Sometime in the late nineties I went to a seminar given by the University of Auckland art historian Dr Rangihiroa Panoho. I remember Panoho turning off the lights in the seminar room and flicking through a series of slides. One of the slides showed a tribesman from the highlands of New Guinea dressed up for some sort of ritual. The man had painted his face and torso, but what interested Panoho’s audience was the empty packet of Kellog’s Corn Flakes that he had fastened to his forehead. The tribesman wore his unconventional headdress solemnly, but some members of the audience began to titter, and others winced.
“I think this next image is just as funny” Panoho told us. He punched a button, and a carved wooden face mask, painted in an intricate pattern of reds, blacks, and greys, appeared on the screen. “This mask was made for a particular ceremony in the highlands, and then thrown away. An anthropologist salvaged the mask, and a museum acquired it. Now the shield is on public display in the West.” The audience was silent. “Why aren’t you laughing?” Panoho asked, in a low voice.
Panoho’s audience had found it amusing and pitiable that a New Guinea tribesman would salvage and revere an empty corn flake packet. When a Western scholar did the same thing with an item New Guineans considered disposable, though, nobody regarded his action as peculiar. As Panoho went on to explain, this double standard says a great deal about the way that Westerners still see the indigenous peoples of ‘remote’ regions like the New Guinea highlands.
In the West we are accustomed to consuming a continuous stream of cultural artefacts imported from near and distant parts of the world. We watch movies from Hollywood or Bollywood, wear jeans made in China, sit on furniture assembled in Scandinavia, and collect masks from New Guinea, without feeling that our eclecticism is strange or dangerous. But when a New Guinean or Amazonian or Tahitian shows a similar eclecticism, by donning blue jeans or acquiring a cellphone, we lament the way that modernity and globalisation are corrupting indigenous cultures. Like oil and water, modernity and indigenity cannot, we assume, mix.
As Rangihiroa Panoho pointed out in that now-distant seminar, our patronising attitude towards indigenous peoples was born in the eighteenth century, when Rousseau and other European intellectuals concocted the notion of the noble savage. Newly ‘discovered’ indigenous peoples like the Polynesians and the native Americans were considered child-like in their innocence, ignorance, and capacity for corruption. Untroubled by abstract thought or a sense of time, the noble savages lived happily and in harmony with nature in the forests and glades of Virginia and Tahiti. Once they were introduced to curses of the West like Christianity, cash, alcohol, and politics, though, the savages were doomed to decline and extinction.
In the nineteenth century Pacific, the noble savage myth was a useful excuse for colonisers. Because they were incapable of dealing with the modern world, the noble savages required Europeans and North Americans to administer their affairs. The fanatically imperialist leader of fin de siècle New Zealand, ‘King Dick’ Seddon, compared the Urewera mountains, homeland of the ‘primitive’ Tuhoe tribe, to a wildlife preserve. Wilhelm Solf, the chief administrator of German Samoa, used similar metaphors to characterise his domain.
I thought about Rangihiroa Panoho’s slide show when I read an advertisement for a hefty new book by the photographer Jimmy Nelson. In Before They Pass Away, Nelson has collected images of a series of indigenous peoples who are supposedly on the brink of extinction. Nelson doesn’t seem to register the fact that many of these peoples have large and growing populations, and that some of them, like the Kazakhs, have their own nation states. For Nelson, ‘tribes’ like the Maori, the Kazakhs, and the New Guineans are doomed because their members are increasingly wearing jeans and chatting on cellphones.
When he talks about tribal cultures succumbing to the onslaught of modernity, Nelson repeats for the umpteenth time the view that indigenous peoples are noble savages whose way of life is both static and incompatible with modernity.
Any New Zealander who looks at one of the portraits of Maori included in Nelson’s book will immediately recognise the absurdity of the photographer’s project. Like a Victorian-era painter, Nelson has dressed Maori up in 'traditional costumes' and portrayed them in front of a pristine piece of forest. Looking at Nelson’s photograph, we would never guess that Maori drive cars, earn cash, run political parties, record hip hop albums in their native language, and generally inhabit the world of the twenty-first century.
The unmistakable implication of Nelson’s photograph is that the only authentic Maori culture is a 'primeval' pre-contact culture. It has been half a century now since New Zealand artists and museologists realised that Maori culture, like virtually all indigenous cultures, is dynamic and flexible, and capable of adapting to assimilating aspects of Western modernity without losing its essence. Maori culture is in no danger of vanishing, and I suspect the same is true is for the other cultures (mis)represented by Nelson.
For scholars of history and sociology, the noble savage myth recycled by Nelson is an annoyance; for indigenous artists, though, it is a serious threat.
I have mentioned the Selaka Club, or the Toilet Club, as it is often nicknamed, before on this blog. Led by Tevita Latu, a talented artist and indefatigable cultural activist who was jailed, beaten and briefly charged with treason after peacefully protesting against the Tongan monarchy in 2006, the club’s kava-fuelled members work at night on drawings, paintings, posters, and music in a fale beside Nuku’alofa’s lagoon. Determined to reject stereotypes of Tongan culture, the Selakarians, as they call themselves, drink their kava from a toilet bowl, fly a Tongan flag adorned with a satirical swastika, and antagonise neighbouring and more conventional kava clubs by playing their favourite dubstep, techno, and death metal tracks through their PA system late into the night.
With its fearless assimilation of influences from diverse parts of the globe and its rejection of insulting notions of a static, unchanging indigenous culture, the Selaka Club regularly collides with the expectations that palangi visitors bring to Tonga. All too often, tourists turn up to Nuku’alofa’s arts and crafts gallery wanting to buy cute carvings of turtles or dolphins, and are horrified when they see the Selakarians’ Cubist-influenced portraits of fast cars and parties and street protests. Tevita Latu and co are condemned as un-Tongan by palangi who have been fed a myth of the indigenous person as a noble savage.
Last week Sally Richardson, a Fulbright scholar from Alabama who has been living and making art in Tonga for most of the year, opened an exhibition of her work at an old house in central Nuku’alofa run by On the Spot, a collective of young Tongan painters, dancers, and actors. Richardson’s opening was an opportunity for Nuku’alofa’s thriving arts community to party. As the sun set and Nuku’alofa’s growing population of flying foxes began to shake themselves awake in their banyan and mango trees, the Selakarians rolled up in their club truck, which is painted with the same psychedelic colours and surreal slogans as the famous ‘Magic Bus’ Ken Kesey and his band of merry pranksters drove across America in the sixties. The Selakarians were armed with guitars, plates of watermelons, and their notorious kava bowl.
While kava songs floated out of the doorless house into the dark street, Sally Richardson and her close friend Tevita Latu held court, talking of tapa cloth and Picasso, photoshopping and traditional tattooing.
Richardson’s works, many of which were composed on her laptop between cups of kava at the Toilet Club, brought together the disposable and sacred objects of Tongan and non-Tongan cultures. One vast collage, which was made with a standard photoshopping programme, introduced a plastic salt shaker to a wooden tapa beater, and a dairy cow to a Polynesian chicken. The exhibition’s most extraordinary work blended scores of tiny photographs of schoolkids parading through downtown Nuku’alofa; when viewed from a distance, the lines of uniformed boys and girls resembled the sort of colourful Chinese-made mat popular in contemporary Tongan homes.
In a small, shadowy room to the side of the house, Sally and her On the Spot comrades had made an art installation by stretching woven patterns along the walls, strewing fragrant Tongan flowers on the floor, and lighting quaint-looking glass lanterns. Creeping into this mysterious space, I might have been entering a recusant priesthole in Elizabethan England, or one of the hermetic godhouses where shamans stoned on green kava summouned the spirits of Tangaloa and Hikule’o in pre-Wesleyan Tonga.
Like so much of the art that is being made in Nuku’alofa today, Sally Richardson’s works joyously mock the notion that indigenous and non-indigenous cultures cannot commune and converse with another. She and the Toilet Club could teach Jimmy Nelson a few lessons.
(Photos pinched from On The Spot and Sally Richardson.)
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]