Saturday, February 13, 2016

Great non-fiction: another spinoff

Steve Braunias and the other editors of The Spinoff have published, in two parts, a list of the hundred greatest works of New Zealand non-fiction. A few of their inclusions and omissions are baffling (how could they honour Bob Jones, but neglect Judith Binney?), but many are astute, and some of the thumbnail sketches attached to the books are marvellously apposite (the Treaty of Waitangi is 'as mysterious and profound as the Dead Sea Scrolls, at once enigmatic and dead simple').

A group of Maori scholars has taken issue with the lack of tangata whenua on the Spinoff's list, and come up with a supplementary top fifty which includes more fine books.

But there are still many great New Zealand works of non-fiction that haven't been publicised at The Spinoff. I've made my own list of fifty titles, which I'll give in three instalments. Here are numbers fifty to thirty-four. Their order is, of course, rather arbitrary.

50. John Pascoe, Unclimbed New Zealand, George Allen and Unwin, 1939

Pascoe's paean to the 1930s bohemians who caught Friday trains from Christchurch and spent their weekends slogging cheerfully up Canterbury's mountains, reciting Coleridge and arguing the merits of Marxism and Douglas Credit on the way, is one of the classic texts of Pakeha cultural nationalism, as ambitious as Curnow's 'Landfall in Unknown Seas' and as anarchic as Mulgan's Man Alone. Why has it been forgotten?

49. H. Guthrie-Smith, Tutira, William Blackwood, 1921

The Greeks have the Odyssey; the Portugese have the Lusiads; Pakeha New Zealanders have Tutira, WH Guthrie-Smith's epic account of the history and present of a sheep station in the Hawkes Bay hill country. Guthrie-Smith's prose is both sensual and precise, and his determination to make the geology, flora, and fauna of his small kingdom as heroic as his humans might remind us of Braudel and the Annales historians, who were warming up on the other side of the world when the first edition of Tutira appeared.

48. John Gorst, The Maori King, Macmillan, 1864

Gorst is the most famous of a series of Pakeha writers who anatomised and criticised the wars that the British Crown and settler governments waged against Maori in the nineteenth century. As a sometime aide to Governor George Grey, Gorst had a front seat view of the early stages of the Waikato War. The Maori King describes Grey's expulsion of the tangata whenua from their ancient homes around the Manukau harbour, the burning and looting of kainga, and the cynicism of the Auckland businessmen who persuaded Grey to go to war. In one of his book's poignant flashbacks to pre-war years Gorst describes the wealth and harmony of the doomed utopian community that Wiremu Tamihana, the architect of the King Movement, created at Peria, deep in the king's domain.

47. Bronwyn Elsmore, Mana from Heaven, Reed, 1999

Elsmore's survey of Maori religious syncretism teems with angels and demons and revelations. She describes not only famous religious leaders, like Te Kooti and Ratana, but seers and miracle workers and theologians whose followings never grew beyond a village in the Hokianga or Horowhenua.
46. Roger Neich, Painted Histories, Auckland University Press, 1993

Painted Histories is Roger Neich's study of the painted meeting houses built by the devotees of Te Kooti in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Influenced by the paintings and photographs they had seen in Pakeha magazines and newspapers and by Te Kooti's turbulent theology, the painters Neich surveys broke with the timeless motifs of classical Maori art and produced realistic portraits of individuals. Sometimes their images combined the traditional and the new: the head of a tiki might be attached to a body in a neatly buttoned coat. Neich was a structuralist, fond of categorising and charting the images he found on rafters and pou, but he also had an intense empathy for the artists and communities he studied. More than any other ethnographer, he has influenced New Zealand's fine artists: both the Nga Puhi painter Shane Cotton and the Tongan-New Zealand sculptor Visesio Siasau have cited him as a guide.
45. Dennis McEldowney, The World Regained, Chapman and Hall, 1957

When he was still a very young man McEldowney was driven to bed by a weakening heart. Too tired to read his beloved books or even to listen for long to the radio, he spent years gazing out a window at a Taranaki garden. The World Regained is the story of his resurrection at Greenlane hospital, and his joyful struggle to cope with the vastness of the sky, the strange solidity of suburban houses, and the hum and roar of 1950s Auckland. A gentle masterpiece.

44. Robin Hyde, A Home in this World, Longman Paul, 1984

Early in 1937 Robin Hyde abandoned Auckland Mental Hospital, where she had been voluntarily living, with the intention of taking a boat for the tropics. After discovering she could not afford a ferry ticket to Rarotonga or Samoa, Hyde headed for a guesthouse at Waiatarua, near the top of the Waitakere Ranges. She wrote A Home in this World in a few weeks, whilst listening to rain and possums on the roof of the hut she had rented in the guesthouse grounds. Hyde's text is too brilliantly erratic to be called an autobiography: it moves from one memory to another with the rigorous and secret logic of a dream.

43. HD Skinner, The Morioris of Chatham Islands, Bishop Museum, 1923

In the aftermath of World War One travel to the Chathams was carefully regulated, and HD Skinner had to sneak aboard one of the few vessels headed for the islands. By the time he returned from the chilly archipelago, New Zealand's first professional anthropologist had seen enough artefacts and bones and heard enough stories to destroy the Victorian theory that the Moriori were the remnants of a Melanesian people chased from the North and South Islands to the Chathams by Maori. Skinner proved that Moriori were an Eastern Polynesian people, like the Maori, and that the Chathams - or Rekohu, as they called it - was their longtime homeland, not some relatively recent refuge. It's a shame that, more than ninety years later, many New Zealanders still haven't assimilated the arguments Skinner made so powerfully.

42. Spiro Zavos, Crusade, INL, 1981

The Social Credit Political League was the only anti-capitalist movement to win mass support in postwar New Zealand, but its weird mix of populism, crank economics, and anti-semitic conspiracy theories has made it unattractive, and perhaps even incomprehensible, to scholars of both the left and the mainstream right. Writing in the early '80s, when Social Credit was winning the support of a third of New Zealanders in opinion polls, Zavos both documents and critiques the movement.

41. John A Lee, The John A Lee Diaries, 1936-40, Whitcoulls, 1981

John A Lee was the Trotsky of New Zealand: a brilliant and erratic man, who could never decide whether he preferred to stay in his study and scribble or address the masses from a podium, and who eventually fell victim to an inferior but more single-minded rival. Lee's diary covers his career in the first Labour government, when he was one of a group of radicals trying to push the party's increasingly otiose leader, Michael Joseph Savage, into confrontations with New Zealand landlords and British bankers. Near the end of the book Lee celebrates Savage's death from cancer, calling it the man's first useful political gesture.
40. Te Ua Haumene, Ua Rongopai: the gospel according to Te Ua, 1860

In the fateful year of 1863 a Taranaki man named Te Ua Haumene began to hear the voice of the Angel Gabriel. The angel dictated; Te Ua wrote a gospel, which was passed from hand to hand by his followers, and eventually published, with an English translation, by Lynley Hood. Te Ua writes like a Polynesian William Blake, as he damns the Pakeha, identifies his beleagured people with the Jews, and promises his enemies apocalypse and his friends paradise.

39. Home Guard Manual, Hawkes Bay Home Guard, 1941.

Want to know how to blow up a bridge on the main trunk line, stage an ambush on Highway One, or snipe from the rooftop of the typical Kiwi farmhouse? There's advice on matters like these in the Home Guard Manual. Inspired by the texts of Tom Wintringham, the British communist and Spanish Civil War veteran who had founded and trained a British Home Guard after the fall of France, thousands of New Zealanders began to prepare themselves in guerrilla warfare in 1941 and 1942, as the Japanese imperial armed forces moved ever closer. Secret tracks were cut through the bush, and backcountry huts were filled with gelignite and cans of bully beef. A series of noisy but mysterious events - an artillery training session near Waiuku, a plane crash at Whenuapai - prompted rumours that the expected invasion had already occurred. To read the Home Guard Manual is to open a door into an alternative version of New Zealand history.

38. Len Richardson, Coal, Class, and Community, Auckland University Press, 1995.

Richardson's sympathetic but scholarly book follows the struggle of New Zealand's coal miners for better conditions, unionisation, and eventually the nationalisation of their worksites between 1880 and 1960. Richardson describes the great industrial conflicts of the early twentieth century - the fatal Waihi Strike of 1912, and the Great Strike, with its cavalry charges and chaotic shootouts, of the following year - but he is at his best recreating the culture of study and discussion groups that thrived amongst increasingly politicised miners. He takes us inside the unheated huts where weary West Coast miners would gather after their shifts to pore over the Communist Manifesto and Capital, and by doing so reminds us that some of the most interesting and important parts of New Zealand's intellectual life have unfolded far from university seminar rooms and research libraries.

37. Errol Braithwaite, The Companion Guide to the North Island of New Zealand, Collins, 1970

Poor Errol Braithwaite. He wrote a trilogy of novels about the New Zealand Wars, but the better-known Maurice Shadbolt did the same thing, for a much larger audience. Braithwaite also wrote a superb guide to the North Island, but his achievement was overshadowed when, a few years later, Shadbolt published his inferior but widely distributed Shell Guide to New Zealand. The editors of The Spinoff have compounded the insult by including Shadbolt's lousy book in their top 100, but snubbing Braithwaite. The Companion Guide to the North Island is propelled by Braithwaite's obsession with the wars Maori fought against Pakeha in the nineteenth century. He cannot bring his readers through the Waikato without pausing at pa, redoubts, old fortress towns, and riverbends where ironclads once shelled waka. He salutes the dead warriors lying anonymously under maize or cowpats, and searches the thick walls of old church-forts for the indents left by musket-shells. Braithwaite's book is at once a travel guide and a classic of New Zealand psychogeography.

36. Peter Munz, The Shapes of Time: a new look at the philosophy of history, Wesleyan University Press, 1977

Peter Munz was one of the Jewish intellectuals who took refuge from Hitlerism in New Zealand in the 1930s and '40s, and by doing so raised the country's collective IQ and improved its cuisine. Most of Munz's books are exercises in history, but The Shapes of Time ventures into the chilly realm of philosophy. Steering between the Scylla of naive realism and the Charybdis of postmodern relativism, Munz argues that no historical event can be accessed outside the categories and timelines created by humans. Historians construct as well as document the past, and have more in common with novelists than practitioners of the natural sciences. Munz's text was received respectfully overseas, but local historians couldn't cope with it.

35. Frances Hayman, King Country Nurse, Blackwood and Janet Paul, 1965

A middle class Pakeha heads into Te Rohe Potae, historic fortress of Maori nationalism, on a mission to help the benighted and unhygienic natives. She arrives at the same time as emissaries of the Ratana movement, which is surging through Te Ika a Maui with a message of renewed resistance to Pakeha authority. What could go wrong?

34. Angus Gillies, Ngati Dread, Rogue Monster Books, 2001

Thirty years ago a young employee of the Gisborne Herald began to hear stories about a series of strange events in the rough country north of town. Farmhouses and barns were being burned; an independent Maori state had been declared; a headless body had been found on a sacred hill; dreadlocked men were proclaiming a new religion, and citing Te Kooti and Bob Marley as its prophets. Angus Gillies' investigation of the Rastafarian movement of the East Coast and the Pakeha landowners, Ngati Porou elders, and police that opposed it took him through pubs and courtrooms into prisons and mental hospitals. When publishers baulked at the huge manuscript of Ngati Dread, and suggested cutting the court transcripts and interviews with killers, Gillies self-published his text in three volumes. South Pacific Pictures has bought the rights to Ngati Dread; I hope they put the astonishing story Gillies tells on every screen in the country.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, February 08, 2016

Ducking and debating

When I typed a short and hurried guest post for the popular blog YourNZ about the Treaty of Waitangi and the New Zealand Wars, I didn't know I was about to be hit by a volley of dozens of testy replies. I've been ducking for cover and debating here

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Strange beasts on Queen Street

Early this week Aucklanders began to share a blurred photograph on facebook and twitter. The photograph seemed to show several large military vehicles - were they armoured personnel carriers? - riding through the city's business district on the back of a truck. Some of the people who saw the photograph believed that the vehicles had been brought to Auckland in preparation for the signing of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement on February the 4th. Trade ministers from a dozen Asian and Pacific nations would be gathering for the signing at the Sky City convention centre, in downtown Auckland, and opponents of the agreement had promised to not only march down Queen Street but blockade Sky City. Could the Key government be planning to clear a path through central Auckland with steel and guns?

As it turned out, the sinister vehicles belonged to the army of Singapore, and were en route to the vast and bleak forbidden realm in the central North Island known as the Waiouru Military Base. Soldiers from the city state have long visited Waiouru to drive tanks and armoured personnel carriers on uncongested roads and fire mortars and machine guns into empty spaces.

Some commentators might chuckle at the panic that blurred photograph prompted on social media, but I wonder whether the sight of strange vehicles moving through Auckland streets didn't induce collective memories of 1913, the year that hundreds of farmers armed with horses, long batons, and booze stormed into the centres of New Zealand's cities and attacked the striking wharfies who had occupied and blockaded ports. The farmers, who were given the half-satirical, half-honorific nickname 'Massey's Cossacks', were supported by police armed with pistols, rifles, and the odd machine gun. The wharfies and their fellow members of the 'Red' Federation of Labour had a few guns of their own, and shots were heard for days in Auckland and elsewhere.

When the industrious James Belich slogged his way through the archives of New Zealand's hospitals, he discovered that in 1913 folks with gunshot wounds were suddenly occupying beds. Belich likened the New Zealand of 1913 to the Russia of 1917; his fellow historian Len Richardson talked about 1913 as a year of 'revolutionary turmoil'.

In 2013 a few middle-aged men attempted to reenact the great clashes of 1913 in central Wellington. They grew long moustaches, put on uncomfortable clothes, climbed laboriously onto the backs of a few bemused horses, and made half-hearted lunges at equally bemused tourists and journalists. In twenty-first century New Zealand the horse has become an absurdly anachronistic machine; when dropped into the middle of a large city it looks either cute, or vulnerable, or both. In 1913, though, the horse still had some of the majesty and menace that made it a protagonist of so many classical and myths and martial songs. Massey's Cossacks used horses every day on their farms, and could ride and guide the animals at high speeds. Many of them belonged to hunting clubs; a few had ridden down Boers and blacks on the African veldt.

The police who confront protesters in Auckland today will not be riding horses, but they will be wielding long black batons that are descended from the weapons Massey's horsemen used to break the ribs of wharfies in 1913, and they have access to tear gas and plastic bullets. The sense of menace that the wharfies knew in 1913 remains, and accounts for the response to that sinister blurred photograph.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, January 28, 2016

David Garrett and the peace of the dead

In a short, satirical novel written near the beginning of his career, Don De Lillo described the atomic obsessions of an American college football star. The hero of End Zone liked to relax before big games by imagining the world's cities being destroyed by nuclear missiles. Because they can end human life on an unprecedented scale, De Lillo seemed to be saying, nuclear weapons can be imagined as the agents of a sinister peace. All of the world's contradictions and conflicts could be made irrelevant by a nuclear war.

I thought about De Lillo's satire when I read about former Act MP and right-wing activist David Garrett's latest ideas. Writing on Kiwiblog, the website of National Party pollster David Farrar, Garrett expressed enthusiasm for Donald Trump, and suggested that a Trump administration might like to implement a 'Garrett peace plan for the Middle East':

Turn the entire region into a nuclear wasteland uninhabitable for one hundred years - with plenty of warning...My solution is not so much 'mass murder', it is to make the Middle East uninhabitable - and to make the sacred sites that shared - or not shared - by the various groups who claim exclusive rights to them nothing but radioactive pieces of sand. Maybe some of them would still be stupid enough to fight over those...but then the occupiers would get radiation sickness...

Garrett's proposal would probably make sense to Don De Lillo's nihilistic hero. The Middle East is the size of Australia, and has over four hundred million people. Thousand of nuclear warheads would have to fall on the region, if it were to be rendered uninhabitable. So much radiation would enter the atmosphere that the human species would soon become extinct. The world would be at peace.
David Garrett has for years been an obstreperous opponent of Muslim immigration into the West in general, and New Zealand in particular. He has warned of the dangers of the current outflux of refugees from Iraq and Syria, and used a recent column at Kiwiblog to call for New Zealand to close its borders immediately to migrants from majority Muslim nations, including refugees from Syria. It is something of a surprise, then, to see Garrett urging a policy that aimed to create not a few million but a few hundred million refugees from the Middle East.

Garrett became indignant when several Kiwiblog readers queried his 'peace' plan. He denied that the Middle East was such a big area, insisting that it was not much larger than the North Island of New Zealand. He suggested that his nuclear campaign would be aimed at Arabs and Jews, but not at other ethnic groups in the Middle East, like the Persians of Iran. Garrett defended his plan by saying that the conflict between the Arabs and the Jews had no other possible solution:

Being a political animal, I think about such problems all the time...along with hundreds nay, thousands of political thinkers and statesmen over the last sixty years who have applied their minds to solution has ever eventuated. 

It would be comforting to consider David Garrett an isolated crank, and ignore his ideas. But for a decade now Garrett has had regular access to New Zealand's mass media and to popular right-wing websites. He publishes opinion pieces in the New Zealand Herald, had a column in Ian Wishart's Investigate magazine, and is a fixture at Kiwiblog. Despite leaving parliament in disgrace in 2010, when his enemies inside the Act Party revealed that he had been convicted of stealing a dead child's identity and creating a fraudulent passport, Garrett has maintained a following on the right.

Garrett is not the only activist on the New Zealand right excited by Donald Trump. In America, Trump has split the Republicans by substituting a sort of populist ethnonationalism for the neo-liberal policies preferred by the party's traditional elite (in an important article for The Week, Michael Brendan Dougherty has shown how Trump's statist populism can be traced back to the campaigns that Patrick Buchanan ran for the Republican nomination for president in 1992 and 1996). Trump has won support from angry and demoralised white working class voters by promising to use the guns and nukes and tariffs to reverse America's decline in the world.
David Farrar and other figures close to the top of New Zealand's National Party seem to share the distaste of most Republican leaders for Trump. But many of the readers of Kiwiblog and of Cameron Slater's Whale Oil blog seem to admire Trump's attacks on Muslims, Mexicans, and liberals.

David Garrett's advice for Trump might seem extreme, but it is not so different from the eliminationist rhetoric that is becoming common when both the American and the New Zealand right discuss the Middle East. In the aftermath of the failure of George Bush's invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, conservatives who once dreamed of remaking the Middle East in the image of America have denounced the region as ungrateful and irredeemably barbarous. Whether because of culture, religion, or blood, the Arabs and other peoples of the Middle East are, an increasing number of right-wingers insist, a permanent danger to the rest of the world. They must be quarantined, or nuked, or both.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, January 22, 2016

Trump's fascist theatre

Is Donald Trump a fascist? The Philadelphia Daily News thinks so. When Trump called for Muslims to be banned from entering America last month, the Daily News covered its front page with a photograph of the billionaire giving a Hitleresque salute, and added the headline 'The New Furor'.

As Trump maintains his poll lead over other contenders for the Republican nomination for president, an increasing number of journalists and scholars are debating whether he deserves the adjective fascist.

In the 1920s and '30s fascist leaders like Mussolini and Hitler promoted extreme forms of nationalism, denounced various minorities as a threat to the purity of their nations, won the allegiance of impoverished workers as well as some opportunistic capitalists, and raised streetfighting armies.

Those who consider Trump a fascist, like historian Richard Steigmann-Gall and journalist Jeffrey Tucker, insist that he is preaching a twenty-first century version of the ideology of Mussolini and Hitler, and leading an increasing militarised movement. Others, like the Berkeley sociologist Dylan Riley and the Washington Post's Rachel Orr, disagree. They suggest that Trump's rhetoric is opportunistic and incoherent, that his followers are an erratic rabble, and that he lacks any support from America's economic elite.

Trump's main campaign slogan is 'Make America Great Again'. He looks back fondly on the bellicose United States of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with its imperial conquests in Asia and Latin America, its usurpation of Europe, and its supposedly harmonious class and race relations. He laments the fact that his country 'doesn't win victories anymore', and names a series of scapegoats for America's economic and geopolitical decline. Freeloading foreign allies have relied upon American troops and loans to protect them, draining the imperial coffers; violent and sexually deviant Mexicans have breached the Rio Grande in huge numbers, breaking laws and taking natives' jobs; and African Americans have made parts of many American cities no-go zones with their gangs and guns. All of these forces have been encouraged by anti-American liberals and an anti-American media. Now Muslim invaders are entering an almost fatally weakened America. In mosques across the country they are forming terror cells and preparing to impose sharia law on their Christian neighbours.

According to Trump, the Democratic Party is controlled by liberals, and therefore in league with America's enemies, and the leaders of the Republican Party are hypnotised by the regulations and rituals of representative government, and afraid to act boldly in defence of the nation. An outsider needs to take control of the state, and use it to crush America's enemies. The mass internment and deportation of aliens, the extrajudicial killings of the families of terrorists, the registration of every Muslim living in America, the closure of large parts of the internet: all of these measures and more may be necessary. 'We're going to have to do things that we never did before', Trump warned last November.
Few of the commentators on Trump's campaign have discussed the unusual and sinister structure that his rallies have taken. Some of the features of a Trump rally - the ubiquitous American flags, the drawn-out introductions by faded country music stars and B-movie actors, the prayers and the national anthem - are familiar from other presidential campaigns.

What is remarkable, though, is the role that Trump's adversaries have come to play in his rallies. In arena after arena, protesters have risen from their seats to challenge the billionaire, waving placards and shouting slogans and attempting to distribute leaflets. Rather than ignore or speedily dismiss these hecklers, Trump has made them the focus of a series of extended denunciations. He has branded them agents of the Mexican government, supporters of ISIS, and liberal journalists in disguise, and encouraged his audiences to confront them. At a rally in Birmingham, Alabama, Trump denounced a black protester; the man was soon knocked to the floor and beaten. In Vermont Trump told his security personnel to throw a group of hecklers out into the cold without their coats, as his audience cheered. In Las Vegas Trump supporters shouted 'Sieg Heil' and 'Light that motherfucker on fire' when several protesters were dragged away. On the rare occasions when his rallies have not attracted hecklers Trump has seemed disappointed.

It is hard to watch footage of Trump's rallies without thinking about Oswald Mosley, the Anglo-Saxon world's most successful fascist. At the rallies that Mosley's British Union of Fascists held in the 1930s, protesters were treated to a meticulous violence. As Mosley denounced Jews, reds, and liberals from his podium, his uniformed private army of 'blackshirts' would aim a spotlight on anyone who shouted or held up a placard during their leader's speeches. As Mosley paused and his supporters cheered, protesters would be beaten and dragged away by blackshirts. At an infamous rally in London's Olympia stadium in 1934, the blackshirts injured dozens of dissenters, one of whom lost an eye.
In her essay on Hitler's film maker Leni Riefenstahl, Susan Sontag suggested that fascist aesthetics involved a 'contrast between the clean and the impure...the incorruptible and the defiled'. Fascism relies, Sontag said, on an  'irresistable leader' to enforce and maintain purity.

The promise of ruthless, ritualised violence helped to draw huge crowds to Mosley. For the ten thousand angry Britons who filled the Olympia, the men and women who were spotlit and beaten by the blackshirts were the embodiment of all the evil forces - Jews, communists, socialists, race mixers - responsible for their country's malaise. By beating the protesters, the blackshirts were taking a sort of symbolic revenge; by removing the protesters from the audience, they were performing a symbolic act of purification.

Like Mosley's events, Trump's rallies are a sort of fascist theatre where an imagined national community purifies itself by identifying, punishing, and expelling pollutants.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Consider the lotus

Oh dear, oh dear: I think some Tongans need to talanoa with the maker of this video clip. The clip is either an exceedingly good exercise in po-faced, Duchampian surrealism or a serious, and seriously bad, attempt to say something about Tonga and its maritime chiefdom (go on, call it an empire if you'd like). Parts of the clip are - unintentionally, intentionally? - very funny. I loved the bit about Tongans having a religion named lotu, a religion based upon the adoration of the lotus flower.

Paul Janman's latest video clip is, I would like to think, less egregious. Using footage he shot with Ian Powell and fragments of radio interviews, Paul has compressed the ten day, two hundred kilometre journey that he and I made up New Zealand's least salubrious road into three rather beautiful minutes. Watch it here. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Seleka in the Waikato

At a gym on the edge of Hamilton artists from across the Pacific have been drawing and painting and sculpting for a fortnight. They have been guests at an art hui organised by Don Ratana, a lecturer in education at the University of Waikato. I visited the hui on Sunday to see Tevita Latu and Taniela Potelo, members of Tonga's avant-garde Seleka art club.

When Taniela approached me, stepping carefully around the paintings that his peers had left to dry on the floor of the gym, I noticed that he was wearing what looked like a large shell or a small patu around his neck. He came closer, and I saw that the object was a computer mouse. In their hometown of Nuku'alofa the Selekarians, as they call themselves, are known for their ingenious and sometimes irreverent reinventions of Polynesian tradition. Members drink kava from a toilet bowl in their lagoonside clubhouse, and listen to dub and techno while they paint and draw.
Don Ratana encountered Latu and Potelo last year, when he attended a conference of the Pacific Arts Association in Tonga, and invited them to the Waikato, where they have been mingling with Tahitian, Marquesan, Kanak, Hawai'ian and Maori artists. On a couple of signs beside the entrance to the university gym a series of phrases - 'Wanna go for a cigarette again?'; 'You're working hard mate'; 'Do you like sculpture?' - had been translated into Tongan and French.
In between working, the guests of the hui have been swimming in the two pools - one of them long and dark blue, the other small, with the pale blue colouring of a tropical lagoon - that sit beside the gym. When I jumped in one of the pools with Tevita Latu he explained that his stay in the Waikato was changing his art. In Tonga, where art materials are formidably expensive, he had to paint on cardboard or ngatu cloth with a few colours. At Waikato he could have as much canvas and as many colours as he liked.
The Selekarians have always been ferociously eclectic, so it was no surprise to find them ingurgitating the styles and imagery of other artists at the hui. One of the canvases that Latu had leaned against the wall of the gym showed a figure that resembled like a hei tiki stirring a bowl of kava. He'd made the image, he explained, with the help of a Maori artist. Another work featured what looked like a tuatara with a crucifix for a tail and the pendulous breasts typical of traditional depictions of the Tongan goddess Hikule'o.
If you're quick, then you can see some of these extraordinary paintings, along with work by other guests of the art hui, at the Creative Waikato gallery in central Hamilton.