Display It Like You Stole It: Letter from London
London, November, Guy Fawkes Day, 8 a.m. I was on the Heathrow to Paddington express train (‘fifteen minutes to the centre of London’) and feeling somewhat disorientated: back where I had come from, it was the middle of the night. I had arrived in London from Honolulu to take part in the Literature Programme organised by Creative New Zealand in association with the Oceania Exhibition at the Royal Academy of the Arts (27 September – 10 December 2018). This exhibition marked the 250th anniversary of the Royal Academy, which was founded in 1768 — the same year Captain Cook set sail on his first expedition on the Endeavour. The exhibition (‘five years in the making’) also marked the first-ever show of the arts of Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia held in London. (Oceania will open at the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris on March 12, 2019.)
The previous week, I had been on the big island known as Hawai’i — the largest island in the Hawai’ian group of islands — exploring the Kīlauea caldera, a highly active volcanic region, and inhaling the breath of Pele, the Kanaka Maoli goddess of volcanoes, steaming up from vents in the lush vegetation and making the air tingle. The Big Island is a place at once primal, fierce, metamorphic. Part of the road in the Volcanic Park remained ruptured and impassable from the most recent earthquake just a few months earlier; and a lake of molten magma brimming in the crater had vanished around the same time as the earthquake, flowing away down lava tubes to emerge spectacularly aflame and pouring into the sea further along the coast. Two hours drive further on, across the stupendous volcanic slopes, was Kealakekua Bay, where on February 14, 1779, Captain Cook, had met his end.
In Hawai’i, the Kumupilo is a creation legend surrounded by ‘kapu’ or tapu, and associated with the festival of Makahiki and with the god Lono. It is paralleled on Aotearoa by the festival of Matariki and the god Rongo. Lono was an expert riddler, and according to his high priests practised at the art of ‘kaona’ or hidden menaings. Kapene Kuke, or Captain Cook, in his aloofness was mistaken for Lono when he arrived in the middle of Makahiki in 1779. The indigenous Kanaka Maoli people were chanting the Kumupilo as he came ashore at Kealakekua Bay. Cook enjoyed the attention but, long story short, when he failed to live up to the role he was speared to death: he was not the god Lono after all.
I had already spent nearly three months in the Hawai’ian archipelago, on a Fulbright-Creative New Zealand Writer’s Residency, based at the University of Hawai’i’s campus on the island of Oahu. I was researching my own Pasifika heritage, and also talking poetry and story with university students and others in concert with fellow Kiwi Fulbrighter, poet Coco Solid. At the University’s Hilo campus on the Big Island, we had been introduced to renditions of the vibrato chant known as the olioli’i’i, and to the accompanying ancient art of string-figure-making, the hei. These served to prove customary art forms were alive and well and part of an inspiring atmosphere. The whole island, made up of six or seven active volcanoes, felt strangely bouyant, as if the island itself was on the move. The island climbs to the snowy summit of Mauna Kea, which, measured from the seabed floor, bulks up as the world’s highest mountain. Below Mauna Kea are rainforests, black lava deserts, gulches of giant ferns, waterfall cataracts, ocean rains, and smoky surf. And at Hilo, fresh from full immersion in Moana-nui, in the Pacific Ocean, and swimming with the endangered green sea turtles, I was walking on sunshine.
Next minute, like a sobering intervention, I was aboard a late-night Air Canada jet airliner, wallowing out of Honolulu into the north-east trade winds and bound for the capital of the old British Empire.
Passengers poured off the planes at Heathrow like footsoldiers in capitalism’s struggle to assert world-wide commodification: where every hair on your head has been numbered and priced, and the information digitally transferred to a database. I arrived, then, as a plugged-in hybrid, a part-electric afakasi, a Polynesian airborne like a mythological deity but also irrevocably tainted by globalisation’s gasoline alley, snuffing up the fumes of its greenhouse gases and ruefully acknowledging my role in creating the great carbon footprint in the sky.
The Tongan philosopher and writer Epeli Hau’ofa, whose satirical saga of South Pacific colonialism, Tales of the Tikongs, I had in my carry-on luggage as a well-thumbed talisman, remarks in an essay that Oceania originally ‘was a sea of islands … a world in which peoples and cultures moved and mingled unhindered by barriers of the kind erected much later by imperial powers.’ Now I was at the centre of one of those imperial powers, from whence the divide-and-rule cartographer had laid his heavy hand on the map of Oceania, restricting the routes of ocean-going vaka. This was jolly old England, with its grand dungeons and castle keeps, its raven-black clothing, its shadowy past and shady legacies. Emerging from the Underground’s Bakerloo Line at Charing Cross Station, and caught up in the urban dance of expressionless Londoners around their labyrinthine city, their swirl of pumping arms and legs as they marched urgently up and down escalators and stairs, I made my way blearily to our hotel accommodation on Northumberland Avenue. It was to be a flying visit; I was in the UK for six nights, having spent three days en route. Later in the week, somewhere out in the damp afternoon of autumnal London, the All Blacks, with the help of the rub of the green, would be defeating England at Twickenham yet again.
But at this point I was only eager to catch up with another group of cultural ambassadors, my fellow writers from Aotearoa taking part in the Oceania Literature junket: Witi Ihimaera, Paula Morris, Karlo Mila — and Tina Makereti, who would be arriving the following day. We were scheduled to gather in the hotel foyer at morning coffee time, 10.30 am, with our organiser Eleanor Congreve, a Senior Advisor (Kaiwhakahaere Matua) at Creative New Zealand-Toi Aotearoa, to run through events, protocols and waiata, and to synchronise our watches. After that, I knew, jet lag would claim me.
Entering London felt a lot like going down a coal mine, with its subterranean villages, its black seams and greasy caulks, its interconnecting tunnels and closed-in high streets. Even the assorted quixotic skyscraper shapes on the skyline, darkly hulking in the perpeptual twilight, resembled great coal outcrops: mine the Shard and keep Britain burning brightly for a year. From my hotel room window, a stone’s throw from Trafalgar Square, I looked out onto a mass of venerable grey stone buildings that I knew — because Google had told me — had been hollowed out and refurbished as luxury hotels. Directly opposite were the massive wooden doors of the fortress-like Embassy of Nigeria, curving round a side-street. The hotel we were staying at had been built in 1934 as the Royal Empire Society Building, before becoming the Royal Commonwealth Society Building after World War Two. Its rooms had been converted into quirky nooks and crannies. On the hotel’s exterior stonework remained the carved emblems of the colonies of the British Empire: Oceania was represented by the Southern Cross, the silver fern, sea shells and by outrigger canoes with lateen sails. I felt anonymised by these ponderous buildings surrounding me; they were pressing on me with the weight of their stone entablatures. George Orwell’s bleak Oceania in his dystopian novel 1984 might have been inspired by just such surroundings, and maybe even John Keat’s poem about the serene Pacific stared at with wild surmise: stout Cortez followed by even stouter whaling ship captains.
But if to travel from the Hawai’ian islands where the ocean is an open book, pages green and blue by turns, to a place where the cityscape bristled with imperial history, and to leave our hotel felt a bit like fighting the Battle of Trafalgar Square daily, with tootling black cabs, swarming pedestrians and cavalcades of bright red London double-decker buses launching volleys of exhaust, London was also a place that seemed to transform before my astonished eyes.
The 100th Anniversary of the Signing of the Armistice that ended World War One loomed on the Sunday, the eleventh day of the eleventh month; and New Zealand’s Governor-General, Dame Patsy Reddy, was in town to attend wreath-laying ceremonies, and also to view the Oceania Exhibition, which was partly sponsored by New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. All at once, central London itself seemed wreathed in poppies. Whether paper, plastic, ceramic or the real thing, poppies sprouted from hats, from coat lapels, shirts, jerseys and blouses. They were sprinkled on the front pages of newspapers, on posters, on billboards, and in shopwindows. Bright dabs of red petals burgeoned as a motif: the autumn drizzle was pinkish; traffic lights glowed red; here and there were notes of cherry and rhubarb and paprika — and rubescent teapots, and pools of crimson neon; even the darkness had a blood pudding texture to it. It was the season of roseate river mists, of mellow-lit pubs painted black and scarlet, and of russet leaves falling in public gardens. London, ruddily suffused and a bit rusty, had become a rosy city half as old as Time. And then, in the Oceania Exhibition, there was Michael Parekowhai’s glossy red piano, He Kōrero Pūrākau mō te Awanui o te Motu, carved like a wakahuia, carved like a bridge over troubled waters, and acting as a cultural beacon.
Michael Parekowhai’s He Kōrero Pūrākau mō te Awanui o te Motu
As part of our preparations while in London for the three public events that made up the Oceania Literature Programme, we five writers visited a variety of museums. The city itself is one big museum really, or maybe a theme park of museums that collectively contain a condensed summary of world history. And the myriad museum artefacts, sourced from all round the world, constitute almost an embarrassment of riches, now that notions of decolonisation are front and centre. But while identity art activists protest about provenance — ‘Display it like you stole it’ — today’s museum curators are mostly woke to the need to treat the extraordinary objects they hold from former colonies, not only with scholarly respect and preservational diligence, but also with the acknowledgement that moral, if not legal, ownership lies in places of origin and original context.
One morning we paddled our waka to the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington. There, we met up with Eleanor and our guide, New Zealand-born curator Heather Harris. We trekked past the Rapid Response Collecting Unit, past a gigantic plaster cast of Trajan’s Column (the original still stands in Rome), past an actual-size replica of Michelangelo’s David, past many cabinets of curiosities, and into a cavernous hall devoted to seven of Raphael’s enormous painted designs for tapestries commissioned for the Sistine Chapel. Then, we headed into the Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up exhibition, in its final weeks. What this solo artist show had more-or-less in common with Oceania was the ability to hold the reverential gaze of gallery-goers with a sense of spectacle. Laid out as a shrine-like evocation of the adobe-style La Caza Azul, Kahlo’s lifelong home in the Mexico City, where she was born and where she died, it was an undeniably vital and intense display of objects and artworks. But almost unbearably poignant, too, as it charted the effects of the artist’s traumatic bus accident when she was 18 that crippled her. Close, crowded and deliberately underlit, Making Herself Up took us from her childhood, to marriage to Diego Riviera, to ‘Gringolandia’ (the United States), to ‘the arms of Morpheus’ (her use of powerful painkillers). It fetished as relics her medical corsets and orthopedic devices; there was a glass display case of twenty mannequins wearing her favourite Mexican peasant dresses; and a glass display case containing her favourite lipstick: Revlon’s ‘Everything’s Rosy’.
Another exhibition some of us went to was at Tate Britain on the Thames Embankment: Edward Burne-Jones — Pre-Raphelite Visionary. The relevance of this High Victorian artist to Oceania was partly in the mystery and intricacy of his flowing designs, partly in his tributes to the anonymous makers of medieval cathedral artefacts, but mostly in his use of myths and legends and in his stylised veneration of ancestor figures. In the Perseus narrative cycle of paintings, his quest-hero Perseus was a figure very like Maui, while his Medusa was an unforgiving earth-mother like Papatuanuku, and the dragon or serpent Perseus sought to slay, a mighty taniwha. There was something funereal and otherworldly about the glowering knights and brooding damsels painted by Burne-Jones, too, that paralled the aesthetic abilities of the anonymous artists of Oceania to render powerful human emotions in the faces and in body language of the effigies they carved hundred of years ago.
Above images courtesy of Creative New Zealand.
On Wednesday evening, our first public event was held at New Zealand House: Damian Barr’s Literary Salon — a talanoa on the theme of ‘Oceania’. Through strict security, and up past a 15 and half metre tall, darkly-varnished pouihi, carved from a totara tree log by Inia Te Wiata back in the 1960s, to the big, glass-walled penthouse at the top, with its panorama of the high-rise pink and white terraces of city lights, icy against the black backdrop of the night sky. Damian, too, was riding high, after hosting the celebration for the tenth anniversary of his Literary Salon at the Savoy Hotel the previous week. The Scottish novelist and humourist held the University of Otago Scottish Writers Fellowship in Dunedin earlier in 2018, and is perhaps famous or notorious in New Zealand for his tweet describing the taste of feijoa as: ‘the love child of a highly scented candle with the texture of congealed intimacy.’
The venue was crowded with excited chatterers and bloggers, expatriate New Zealanders, arts administrators, PR people, literary agents and journalists — but if they were the salonistas, we were the tokenistas. It was never going to be more than samplings and tart soundbites from us, about as nourishing and substantial as the finger food that accompanied the generous dollops of fine New Zealand wine served up. Nevertheless, Damian was urbane and charming and welcoming; listening respectfully, asking light-hearted questions, and generally jollying us along.
For our mihi, Paula Morris delivered a rousing karanga, her hands quivering in the whākapakapa; Witi followed with a speech in te reo; then we all chanted a short karakia, by turns, each throwing out a sentence in a rhythmic affirmation of our unity as a writerly delegation, the audience responding warmly and enthusiastically to this exotic Polynesian theatricality. For our mahi, Tina Maketeri read an extract from her new novel, The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke; Karlo Mila and myself recited poems; Witi discussed an episode from his memoir Māori Boy, which was about his grandmother’s acerbic response to the British nursery rhymes Witi brought home from his first day at primary school. And Paula Morris, after reading out a new short story, made the salient point that New Zealand writing in the metropolitan centres of London and New York still exists with a colonial publishing paradigm; that is, it is mostly invisible.
Her observation chimed with the nature of the Salon presentation, the fleeting impressions of us as individual writers the audience would have had, along with a concomitant sense of us as a group as being on a cultural mission, representing something larger than ourselves, namely literature from the South Pacific seeking, in Witi’s words, ‘to throw off the shackles, straitjackets, stereotypes and legacies of European romanticism and euphemism’.
On the Thursday evening, we took to the stage at Marlborough House, a former Royal Palace and now home to the Commonwealth Foundation, for a panel discussion entitled, Speaking Sideways Or Talking Back: Contemporary Perspectives from South Pacific Writers, chaired by Paula Morris. Once again, the venue was full, but this time most of the audience seemed to have a vested interest in the politics of Oceania — ‘in the activation of the Va and the weaving of the Moana back together’, as one of the attendees, Jo Walsh, put it in the question and answer session afterwards. Albert Wendt first proposed the need for a new way of writing about Oceania back in 1976, one that took stock of emerging independence movements and post-colonialism. He produced two landmark anthologies of the literature of Oceania in the years that followed, Lali (1980) and Nuanua (1995), and now here in 2018 our keynote book for the panel discussion was the latest anthology of the new literature of Oceania, Black Marks on the White Page, published by Penguin Random House, and edited by Witi Ihimaera and Tina Makereti. In it, writers ranging from Selina Tusitala Marsh to Tusiata Avia to Gina Cole to Courtney Sina Meredith are all speaking sideways or talking back to the dominant narrative with their own subversive fictions.
Paula and Tina have both written novels about nineteenth century Māori travelling from the colonial periphery to Victorian London — Rangitira and The Imaginary Lives of James Pōneke, respectively — and Witi’s novel The Rope of Man spirals outwards from the East Cape to contemporary London and back with the sway and stamp of a kapa haka song.
But at this event it was Karlo Mila at the podium who talked back most urgently and most pertinently to the panel topic, by questioning the meaning of the term ‘commonwealth’ in relation to Oceania today in her long poem, ‘For the Commonwealth’. ‘— It does not feel like we have inherited commonwealth but rather common problems … and if the ocean could speak in that choked, overheated throat gagged with plastic bags in the way she once spoke to us … she would say enough … If ever we needed to wake from our sleep and hear the call of the commonwealth it is now …’
In Karlo’s cry to the blue continent, we have gone beyond picturesque archipelagoes and antic exuberance to what is actually happening, to today’s realpolitik. To the arc of instability and to sea-bed mining; to backyard paternalism and unscrupulous social engineering; to nuclear weapons testing and suppressed sovereignty movements; to the very high incarceration rates for young Māori and Pacific Islanders in Aotearoa; to the unfulfilled repatriation of the plundered moai statue Hoa Hakananai’a (‘Stolen Friend’) back to Rapa Nui. After World War Two, Oceania was claimed as part of the ‘American Lake’, and in the twenty-first century is being inexorably drawn into the territorial aggrandizement and debt-loading of China’s maritime Silk Road. And still environmental destruction continues, and still sea levels continue to rise unchecked.
Earlier in the week, ahead of our final public event, Writing Oceania, at the Royal Academy of Arts on the Friday night, we were provided with copies of the hefty catalogue of the exhibition, and this turned out to be essential reading.
Exhibitions on such a globe-girdling scale require careful negotiations with a variety of institutions, guardians and kiatiaki, and need nuanced contextualisation through essays and documentation when they are presented.
Some talk of London, or Ranana, as a place where world-eating culture vultures have traditionally come home to roost and feast on their pirated gains; and of Captain Cook and the curio-gatherers who followed him as the very emblem of unrepentant colonial overreach in the Pacific. But since those early encounters between the radically different societies of Europe and Oceania, both geopolitical entites have not existed in a vacuum or in self-enclosed bubbles; they have gone on interacting, trading, and examining one another’s cultures for mutual benefit. Twentieth century art, psychoanalysis, and a host of other contemporary cultural developments have been inspired by the arts of Oceania: the arts of Oceania in short are a major contributor to how we think about civilisation now. At least, this is the thesis advanced by Oceania. As an amelioration of the destruction wreaked by European conquest this view is clearly inadequate; however, as a means of making sense of cultural transformation in the South Pacific by assembling aesthetically beautiful objects into a meaningful unity, it does useful work in allowing us to see Oceania’s treasures holistically.
If Oceania is a continent, then it is a continent as complex as Europe. Oceania is actually a fragmentary and muddled show. The meaning and mana of many of the more than two hundred items included is only partly addressed. The selection of items is partly haphazard or fortuitous. The totalising narrative it tries to embrace is manifestly incomplete: the twentieth century story — Maori Modernism, for example — is conspicuous by its absence. This is blockbuster as totemic monolith, freighted with historical significance, but also suffering from partial amnesia. In Oceania, the whole of the twentieth century has more or less been reduced to a cartoon head of the Phantom, the ghost-who-walks, painted on a wooden battleshield recovered from a battlefield in the Papua New Guinea Highlands.
Obviously, the curators are aware of these omissions, most of which if rectified would only serve to complicate the exhibition for a mass audience. What they have provided instead is a show that emphasises the politics of identity, of belonging, of place. On the Wednesday morning, we were given a guided tour of the exhibition by Adrian Locke, one of the curators of Oceania. I asked some simple factual questions of him as our group wended its way around, but to have interrogated the aimiable but wary Adrian about issues such as colonial plunder and repatriation would have been like asking questions of the Sphinx. I would have heard muffled echoes of my own voice, and a reeling away of desert birds cawing into the distance, and a great silence as from a locked vault deep beneath London itself.
In the end, we were there as faith-based writers, as believers in the mana of Oceania, and we saw the spectacle as it was intended to be seen, as a presentation of the exceptionalism and essentialism of the sea of islands that is Oceania, reflected in its taonga, its pantheon of archetypes. This was Oceania as a kind of dreamscape, a distillation, a resurrection of fallen idols from their legendary, fecund, humid haunts into the air-conditioned present, tightly-grouped and placed up on pedestals, the display cases lit by a kind of underwater or submarine light. This was the bottled ocean; a logjam of rainforest beings, adrift on global currents. This gathering of artefacts was also a kind of dispersal, a diaspora: proof positive that otherworldly argonauts sawn out or dug out of their places of origin, their temples, and were normally housed deep inside dozens of different museums. Sighting the god A’a in the flesh, as it were, was a time-standing-still moment; the figure holds you as if it is surrounded by a magnetic force-field. This statue is from the island of Rurutu, in what is now French Polynesia. A father-deity, its carved wooden skin is fertile, exuding other smaller gods in perpetuity, although it has also been neutered by some overzealous missionary with a hacksaw. Brought to England by the London Missionary society 150 years ago, A’a lives in the British Museum, as a celebrity, the world’s most celebrated Polynesian carving. In front of all these massed effigies, necklaces, cloaks and headdresses, Witi raised the question, shouldn’t this show itself tour to Oceania? Something for museums to muse on.
Our final gig, chaired by Adrian Locke in the Reynolds Room at Burlington House, Piccadilly, was packed, somewhat to the consternation of the Royal Academy staff who had to hurry around and find more seating. Late arrivals ended up standing, jammed in at the back. Each of us spoke to and about specific taonga in the exhibition; while the whole evening had an atmosphere of ritual, an affirmation of the currents and energies animating Oceania. We concluded our korero to a standing ovation. The waiata we ended on was ‘Pōkarekare ana’, and Witi invited all the New Zealanders present in the room to sing and sway along with us. Sir Peter Buck (Te Rangihiroa), in his 1958 history of the great Polynesian navigators, Vikings of the Sunrise, asking the question where is Hawaiki, suggested any of the islands of Oceania might well be Hawaiki. The islands are organically connected, as if by the tentacles of an octopus, but where does the head, where does Hawaiki lie? Some say at Savai’i in Samoa, some say at the island of Hawai’i, some say at Oheavie in the Tahitian group of islands, as in a map drawn by Tupaia, the Tahitian navigator who guided Captain Cook. But for now a gigantic banner draping the facade of Burlington House bearing the word Oceania and an image of a female ancestor figure painted with traditional tattoo designs from the island of Aitutaki in the Cook Islands group suggested that the spirit-world of Hawaiki might have gathered here, to represent and to be acknowledged.
David Eggleton received the 2016 Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry. His most recent collection of poetry Edgeland and other poems, published in 2018 by Otago University Press, was longlisted for the 2019 NZ Ockham Poetry Award.
***** The Oceania literature programme was supported by Creative New Zealand *****