Late last year, I was faced with two weeks to make and document an artwork as part of a retrieval programme for my course. The short version of the story is that I went off my antidepressants, got very spaced out and sick, poured literally all my effort into my theory paper, and consequently flunked the practical portion of the course. The retrieval project was the task I needed to complete to continue into the next year without repeating the paper. There’s a sense in which I’m glad all this happened, because it allowed me get making again with meds in hand, and to create this piece. The piece is a tapa cloth, an artform commonplace throughout Polynesian society, although it barely existed in New Zealand where the necessary materials could not thrive.
I’ve wanted to work on ngatu for a while, so was happy when my mother-in-law agreed to pick up six metres of ngatu for me while she was in Tonga seeing old friends. The final product explores the responsibility of the New Zealand, Australian and Tonga states (represented by their various flags) for the sinking of the MV Princess Ashika, a ferry which was operating between Tongan islands in 2009. Perhaps up to 80 people died during the sinking, a definite death count will never surface due to the possibility of stowaways, but given Tonga is a nation of only around 100,000 people, few went unaffected by the tragedy. The MV Princess Ashika was unseaworthy. It never should have been sailing, nor should have its sister ship, the MV Pulupaki, which thankfully did not sink before it was retired. What is so appalling is that all the political leaders of Tonga at the time knew the ships they had bought (from a Fijian business headed by a New Zealander) were deathtraps, but chose to gamble with working Tongan people’s lives to save themselves the cost of a safe ferry or of making alternate arrangements for delivering goods and passengers to outlying islands. When the Princess Ashika did sink, those responsible walked away free or with the slightest tap on the wrist. For months after the Ashika sank, up until the Japanese-built ferry Otuanga’ofa arrived, the equally dangerous MV Pulupaki remained operating, thankfully without more fatalities.
For more information, see:
I began this project thinking about comparing the Princess Ashika disaster to the Pike River Mine disaster. In both cases, real people’s bodies were left, unretrieved, in dark spaces, in the name of profiteering and cost-cutting. At first the central motif was of bodies in dark spaces. Quite a literal interpretation. As I collected information, thanks to three great volunteer models I had – E, S, and B – I realised I didn’t need the “dark” part so long as I could communicate a corpse-like quality. In the very end, all this was reduced down to flagpoles visibly “jabbed” into a linear figure. Here is a small gallery of some “information collecting” sketches I did, with apologies for the blue afternoon light.
When I proposed making a tapa cloth to my lecturer the very first thing he said to me was, disparagingly, “This is cultural appropriation.” This placed me in a difficult position, where I might have to expound at tedious length on the problems with mainstream post-colonial theories. In end I just did what I wanted to do, and jammed the following Aijaz Ahmad quote into my workbook hoping it attacked the roots of post-colonial pseudo-academia (particularly Edward Said’s Orientalism) viciously enough that it would, at least, be clear my disagreement with him wasn’t just founded in some vulgar contrarianism:
“to ascribe a shared cultural attitude towards Western dominance to all intellectuals who began writing after decolonization, and a structurally different attitude to all those whose intellectual formation was completed under colonial rule, regardless of their individual social and political locations, is the most arrant idealism and facilitates a very peculiar kind of ahistorical levelling.”
I was running short of time throughout the retrieval project, and also getting sick (it was the start of my glandular fever), so the “planning” stage was almost skipped. I only threw down a vague collection of compositions for the tapa itself before launching into the actual thing.
To make the cloth, I pasted layers of ngatu together with house paint until I had a large two-ply sheet. The most time consuming part was certainly the manulua patterns, the stacks of triangles, which I think are quite beautiful. There is a Samoan theory that manulua represent birds, which seems plausible, although outside of Tonga tapa patterns are much more often abstract than figurative. It is ironic that, although Tonga is the only major Polynesian island group that Europeans never colonised, Tonga’s tapa and art is much more aligned to Western traditions of narrative than any other tapa in the pacific. Tongan tapa tends to hold historic narratives, or depict certain events. Traditionally it is filled with flags, lions, and crowns and very “Western”-looking iconography due to the similarities that Tongan rulers saw between the British monarchy and their own feudal society.