that those who claim that the new notes are evidence of some sort of ‘Maorification’ of the New Zealand state are unaware that, historically, the state has tended to appropriate and reuse images associated with Maori sovereignty and separatism. The very name New Zealand is a case in point. It was of course coined by a European, but for many decades it was almost always used to refer to Maori and Maori society. Only towards the end of the nineteenth century did it begin to have a wider usage. I suspect that the meaning of Aotearoa is now broadening, in much the same way.
Jack 5 wrote:
This time, Scott, it’s part of a political agenda. There are moves, backed by many in the MSM, to change the official name from “New Zealand”. No doubt, the idea is to retain “New Zealand” for trade purposes. The fact that National is starting to be blamed for it, or at least going along with it, should cause some reflection. How long can the country count on Winston Peters providing a safe diversion for those unhappy with the trend?

SH wrote:

Surely there were also political considerations involved in earlier revisions of the name for these islands, and in earlier decisions to use Maori symbols and names for official purposes? The name of these islands and the symbols used to represent them have historically been subject to change, and I suspect they’ll continue to change. I think it would be a mistake to equate the use of Maori words or imagery with some sort of change in power relations. A century ago most Pakeha referred to this country as Maoriland. I doubt whether that reflected Maori hegemony.
Jack5 wrote:
However, to me it seems the Left and liberals (in the American sense) are pushing towards renaming the country from “New Zealand” to “Aotearoa”.
It’s interesting that the Reserve Bank, one of the most powerful State institutions, should of its own volition move to give “Aotearoa” billing with “New Zealand” on a new series of banknotes.
Unlike the Federal Reserve System with its governors, committees and 12 banks, there is little counterbalance to the power of the RBNZ governor (at present, Graeme Wheeler). The Reserve Bank board doesn’t seem to vote on the OCR level for example. Perhaps the “Aotearoa” move isn’t Wheeler’s but the board trying to show it has some useful role (it’s sometimes justified as providing reassurance and general moral backing to the governor).
SH wrote:
Have these islands ever had an official name, in the sense that you imply? The Geographical Board was set up to settle the official names of places within New Zealand, but it hasn’t given official names to a huge number of places, including some of our largest cities and islands. I notice that the Geographical Board uses the name Aotearoa as well as New Zealand in its self-description. I suspect that, once Maori became an official language in 1986, the name New Zealand came increasingly to be given alongside Aotearoa, which was treated as its Maori translation.
But the point I’d make is that it’s rather ironic for Pakeha to treat New Zealand as some sort of besieged symbol of the European parts of the country’s past, when the name New Zealand, or Niu Tereni, was for so long associated with and used by Maori. It’s like the Aussies claiming pavlova.
The lack of understanding of the history of the name 'New Zealand' leads many Pakeha to misinterpret the Treaty of Waitangi. The English version of the Treaty refers to 'natives of New Zealand', a term which today might be used to refer to anybody, Maori or Pakeha, who was born in these islands. In 1840, though, 'New Zealand' and 'New Zealanders' always referred to Maori people and their society. It is a mistake, then, to read back into the Treaty a reference to the multi-ethnic society that has developed in these islands over the last one hundred and seventy or so years. 
I like the name Pig Island, which was used by whalers and sealers in the nineteenth century and then revived by James K Baxter.
Jack5 wrote:
You’re not impressed by “New Zealand” as the name of the archipelago. Well the second word is the Danish spelling of a Netherlands province, and the first is English. Would you be happy with New Sealand, or just Sealand?
I prefer to keep “New Zealand”. It’s sort of grown on the place, I feel. It’s certainly our export trade mark, and gives a fairly distinctive abbreviation – NZ. How would you abbreviate Aotearoa? Ao? Aa? At? And Aotearoan would be a mouthful when someone asks where you come from.
With English the current dominant international language, “New Zealand” fits into it more easily than “Aotearoa.”
SH wrote:
I don’t mind 'New Zealand' at all, specially if those who use it are aware of its history as an effectively Maori name, but I don’t mind Aotearoa or Maoriland or Pig Island either. I like the idea of keeping multiple names alive, because these names remind us of the complexity and contingency of our history.
I’ve been reading Tony Ballantyne’s book Webs of Empire, which makes the point that New Zealand isn’t something that stepped complete onto the stage of history, but rather the product of a whole series of accidents and improvisations and compromises. I was recently trying to find out something of the history of Stewart Island/Rakiura in the early 1860s, and was amazed to learn that the island was not even a part of New Zealand until the middle of that decade. Parliament had to pass a deed of annexation to get the place.
The Kermadecs came decades later, in an annexation that set the stage for the expansion of New Zealand into the tropical Pacific. To all intents and purposes, Rarotonga was a more integral part of New Zealand than the Ureweras in 1900.
Here’s a paper given in 1885 by WH Blyth to the Auckland Institute on the subject of the name New Zealand. The author notes the very close connection that the name has to Maori when he says that:
‘The Maori, by his native worth, has made the name so conspicuous in the past that its expungement would almost seem the symbol of the effacement of this most interesting of the native races’.
Blyth examines Zealandia, South Britain, and Britain of the South, which were popular names for these islands in the 19th century; Australbion, which was apparently advocated by the Rev Richard Taylor; and Cooksland, which was put forward by Haast. He finishes, though, by polemicising in favour of yet another name: Hesperia!
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

The gods are smiling: Visesio Siasau wins the Wallace

It was marvellous to open the New Zealand Herald this morning and find, instead of the usual photographs of distressed celebrities and mangled cars, an image of Visesio Siasau standing staunchly in front of some of the painted ngatu panels that have won him the big prize at this year's Wallace Art Awards. Siasau's win gives him a trophy, six months in New York City, and name recognition across the New Zealand art world.

The Herald describes Siasau's entry for the Wallace awards as a 'huge tapa bark cloth depicting traditional figures of divinity within a Christian context', but these words hardly capture the ambition and strangeness of the artist's work. Any reader of the Herald who examines the photograph of Siasau's ngatu carefully will notice that the image of Christ on one of his panels is decorated, or defaced, by a dollar sign. In previous works, including a series of sculptures made from glass and a type of plastic, Siasau has crucified the Tongan god Tangaloa and placed Catholic icons like Mary and Joseph on a sort of chessboard where members of the pantheon of old Polynesian gods lurk.

For all their originality, the images that Visesio Siasau makes today can be understood in relation to his Tongan childhood. Siasau grew up in Haveluloto, a poor suburb on the edge of Nuku'alofa where roads of dusty coral run down to a polluted lagoon. He is a cousin of Tevita Latu, the dissident and painter who has created an avant-garde movement called the Seleka Club in a lagoonside shack.

Like most of the citizens of Haveluloto, Siasau could track his ancestry to Ha'apai, the now-remote archipelago that was once, for a century or so, the political and cultural capital of Tonga. The islands of Ha'apai are small and low, and their people have always been known as boatbuilders and woodworkers and navigators. Many of Siasau's older male relations built and carved.

To grow up in Haveluloto in the 1980 and '90s was to inhabit two worlds. Around the kava bowl young men like Visesio heard stories about epic sea journeys and ancient battles. On the streets of Nuku'alofa, though, they encountered convenience stores with barred windows, gangs filled with high school dropouts and deportees, and homeless beggars slumped outside salubrious churches. The riot which destroyed much of downtown Nuku'alofa in 2006 only dramatised a crisis that Siasau had observed many years earlier.

Siasau's art can be seen as an attempt to reconnect the streets of Nuku'alofa with the Tonga of his ancestors. Using not only oral tradition but the work of palangi scholars like the late great Roger Neich, he has tried to recover and redeploy the culture of pre-Christian, pre-capitalist Tonga.

In 2013, when I lived in the Friendly Islands, I drove with Siasau out of Nuku'alofa and into the Tongan countryside, as he searched for the locations of the godhouses where shaman-priests of the old religion would down bowls of green kava, quiver with piety, and channel the voices of gods like Tangaloa and Hikule'o. When Christianity came to Tonga at the point of a gun, the godhouses were burned and their carvings were either smashed or handed to missionaries as captives. Pigs were run through the sacred grounds around the razed houses.

Using local rumours, old kava bowl stories, and the details that scholars like Neich had prised from missionary letters and diaries, Siasau was trying to map the sacred landscape of old Tonga. As our car wallowed in the potholes of roads built over ancient walking tracks, he gestured at the locations of the vanished godhouses, and pointed out traces of the past that had survived the depredations of Christian fundamentalism and commercial agriculture: burial mounds, sacred boulders, and a deep, thistle-filled gully that once been a saltwater canal where ships from 'Uvea and Fiji waited to be emptied of their koloa.
It would be easy, but also wrong, to dismiss Visesio Siasau as a sentimental antiquarian, a sort of Tongan version of Frank Leavis, the English literary critic who deplored modern life and longed for the 'organic community' that supposedly existed in medieval Europe. But a look at Siasau's art shows that he lacks Leavis' morbid nostalgia, as well as the typically palangi habit of dichotomising past and present. Rather than lamenting an idealised past, he wants to suggest how ancient Tongan culture can play a part in the country's twenty-first century life. His syncretic gods are supposed to shock Tongans and palangi alike into pondering how apparently opposed religious and philosophical systems might be reconciled and combined.

The series of ngatu paintings that have won Visesio Siasau the Wallace Award were created in Havleluloto last year, after the artist had conducted a succession of interviews with the inhabitants of the suburb. He listened to his relatives and neighbours talk about their beliefs, preoccupations, and problems, then searched for images capable of conveying what he had heard. The painting that adorns Christ with a dollar sign is Siasau's sardonic but not unsympathetic response to stories about the excesses of some Tongan churches.

The sources of Visesio Siasau's images might seem exotic, and even esoteric, to many New Zealanders, but I would argue that his art has parallels with the work of some of our greatest twentieth century painters. Siasau's mixture of dissatisfaction with twenty-first century capitalist civilisation and fascination with ancient Polynesian religion might remind us of Tony Fomison and Emily Karaka, those great and greatly disturbing rebels against both the commercialism and the secularism of late twentieth century New Zealand. Siasau's urgent and unashamed asking of religious questions reminds me of the stark graffiti Colin McCahon left on his last canvases. And the syncretic deities that Siasau exhibits surely recall the intricate and enchanted goddess paintings of Rita Angus.
Like McCahon and Fomison and Angus in their day, Visesio Siasau has sometimes encountered prejudice and misunderstanding. Some conservative Tongans have condemned his godmaking as impious and impudent; others have criticised him for painting on ngatu, a medium traditionally associated with women. I hope that the Wallace Award will encourage these Tongan critics to revisit their judgments, and also win Siasau a much wider audience in New Zealand.

Footnote: this is only a quick and off the cuff response to Sio's victory, and I apologise in advance for its inevitable oversights and simplifications. I wrote in more detail about the artist's god-hunting back at the beginning of last year.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, September 04, 2015

Shaggy magpies and a stolen moon

Our oldest son is only three and a half years old, and can only read three letters of the alphabet, but he's already entered the canon of New Zealand literature. On August the 28th, also known as National Poetry Day, the venerable Kiwi writer Murray Edmond launched his new book Shaggy Magpie Songs in front of a big crowd at Auckland public library.

Murray's new book includes a sequence of song-poems that he wrote after visiting Tonga, where Cerian and Aneirin and I were living, in 2013. These 'Tongatapu Dream Choruses' recall Murray's experiences in the Friendly Islands - the lecture and theatre workshop he gave at the 'Atenisi Institute, his journeys to beaches, bush plantations, and ancient tombs, and the very strange man who used a kava drinking session to introduce himself and explain that both Adam and Eve were a) Tongan and b) male.

The 'Tongatapu Dream Choruses' come with the dedication 'apologies for Aneirin, for stealing his moon'. One of Aneirin's favourite words in the middle of 2013 was 'moon', and its Tongan equivalent 'mahina', and Murray seems to have been inspired by his enthusiasm. Here's the section of 'Tongatapu Dream Choruses' that may feature Aneirin's moon:

under a banana moon
time stops at half past noon 
there's a word for everything

and everything fits right into
that one word

calls the tune
kava carves a cave into
the cliff of time

and when we speak
our talk sounds soft
the moon under the sea

You can read samples of Murray's book at the Auckland University Press website. I described some the Tongan adventures of Murray Edmond and his fellow Kiwi poet Richard von Sturmer last year, in an essay for Poetry New Zealand.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

At Onetangi with Peter Olds

I've been offline for a few days, as I've settled into a house on a hillside above Onetangi beach, on the northern side of Waiheke Island. I'll be writer-in-residence here for the next three months, though I plan to revisit Auckland whenever my supplies of paper, coffee, and interlocutors run low. By the beginning of December I hope to have written a long essay or short book about New Zealand's involvement in the nineteenth century slave trade, and to have edited my writings about Auckland's Great South Road into something resembling order.

Waiheke is perhaps the most literary of Auckland's small islands. Mike Johnson and Maurice Shadbolt have written tens of thousands of words of prose poetry about the place, and historian Paul Monin has described Waihekeans as 'bookish hippies'.

Peter Olds' 'Anxiety at Onetangi' is one of the less celebrated literary celebrations of Waiheke Island. After graduating from the rural crashpad that James K Baxter ran beside the Whanganui River in the late '60s, Olds made a career writing poems about drugs, madness, and V8 engines. His Selected Poems is full of titles like 'In Hospital', 'Mandragorite Blues', and 'Music Therapy'. Olds has spent much of his life in Dunedin, where he has a loyal and perceptive audience, but he seems to have made at least one visit to the beach that stretches out below my balcony.

Here is Peter Olds' ode to Onetangi. With its fused visions of public and private disaster, the poem reminds me of the 'domestic apocalypses' that Kendrick Smithyman wrote and repressed in the late 1960s and early '70s.

Anxiety on Onetangi Beach

Another nuclear explosion in the city.
The temperature jumps from 25 to 2000 deg. C.
A windowdresser covers a dummy
with a thin veil. 
Silky stretch of clean white sand
wind in the punga.

Sandals, beachbag
Christmas Humphreys' Zen, a Way of Life,
expensive sunglasses,
two busloads of elderly beachcombers
up from Feijoa Country estate for the day
browsing along the shoreline.
Bathe only between flags
the sign says. 

A fleet of towtrucks
pulls into Onetangi garden tavern,
arrival of the carwreckers' annual get-together. 
Hairless men and toothpick women
in skin & leathers
erect their tent between beach flags -
We fuck anything that moves.
The sea is a mass of vibrating radiators 
& dismembered elderly...

When the pupil is ready
the master appears.
I open my eyes expecting to see 
my ex-psychiatrist standing waist-deep
in Freudian-foam shouting
Castration anxiety!
but instead I see a man & woman
& a small fluffy dog
playing in the surf -
children squealing in the waves
a collapsed sand mermaid dressed 
in seaweed & shells
the smell of chilli sausage.

The moment passes.
The glass is cleared away
& the elderly go home in a fern-covered bus
chanting like Lunatics.
Christmas Humphreys is put aside.
One rips the beachbag apart searching
for the emergency pills,
lies gingerly back on the blazing sand
& listens to the morphine sounds
of AKA singing Free Nelson Mandela
on the personal stereo.

The holiday begins. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]