Sunday, October 04, 2015

Who's to blame for John Wanoa?

John Wanoa was all over newspapers and television news bulletins last week, after he and a group of uniformed men raided an office in downtown Auckland and forced the men and women working there outside. After he posted footage of this 'eviction' online, Wanoa was quickly arrested and charged with trespass, forcible entry, and assault. 
Wanoa's been described in the media as a 'Maori rights protester' pursuing some sort of Treaty claim, but he is actually a paranoid eccentric who has borrowed conspiracy theories about ancient civilisations from the far right of Pakeha politics. 
When I encountered John Wanoa back in 2009 he was claiming to be Moriori rather than Maori, and was busy recycling a set of myths and stereotypes that had been the stock in trade of Pakeha rednecks for a century. I wrote this post about Wanoa's attempts to appropriate Moriori history. Wanoa responded with a series of decreasingly coherent messages. He told me about his plans to build a tidal power generator, and informed me that the famous stone statues of Rapa Nui are able to levitate and move about that island. 

More recently, Wanoa has taken to claiming descent from a technologically sophisticated civilisation that supposedly existed on Rapa Nui and in Africa thousands of years ago. He has also suggested that the Treaty of Waitangi historians and lawyers acknowledge is a fake document. According to Wanoa, a secret, long-suppressed version of the Treaty confirms his worldview and entitles him to political and economic control over New Zealand. Wanoa currently claims to be the king of New Zealand and Britain, and has somehow attracted followers in both countries (here's a surreal statement by a supporter in Brighton). 
I don't think it is a coincidence that right-wing Pakeha conspiracy theorists like Martin Doutre like to talk about elaborate and forgotten ancient civilisations on Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, as they invariably call it, and that Doutre and co insist that the true version of the Treaty of Waitangi has been hidden from New Zealanders. 

Wanoa may soon find himself moving from prison to the Mason clinic, or some other psychiatric facility. When Clare Swinney, another New Zealand author of elaborate conspiracy theories, was committed to a psychiatric ward a few years ago, she condemned her treatment as politically motivated. In an interview with an American conspiracy theorist, Swinney described the hospital where she was treated as a 'communist' institution, and complained that the New Zealand government was attempting to brainwash her. Wanoa's supporters would probably be credulous enough to accept a similar claim from him.

John Wanoa has no more to do with Maori activism than Clare Swinney. Like Swinney, he's the victim of a subculture of conspiracy theory and paranoia that has flourished in New Zealand like some exotic and noxious weed.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, October 01, 2015

From Francis to Visesio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

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]