Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Monday, April 28, 2014
Floating in space
Friday, April 25, 2014
Blogging Anzac Day
Emmerson, the benighted cartoonist for the New Zealand Herald, has marked this year's Anzac Day with a portrait of a soldier marching across the no man's land of World War One, above the caption 'Whatungarongaro te tangata tioto te whenua' ('People fade away, but the land remains'). That phrase was often used by Princess Te Puea, who led a Waikato campaign of resistance against conscription during World War One. Te Puea didn't understand why her people should have to fight under the flag of the empire that had confiscated several million acres of their land. I blogged about Te Puea's campaign of passive resistance back in 2008. I guess Emmerson wasn't reading...
In this post from 2009, I argued that the growing numbers of young Kiwis attending Anzac Day ceremonies were a sign that events like Gallipoli had passed from living memory, and had acquired a mythic character that makes them irresistable to a generation that has been raised in an era apparently devoid of truly significant events. Keri Hulme took issue with me in the comments box.
In a follow-up post, I suggested that Anzac Day ought to be made over, so that it becomes a commemoration of wars that have been fought on the soil of these islands, as well as elsewhere. This argument didn't impress everyone: the Marxist scholar John Edmundson felt that if New Zealand's nineteenth century history were made into a part of official Anzac Day discourse then it would be 'recuperated', and drained of its radical significance.
The one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Waikato War fell last July, and the last nine months have seen large-scale and sometimes dramatic commemorations of several of the most important battles of that war. This year's Anzac ceremonies, though, remain focused on the distant battlefields of Turkey and Western Europe.
Some defenders of the northern hemisphere focus of Anzac Day talk of the necessity of remembering the places where Australian and New Zealand troops were thrown together in battle. In this post, though, I argued that the very first Anzacs fought and died in the Waikato War, not in Gallipoli, and wondered why thousands of Kiwis visit Turkey to remember events in 1915 when they could drive along Auckland's Great South Road to the monument that honours the Aussies and New Zealanders who died in 1863 and 1864.
As well as being one of New Zealand's greatest intellectuals, Kendrick Smithyman was a rather unenthusiastic member of New Zealand's air force during World War Two. In a 2010 post I discussed a short and innocuous poem that Smithyman wrote about an Anzac Day service in the little Bay of Plenty town of Opotiki in the 1980s, and argued that this text concealed, in typical Smithyman fashion, a series of profound insights into history. My discussion of 'Anzac Day' ended up in Private Bestiary, an annotated selection of Smithyman poems published by Titus Books in November 2010.
As the storeman for a section of the air force stationed in Norfolk Island during the last years of World War Two, Smithyman suffered no war wound except a severe case of hemorrhoids. Keith Douglas, by contrast, saw some of the most spectacular fighting of the Second World War, and was sometimes so moved by it that he parked his tank, leapt from its turret, and ran about the North African desert lobbing grenades at the enemy.
Douglas survived the campaign against Rommel, but died shortly after the D Day landings, at the age of twenty-four. He is nowadays recognised as the greatest English poet of the Second World War, and I consider him one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. In this 2011 post I argued that, because of his machismo, Douglas gives us a far better insight into the reality of war than almost any pacifist writer. I'm not sure how such a claim is consistent with my celebration of pen-pushing Private Smithyman's insights into World War Two.
investigated the various accounts of a conflict between the occupiers and locals that ended with the death of a New Zealand soldier. There is an extended discussion of the sad fate of AE 'Shorty' Yealands underneath Ian Stebhens' photograph of the man's grave.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]
Wednesday, April 23, 2014
From Khlebnikov to Edmond
When Murray explained that he would be spending another month in Poland in the middle of this year, I wondered whether he would take to his bicycle again, and end up riding into a convoy of tanks despatched by Putin, that avatar of Ivan the Terrible and Stalin. Would the veteran of New Zealand’s cultural avant-garde have to climb down from his modest vehicle, offer his notebook to some agitated tank commander, and try to explain that he was a poet, not a spy or a revolutionary? How would his gentle, ironic baiku be received by Putin’s troops?
Friday, April 18, 2014
Time for archetypes
I found it hard to relate Clive Edwards, who hobbles about Nuku'alofa in expensive, extra- large suits, to that master mariner and fisher of islands Maui. My interlocutors explained, though, that Maui is a sort of archetype who returns in every generation of mortals, and pointed out that the legendary hero and Edwards share a penchant for trickery.
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Gardening and imperialism
when I deserted you and the rest of the film crew during the shoot at the duckponds of the Auckland Domain last Saturday, I wasn’t just looking for an ice cream. I was investigating the Domain’s Wintergardens, in case we wanted to film them, after we’d finished with those duckponds and with the ruined railway workshops in the park’s bushland.
We have talked in the past about a possible link between the Wintergardens, with their high glass ceilings and open interiors, and Crystal Palace, that symbol of Victorian imperialism built for the Great Exhibition of 1851.
For the millions of visitors who wandered through Crystal Palace’s interior, blinking at sunbeams sharpened by the thick glass of the building's walls and ceilings, the Great Exhibition represented an inventory of the world’s resources, and a demonstration of British ingenuity.
The Crystal Palace lacked the complicated spaces – the small rooms and hallways and antechambers and stairs – of more traditional European buildings. Because its vast central space was undisturbed by permanent internal divisions, it could be filled with almost any sort of object or activity.
Arguably, the abstract spaces of the Crystal Palace were the corollary of the increasingly abstract quality of capital, in the age of burgeoning imperialism. As the English ruling class invested in Ceylonese tea and New Zealand sheep and Guyanese timber, the old counters and symbols of wealth – gold, livestock, the country pile – were being superseded by the numerals that flowed through banks and stock exchanges.
Like capital, the Crystal Palace could continually reinvent itself. The same room that held a collection of early English-language Bibles – the wine-stained portable churches of the Lollards and Wycliffites, with their innumerable errors of spelling and interpretation – could, in a few hours, be made to display a collection of garish, obscenely-shaped flowers from Guyana, or a set of silks from the East Indies, or a lovingly dismantled, carefully polished train engine from Manchester.
We are interested in the Domain because of the role it played, in the late 1850s and ‘60s, as the showpiece and arsenal of Auckland’s Acclimatisation Society. As the Crostopi Manifesto pointed out, the Domain’s duckponds and the gardens that once surrounded those ponds were the site where the species that would transform the landscape south of Auckland were planted and drilled. Strange fish writhed and flashed in the ponds, while blue ducks patrolled their surface; plants garnered from different zones of the British empire flourished or expired in the flowerbeds that had been raised around the water.
When General Cameron took his army into the Waikato Kingdom, crossing the border King Tawhiao had made at the Mangatawhiri Stream, the species barracked at the Domain were not far behind him. As the soldier-settlers of the Waikato waged war on the land they had confiscated from Tawhiao, draining eel-swamps and making them into cattle pastures, felling kahikatea for fence posts, and ploughing hillside pa into croplands, they found allies in ducks, trout, rabbits, and other exotic species.
As James Belich has shown in his books Forging Paradise and Replenishing the Earth, the men and women who colonised New Zealand in the middle decades of the nineteenth century were ardent futurists, intent on using technology to build a ‘better Britain’, a utopia of the south. In many ways, the soldier-settlers who founded utopian communities like Cambridge and Morrinsville were far more modern than we are today. Like the imperialist businessmen who funded the Great Exhibition, they wanted to transform not only the human but the natural world, by creating new ecosystems and new landscapes.
By the time the construction of the Domain’s Wintergardens began in 1913, though, the history of imperialism had entered a new phase. In New Zealand and in the Home Country, fantasies of fantastic wealth and untramelled progress had withered. Trade unions and suffragettes were rioting in the streets of Auckland and London and Liverpool in the name of social revolution, and rival imperialist powers were drilling armies in central Europe. The construction of the Wintergardens was completed in the years after World War One, that four year indictment of European capitalist civilisation.
It is not surprising, then, that the Wintergardens, and the many similar indoor gardens erected in postwar Britain, are a step backwards from the hubris of high Victorian architecture. The Wintergarden’s glass is supported not by steel, that symbol of the industrial revolution, but by bricks arranged in the shape of a barrel. Where the Acclimatisation Society housed its species in the open air, as if encouraging them to escape into the barbarous spaces of Aotearoa, the Wintergarden’s temperate and tropical rooms were and are carefully separated from the rest of New Zealand.
By the 1920s, optimism about the ability of humans to transform the earth for the better had been replaced, in New Zealand at least, by nervousness about the impact of exotic flora and fauna on traditional landscapes. Farmers complained of hills collapsing after tunneling by thousands of rabbits, and of gorse and ragwort marching like rebellious armies across acres of pastureland only recently taken from the bush.
In the twenty-first century, tens of millions of dollars are spent every year preventing exotic species entering New Zealand, and millions more are spent on a struggle against nineteenth century imports like the rat and the possum. Where the imperialists of the nineteenth century deprecated the indigenous and celebrated the exotic, their descendants do the opposite. Sociologist Bruce Curtis has noted the way that the kiwi, an animal regarded with contempt in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, was adopted as a symbol in the 1960s and ‘70s by a Pakeha population keen to assert its supposed indigenity.
With its collections of exotic flowers and its pleasant ponds, the Wintergardens is a popular part of the Domain. Couples kiss and negotiate on the long benches beside the ponds; elderly ladies and giggling toddlers breathe in the strange scents of the tropical room; botanists aim the long snouts of their cameras at particularly rare or garish petals.
But the appeal of the Wintergardens rests on its exoticism, and on the strength of the distinction, in twenty-first century New Zealand, between the exotic and the indigenous. Where visitors to the Domain of the 1860s were excited by the notion that the species being nourished there would soon be unleashed south of the Mangatawhiri, and become part of the New Zealand landscape, visitors to the Wintergardens come to see plants that will never be part of the local landscape.
In recent years, the management of the Wintergardens has sought out and exhibited plants that appeal to the horror of the exotic that has is such a feature of twenty-first century Kiwi consciousness. Last year, for instance, they were able to procure and display a titum arum, which is native to the jungles of Sumatra and smells like a decomposing cadaver. The ‘corpse flower’, as it is popularly known, attracted large crowds, as Aucklanders sniffed and grimaced at the strange visitor from a distant and dangerous world.
Last Saturday, as you were trying to wrap up that shoot at the duckponds, I wandered around the walls of the Wintergarden’s tropical room. The rows of red bricks reminded me of an Edwardian prison or asylum, and as they pressed their faces against the panes of fogged glass that stretched between the brick, the species of the tropical room suddenly seemed like bewildered captives, staring out at the world that would no longer admit them. I’ve attached a couple of photographs.
Thursday, April 10, 2014
Felix Quail, the multiverse, and other real delusions
Rachel uses facebook to try to maintain her connection with the civilised world, and it was on facebook that Rachel and I discussed Felix Quail, a character that I have invented while working on the film with Paul. In the following transcript Rachel’s comments are given in bold type.]
We’ve made a lot of progress on the film over the last week, creating a fictional character called Felice Quail. Felice is a descendant of an older, weirder, somewhat discredited character named Felix Quail, who served as an operator at Pandora Radar Station in Spirits Bay during World War Two, and became obsessed with the idea that the signals he was sending out were interfering with the movement of souls over Cape Reinga towards the underworld. As they helped themselves down the cliff at the end of the island, using the branches of the ancient pohutakawa tree that stood there, the dead would be blasted with radar.
I don't think you need to invent a character - just ask around - people will throw their invented/embroidered histories at you.
The radar technicians of World War Two were taught to identify the 'fingerprints' of enemy operators, by attending carefully to the information and distortion that poured through their primitive machines. Quail, who had been raised in a small spiritualist church, started to believe that, as he manned his machine through long stormy nights at Spirits Bay, he was getting signals from the dead, or the not-yet-living.
At the risk of repeating myself, again with the too much screen time! Lack of sleep is responsible for many invasions...I think you risk losing the authority of the factual material if you Jenner it up too much.
Quail was invalided out of the army and sent to Tokanui mental hospital to 'recover'. There he met a man who was to change his life - a bloke who was called Len Dalgety by the nurses and doctors who unsympathetically attended to him, but who insisted that he was really Kereopa Latu, a Tongan-Maori diplomat for the Federated Nations of Polynesia.
It's like Pat Barker's Regeneration, and then some.
Latu claimed that he had been living in a world where Maori had won the battle of Rangiriri and the rest of the New Zealand Wars, and had established, with the help of the kingdoms of Tonga and Hawaii, a Polynesian federation that kept colonists out of most of the Pacific. A few years after the victory at Rangiriri, the Paris Commune had led to revolutions across Europe and the establishment of a socialist federation there.
In Latu's world, capitalism and imperialism were only practiced by a relatively isolated United States. Aotearoa had its capital in Ngaruawahia, and its diplomats and journalists liked to point to a small and quiescent Pakeha population and boast about their country’s enlightened race relations. Latu had sent many years representing the Polynesian federation in European cities. One morning, though, he woke up and found himself in a world where Maori had been defeated in the nineteenth century and marginalised in the twentieth, and where he was employed as a fencer on a dairy farm outside Morrinsville.
Utopian. Until the end.
Latu's story convinces Quail, who has been spending his leave days reading William James, as well as heterodox medieval thinkers like Grosseteste and Giordano Bruno, that we must live in a sort of multiverse, where there are many different timestreams. The signals Quail was picking up at Spirits Bay came from another stream. Quail has the uncanny sense that he is living in the 'wrong' reality, where history has taken a wrong turn or two.
Quail made me think of this.
One day Latu disappears from Tokanui’s secure ward. The nurses and doctors tell Quail that his friend has jumped in the nearby Puniu River, that old boundary between the remnants of the Waikato Kingdom and colonialism, and drowned: Quail knows better. Latu has found a way back to his own timestream. Quail is almost unbearably envious.
We all have our boundaries and envy the freedoms we perceive others to have. Yet the freedoms we know we have, we refuse to share.
After his release from hospital, Quail begins to study, in a chaotic but enthusiastic manner, both the doctrines of modern physics and Polynesian legends about 'otherworlds' like Hawai’iki and Pulotu. He decides that portals to other timestreams can be found at the sites of fateful historical events. These places have become liminal and fragile.
Quail decides that the Great South Road is a likely site for 'portals', because it was the route made for the army that invaded the Waikato, and the site of several battles, including the seminal clash at Rangiriri. He begins to go up and down the road, pestering truckies and bus drivers with enquiries. He wants to know whether they have seen the ghostly activity that many Polynesian cultures associate with portals to otherworlds.
There are many ghost stories that regular travellers on the Great South Road and Highway One like to share; Quail collects them. He also begins to examine old photographs of the road and its environs. In the images made by the soldier-photographer William Temple, who marched down the Great South Road to war in 1863, Quail finds eerie blurs and fissures that might be evidence of extraordinary forces.
In terms of having a framework for the film, I like it, but isn't it just another Euro-myth you're bunging into a cultural archive already pummelled with Pakeha jaunts of fantasy?
Quail begins to self-publish pamphlets outlining his theories, and invites support from the public. Gradually, through the process that Lenin described as 'the primitive accumulation of cadre', he assembles a circle of followers, and founds an organisation called the Taskforce for the Investigation of Paranormal Activity on Highway One, or TIPAHO.
It's getting a bit 1980s.
It is the '80s by now! The elderly Quail and his followers cruise and film the road. They hand out leaflets urging members of the public to assist their 'objective scientific investigation'.
The activities of TIPAHO resemble those of Bruce Cathie and his followers in the '70s and '80s. Cathie acquired a cult international following after claiming, in a series of cryptic books, to have discovered a sort of energy grid formed by secret military bases and super-powerful ‘harmonic’ transmitters around Auckland. Cathie found transmitters in the Waikateres and also in suburban Auckland, and he linked these devices to a series of curious events, including an explosion at a factory in Avondale. After performing a series of inscrutable calculations using the ‘new science of harmonics’, Cathie declared that a UFO had crashed and exploded at the factory while doing repair work on Auckland's grid.
Cathie and his followers produced some blurry photos of UFOs, which have curious similarities to the images made by William Temple with his collodion plate camera.
The UFO resembles the light fitting of my old driving intructor's smallest room.
It’s both disturbing and inspiring to know that Cathie actually existed.
It fell off the ceiling, broke his toilet bowl yet remained intact. Disturbing and inspiring. My personal feeling, and the thing that's halted progress on my Great South Road poem, is that I think there are enough Pakeha trampling on that road.
Quail is preoccupied with the 1940s as well as the 1860s, and he begins to research some of the more esoteric aspects of New Zealand's war effort. He finds in Nicky Hager's marvellously detailed account of signals intelligence and secret radar stations during World War Two confirmation of his belief that the stations were intended partly to 'jam' transmissions from other timestreams, and thereby prevent inhabitants of other streams crossing over into our own.
Those ghosts, they aren't Cathie's, or ours.
Quail becomes preoccupied with the Guide Platoons founded in 1941, when NZ's political and military establishments were terrified by the Japanese advance south through the Pacific. The members of this enigmatic organisation, which is mentioned tersely and tantalisingly in Nancy Taylor’s massive history of the New Zealand Home Front, were recruited from amongst the ranks of the possumskinners and deerhunters who stalked NZ's backcountry. They were instructed to build secret bases, complete with radar and radio gear, in the bush and hills, and to prepare to wage guerrilla war.
The mist is thick.
A group of Guide Platooners was sent to reconnoitre the ancient forests of the Pureora Ranges in the centre of Te Ika a Maui. As they tramped around the isolated mountain of Titiraupenga, they came across a small clearing made by an earlier band of guerrilla fighters. In the clearing was a ruined marae. Inside the marae was a chest of rotten wood. Inside the chest was one of the battle flags Te Kooti carried through the bush (this stuff is all, or almost, true).
These Platooners were out of contact with New Zealand's towns and cities, and were mindful that a Japanese invasion may already have taken place. They were thrown back suddenly into the 1860s - they had become, like Te Kooti and his band, indigenes sheltering in the forest from an invader. Quail became obsessed with this obscure episode in World War Two history, and came to see it as an example of the way that Pakeha could be redeemed and relieved of their status as invaders and appropriators.
Quail decided, then, that New Zealand could only be saved by its destruction. Pakeha could only form a true attachment to the soil they had appropriated, and a true sense of nationhood, if they were confronted by an invader. Just as the European threat had created a Maori nation in the 19th century, as organisations like the Kingitanga were formed by formerly fissiparous iwi, so a progressive Pakeha nation could be founded.
How does xenophobia redeem them? Oh, here are some more people we hate because, um, we're racist, so let's hide - ah, now we know how Pakeha made Maori feel. Great.
Quail resolved to recruit an army from another timestream and throw it though a portal onto the Great South Road, so that it could march on Auckland.
Did he not think to just tootle off down a portal? Would've been a shorter story.
He has moved away from individual escapism towards a collectivist solution to New Zealand’s problems. That’s the po-faced answer to your question.
Yes, he's cooking with gas. This is like the "Pope in the pool" lesson in exposition. I hope the twelve people following this post are reading all of these comments! Sit up, kids! Is that The End? OMG, Scott Hamilton's been sucked through a portal! NZ is SAVED!
I lost a heap of comments!
I was quoting the Northumbrian (psycho)geographer Alastair Bonnet, who believes that many people in Western societies suffer from a nostalgia for the future: from a sense that some tremendous possibility has somehow been lost over the past century and a half. I believe that this tendency is especially strong on the left: we look back at dates like 1871, and 1918, and 1985, and see history hitting an oil slick and skidding, when it should have been accelerating to a paradisal destination.
What if the Paris Commune spread to London and Berlin? What if Rosa Luxemborg had wound up as chancellor rather than a martyr? What if Scargill had bested Thatcher? And what if the Waikato Kingdom, with its fields of wheat and orchards and fleet of schooners and burgeoning villages where Polynesian and European cultural influences were becoming intertwined and complementary, had not been visited by fire in 1863? I think that Felix Quail dramatises, in his delusions, this sense of living in a world that has somehow gone wrong, in a reality that is obscurely counterfeit...
As David Attenborough said, "It may look like paradise, but living here is not easy". I don't think there's a possibility of paradise. More of what Danny Dorling terms a "possibilist" maybe...? I'm interested in collectivism.
Quail spends his last years holding court amidst his small and shrinking group of followers. He boasts of his ability to travel through portals to other timestreams, describes the wonders of his old friend Kereopa's world, and emphasises how heroic he is to remain in our tawdry, counterfeit timestream. Quail also likes to boast, after a few too many cups of kava, a drink he has ostentiously adopted, that he is planning to bring an army through a portal to correct the course of New Zealand history.
Kava has a lot to answer for.
Utopia seems a permanent temptation for humans, a comfort as well as an irritation. Or is utopia, in its modern sense, simply an outgrowth of Judeo-Christian culture, with its teleology that sends a degenerate world hurtling towards an eschatology that combines dystopian torment, under the reign of the antichrist, and utopian fulfilment, in the kingdom of Christ?
Is it a degenerate world, though?
During a public discussion of Paul Janman's Tongan Ark, Eve Coxon claimed that Futa Helu was devoid of utopianism, and suggested that this was one of the strengths of the man. And scholars like Niel Gunson have argued that in non-Western cultures, like the culture of ancient Tonga, there was no sense of the forward movement of time, no scythe-wielding gardener to disturb Marvell's sensual enjoyment of life, and hence no need for notions of a perfected reality...
Belief systems are tricky. I think that our stories are the fabric of civilisation, and if we tell positive stories, where people come together to work collectively, then it will filter.
But we seem unable to outgrow the notion of a better, or indeed worse, world. Modernity has, I think, a teleological sense of history as one of its core conditions.
It's a kind of arrogance - a narcissism, the desire to control or at least set in motion structures for the future.
When Quail's car is found in Muriwai Stream, which flows through the isolated Limestone Country north of Raglan before entering an exhausted Waikato River close to the Tasman, the police decide that he must have crashed and drowned. But they find no body.
Quails can fly - bumblingly so, but they're wick.
I was going to suggest that the cops found his car, but not his body, and that his followers chose to believe that he had not died, but had instead followed his old friend Kereopa into a better world. Sentimental, I know.
I think you should have left it hanging, definitely.
Give me an alternate ending!
Quail, it turns out, was not Quail at all, but Darwin, come back via a host body to say he messed up, and that his Origins was never meant to make folk pit one against t'other for supremacy of species, but that he didn't start it.
I think Quail would be a Lamarckian rather than a Darwinist.
I think Quail's story demonstrates beautifully an intractable paradox, the Gordian knot that is both collectivism and individualism and everything in-between. Once you accept there's no end to tug at, you see there's no end to hold on to, and you either run around like a scalextric car, or you let go.
You raise a very legitimate concern when you ask 'In terms of having a framework for the film, I like it, but isn't it just another Euro-myth you're bunging into a cultural archive already pummelled with Pakeha jaunts of fantasy?' I suppose one way I could respond is by pointing out that the notion that history somehow took a wrong and perverse turn in the nineteenth century, and that an alternate reality should be summoned up as a counterexample to the status quo, has been a part of Maori nationalist discourse in recent decades.
Hone Harawira, and earlier Donna Awatere in her influential book Maori Sovereignty, have conjured up a Maori Golden Age that supposedly existed before colonisation. This myth echoes hoary English notions of a Norman Yoke. I think though that the real Golden Age occurred in the 1850s and early '60s, when the Waikato Kingdom arguably showed how European and Polynesian cultures could intertwine and complement one another. Peria, I think, is New Zealand's equivalent of the Paris Commune, bathetic as that may sound. I think that, like the Commune, is was a working model of an alternate and superior society.
I have a problem with the word "superior".
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]
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]