Monday, February 19, 2018

Seleka has fallen; Seleka will rise again!

A few months ago a Hollywood star visited a lagoonside shack in Nuku'alofa. Sam Neil wanted to meet members of the Seleka club, whose kava-fuelled paintings and surrealist provocations have made them one of the twenty-first century's significant avant-garde cultural movements. (I have written about the club here, here, and here.)

Poverty, a lack of paint and canvas, and condemnation from Tongan conservatives couldn't stop the artists of the Seleka Club, but Cyclone Gita is another matter. Seleka's legendary clubhouse, with its disco ball and psychedelic murals and cryptic inscriptions, has been levelled. Virginie Dourlet took this sad photo of the ruined clubhouse. But Seleka will rise again. I know I won't be the only Kiwi fundraising for these incredible Tongans over the coming months.

You can keep up-to-date with Seleka's rebuild plans by following Virginie on twitter

Monday, February 12, 2018

Monu'ia Big Mama!

Cyclone Gita nears Tonga tonight, endangering not only people & fale but entire islands. I'm thinking of Ana 'Big Mama' Emberson, who with her husband is custodian of Pangaimotu, an atoll rich in history & poor in size. In 2014 Cyclone Ian turned part of the island to desert. 
Pangaimotu was home to a famous temple where chiefs came to hear kava-drunk priests ventriloquise the gods. Beach rock was quarried for royals' monumental tombs; cuttings can still be seen at low tide. Cook anchored at the island; Pompallier held Tonga's first Catholic mass there.
For all its history, though, Pangaimotu is barely a quarter of a square kilometre in size. It's one of a score of atolls that adorn Nuku'alofa harbour. When storms come the islands list like holed ships. In 2014, Monuafe atoll sunk completely below the waves.
Monu'ia Big Mama!

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Reasons for becoming obsessed by the Banks Islands

I regularly bother my friends with my obsessions. I sent this e mail to Paul Janman recently.

Hi Paul,

let me just take up an aspect of our phone conversation and explain - as brusquely as possible, since you are busy and I am engulfed by kids - why I am fascinated by the Banks Islands.

For obvious reasons, we tend, in New Zealand, to contrast European and Polynesian culture. There was, after all, a confrontation between these cultures in the 19th century, a confrontation which has shaped our society, a confrontation that in many ways continues today. And, to be sure, there are real and significant differences between the cultures of Britain and other northern European countries on the one hand and Aotearoa and Tonga and Samoa and other Polynesian societies on the other: differences in the ownership of land, in attitudes toward history and the environment, in the balance of power between the individual and the collective, and so on.

But I think that if we turn our eyes to Melanesia (a region which I'll define here as extending from the northern half of Vanuatu through the Solomons, Bougainville and Papua New Guinea, sans their Polynesian outliers, and continuing into West Papua, Maluku and the eastern fringes of Timor-Leste), then we can get a new perspective on the European-Polynesian dichotomy. We can see that, despite all their differences, there are seminal similarities between the European and Polynesian civilisations.

Consider, for example, the extraordinary ability of both the Polynesian and the British to spread over vast areas of the world and plant and reproduce their culture there. Consider the homogenity of Polynesian civilisation, despite its vast reach: the fact that the language of Rapa Nui in the far east is so closely linked to that of Hawai'i in the far north, Aotearoa in the far south, and Nukuoro in the extreme west. Consider the gods and culture heroes - Maui, Tangaloa, and the rest - who have planted themselves on island after island. Consider the durability of the institution of hereditary chieftainship, in virtually every Polynesian possession. Consider the success of Polynesians in bringing their culture to the southern islands of Vanuatu, to Fiji, and to Kiribati in the last thousand years, despite the different cultures that the peoples of these places once practiced.

Patrick Vinton Kirch argues, of course, that the similarities between the various Polynesian societies can be explained by the fact that those societies had their origins in a single 'ancestral Polynesian culture', which was practiced by a discrete and very finite group of voyagers. And it is true that the Lapita ancestors of Polynesians only arrived in Tonga and Samoa and the other old parts of the civilisation three and a half thousand years ago. Polynesia doesn't, then, have the time depth of, say, Aboriginal Australian civilisation, or most Papuan societies.
But let us consider for a moment the fact that the complicated series of archipelagos we call Vanuatu were only settled three and a half years ago by the same Lapita people who became Polynesians. Where the Polynesians established what is essentially the same culture across their vast domain, the ni-Vanuatu speak, even today, one hundred and thirty mutually incomprehensible languages, and maintain at least as many cultures. In the Banks Islands, in the far north of Vanuatu, this diversity is at its most extreme: ten thousand people speak seventeen languages. In the 19th century they spoke at least thirty-five tongues.

The Lapita culture seems to have been relatively hierarchical, and to have been administered, like its Polynesian descendants, by hereditary chiefs. But in the Banks Islands and in other parts of northern Vanuatu, hereditary chiefs are hard to find, and societies often tend to be acephalous, headless. The hereditary chiefs who dominate southern Vanuatu are the result of Polynesian influence over the last thousand years.

Why have the descendants of the same monolithic Lapita culture developed in such different ways in northern Vanuatu and in Polynesia? What can explain the incredible diversity of the Banks Islands? The linguist Alexandre Francois, who has spent his career documenting the languages of the Banks, argues that there exists in the group a 'powerful social bias towards differentiation and egalitarianism'.

None of the teeming societies of the Banks has been able or willing to impose itself on another; the average islander has been obliged to speak half a dozen tongues. The linguistic and cultural innovations - idiosyncratic pronunciations of words, neologisms, iconoclasms in dance and design - that might be suppressed in other societies are praised in the Banks.

Let's talk about this later!


Thursday, January 25, 2018

A visit to the underworld

Upstairs it was summer. Cicadas hissed in tune with the traffic, & the air smelt of rotting pohutukawa blossom and melting tar. But New Lynn station was dim and cool and abandoned, like a silo that had fired its missiles.

We sat and waited for a train, any train, and I told Aneirin how sorry I felt for the escalators, as they made their ceaseless pointless ascents, descents. 'But they're busy today' Aneirin said. 'They're carrying all the spirits up to our world.'

Thursday, January 11, 2018


Everyone knows about the refugees trapped in Papua New Guinea, but how many Kiwis realise that the people of New Guinea and of Melanesia in general are trapped in their own countries, because of the very tough restrictions on migration from the region maintained by Australia, New Zealand, and other Western nations? 

I talked last year with BFM's Mackenzie Smith about the quarantining of Melanesia, and about the case for allowing guest workers from the region to settle permanently in this country. The interview's now online here

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Shots from Mahurangi

Whare Joseph Thompson's sculpture rises beyond the beach and barbecues and colonial gardens of Wenderholm, at the foot of Maungatauhoro, a place of eroding cliffs, ancient pa, a burst dam. 
Maungatauhoro's slopes ooze pipi shells. Some of them have escaped from middens; others were strewn centuries ago, to make the footsteps of approaching warriors audible. Once the pa's trenches were palisaded, so that they resembled bared fangs; now they are toothless gums.
Thompson's pou remembers the chiefs interned on Maungatauhoro: men like Murupaenga, who died at the mouth of the Mahurangi River in 1825, trying hopelessly to hold back Hongi Hika's invasion of the south. Thompson uses wood the way a brutalist architect treats concrete. His pou's faces are a few deep cuts. They are bold yet enigmatic, like the hieroglyphs of Rapa Nui. The pou's expanses of bare wood are rippled, ruffled, the surface of a young creek. This sculpture is not a boundary marker; it is a boundary.
With its sheer cliffs, the pa on Mahurangi was almost impossible to capture. Without a supply of freshwater and space for sleep, the island was perhaps just as hard to defend for long. Waves and wind erode Mahurangi, refine its defences. On a hot day, from a distance, it resembles one of the citadels of ancient desert monk-warriors, a Sinai or a Masada on the Waitemata.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Saturday, December 23, 2017

After the apocalypse

I've written about my trip to Dunedin for the arts journal EyeContact. Apologies in advance to Presbyterians.