Scott Hamilton – 22 February, 2019
Sunaia Siasau taught his son to sculpt. He showed Visesio how to select strong wood, how to perceive a figure — a shark, an eel, a Catholic saint — inside the wood, how to smooth the wood, how to shine it. Now Visesio sculpts for his father. At Otara's Fresh Gallery last year, he exhibited a forest of toa, the tree that reaches to Tangaloa's sky-realm in Tongan legend. But Visesio's toa were thin and sickly, and attached to plastic bags loaded with the sort of saline solution that hospitals give intravenously to dehydrated patients. The tree that symbolises Tongan pride had become dependent on palangi medicine.
At the end of a one-way road in Havelu, a lagoonside slum of Nuku’alofa, the capital and only city of the Kingdom of Tonga, an old man lies on a bed that has been dragged into the living room of his fale. The man’s brow is lined; his eyes are slits. He might be squinting through a blue haze, at an ocean horizon. His mouth shrinks and swells, like a dark jellyfish. His arms lie motionless by this sides, but his hands, which have been scarred and strengthened by a life wielding chisels and plasma cutters and torches, sometimes flex and reach, as though they miss their old tools.
Outside dust rises from a coral road; two flocks of kids fight over a watermelon rind that a passing pig dropped in a pothole. The little boys and girls should be in school, but they lack fees, shoes, shirts. The street is their playground, because their front yards are filled with scrap metal, husked coconuts, sharded glass.
The old man breathes slowly, deliberately. Ribs emerge from the folds of his white singlet, then recede. Tongans are a patient people. A Tongan might spend a day waiting for a boat loaded with bananas and corned beef to come through a reef, or queue for hours outside a Western Union bureau, hoping for money from more fortunate relatives. Lying quietly in his fale, Sunaia Siasau waits for death in the same patient way he once waited for sleep.
It is six o’clock in the evening, but the kava clubs of Havelu are silent. Their singers and guitarists cannot always afford to drink Tonga’s national narcotic, which is being bought in huge quantities by hipster kava bars in San Francisco and Seattle. Nuku’alofa’s young people are experimenting with different drugs. The city’s newspapers carry reports about meth labs hidden on the overgrown plantations of Tongatapu, about glass pipes stowed in schoolbags, about young men with bloodshot eyes and bloodied machetes, arrested at the scenes of crimes they will not remember.
A burnt-out Ford Escort announces the end of the road, a few metres beyond the old man’s fale. Blades of elephant grass rise like green flames through its dashboard, its smashed windscreen. Some of the kids spend their nights in the car, when they cannot find refuge on the floors of Havelu.
Now and again an unburnt car reaches the end of the street, then turns and rolls away, wallowing in dusty potholes. This slow traffic makes the sound of waves washing a coral reef at low tide. Havelu is an improvised settlement, without street names, let alone street signs. Even the police get lost, when they follow drug dealers and dissidents into its interior.
Sunaia’s son Visesio Siasau and other family members have been caring for the old man since his stroke. They turn him over in bed, to stop sores spreading over his shrinking body. They mop his brow, his cheeks, in the humid afternoons. They light night fires outside the front door, to confuse the fleets of mosquitoes that rise from Nuku’alofa’s lagoon at dusk.
On the concrete vernadah, in the shadow of a mango tree, sits Sunaia’s last, unfinished sculpture: a woman with hair like kelp struggles to disentangle herself from a huge, coiled eel. I think about the legend of Sina, the young woman who befriended a small tuna one evening in a moonlit pool, only to see it grow into a monster.
Sunaia Siasau taught his son to sculpt. He showed Visesio how to select strong wood, how to perceive a figure — a shark, an eel, a Catholic saint — inside the wood, how to smooth the wood, how to shine it. Now Visesio sculpts for his father. At Otara’s Fresh Gallery last year, he exhibited a forest of toa, the tree that reaches to Tangaloa’s sky-realm in Tongan legend. But Visesio’s toa were thin and sickly, and attached to plastic bags loaded with the sort of saline solution that hospitals give intravenously to dehydrated patients. The tree that symbolises Tongan pride had become dependent on palangi medicine. Visesio’s show reminded me of William Blake’s poem:
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
Visesio‘s forest could have represented his father’s sickness, but it might equally have symbolised the crisis of Havelu, and of all Tonga. Havelu was founded by migrants from Ha’apai, an archipelago of fishermen and carpenters. Ha’apaians were revered for the sleekness and speed of the vaka they took over their reefs to hunt for sharks, and for the bold and recondite goddesses they carved in dark wood, and stowed in temples.
In Havelu, Ha’apai migrants exist between the world of their ancestors and that of Western nations like Nu’u Sila. The old fishing and woodworking skills are little use; Nuku’alofa’s lagoon has been depopulated by pollution, and coral cement is the fashionable material for new houses. Parents export their children, and harvest remittances. Like the rest of Tonga, Havelu can feel like a departure lounge, or a holding cell.
When Sunaia had his stroke, Visesio went to Havelu. As the oldest child, it was his responsibility to organise his father’s care. I wonder how he is finding life in his childhood home. A few months ago he was a resident artist at an American university, holding cafeteria seminars on Polynesian cosmology, and mass producing sculptures of gods and goddesses using moulds and ovens and the labour of enthusiastic undergraduates. He joked with me about airlifting the ‘otua back to Tonga, where their nineteenth century ancestors were hung or burnt, or both, by Wesleyan crusaders. It might be necessary, I suggested, to parachute the deities onto the kingdom’s islands, and thereby avoid the scrutiny of customs officers, who are charged with protecting Tonga from blasphemy.
Now, early in the morning, Visesio is sometimes able to creep away from his father’s bed and fire up his electric saw and cut and shape wood. The local kids gather, glad of a distraction. Their parents, though, often jeer, or lob bottles. Visesio’s saw interrupts the sleep-ins they use to recover from all-night drinking and drugging sessions.
I wanted to interview Sunaia Siasau. I have brought a notepad, three pens. I imagined myself sitting beside his bed, as he told stories, shared axioms. I am too late. Sunaia does not talk to anybody now. But Visesio has offered to show me some of the churches his father decorated with his sculptures.
Visesio drives me out of Nuku’alofa, towards the small, swampy village of Puke. ‘My father was a proud Catholic’ he tells me. ‘He sent me to Apifo’ou, the Catholic school. He didn’t expect me to go in my own direction.’
As a small boy Visesio began to draw. He drew what his fathers and uncles carved, but also what appeared in his imagination. When he was nine, his parents found a series of drawings of Tonga’s old deities, and another drawing of a naked man and woman. The drawings were burnt. The boy was beaten.
In many of Visesio’s sculptures and paintings Tonga’s Christian and pre-Christian eras collide, collude: Tangaloa suffers on a cross, while Mary and Joseph puzzle at a Ha’apian goddess. Visesio’s resurrection of old deities has upset conservative Tongans, at the same time as it has won him acclaim and awards and residences in the palangi world.
Sunaia Siasau was born on Tonga’s northern island of Vava’u. He learned to carve from his own father, and from his uncles. He moved south to Tongatapu, the kingdom’s capital island, and married into the Fehoko family, which hailed from Ha’apai and had its own carving tradition.
Sunaia’s brother-in-law was Viliami Fehoko, who trained as a carver and carpenter before attending Nuku’alofa’s ‘Atenisi Institute, a new-fangled school run by the polymathic freethinker Futa Helu. Fehoko heard Helu talk about the need to bring Polynesian culture to the world, and to bring world culture to Polynesia, and decided to build a yacht and sail it around the globe. He set out in 1972, and got as far as the Indian Ocean, where he fell in love with a Frenchwoman and settled in the Seychelles. He carved, founded an art school, and is today remembered as a father of Seychellois modernism.
While his brother-in-law was crossing oceans, Sunaia Siasau was building a house in Havelu, and working as a welder. ‘He was an organised, disciplined man’ Visesio tells me. ‘He got up early. He made us get up early. Some families were abandoning their plantations: he made us work the land.’ Visesio has a flat stomach and bulging arms; his brother, who runs an export business in Nu’u Sila, has even bigger muscles. ‘He hated the way Havelu was going, in the 1980s and ‘90s. The hopelessness. The sloth. It’s worse now.’
Puke’s Catholic church sits in a paddock outside the village. A lone cow roped to a coconut stump sits on its haunches, stares dolefully at the sky. The church is a square, squat, functional building: it might be a schoolhouse, or a health clinic. A cousin of Visesio’s appears, with a key. He crosses himself before he unlocks the door. Inside clear evening light is falling through unstained windows. The pews resemble desks. The altar is a small table. Sunaia’s Christ suffers on a wall. His body and the cross have been cut from the same banyan tree. His arms and his legs are as thin as the crossbar, the shaft. His ribs are slashes.
In Tongan churches, whether they are Catholic or Protestant, Sisu Kalaisi is normally an idealised figure. He has pale skin, rosy cheeks, muscular arms, a well-fed belly.
Across the kingdom, social status is linked to size. Nobles and pastors grow fat from feasts thrown in their honour; their guts symbolise their mana.
Tonga was the only Pacific society to avoid colonisation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Tongans converted early to Christianity, and despatched their own teams of missionaries to Melanesia. Perhaps because of this history, they have a tendency to idealise Europe, and to consider white skin beautiful. The term ‘uli ‘uli’ - very black - is used as an insult.
But Sunaia Siasau’s Christ is emaciated and brown. He reminds me of Grunewald’s ravaged messiah, of the kavakava moai sculptures of Rapa Nui, with their intricate extruding ribcages - testaments, perhaps, to ecological collapse and famine.
We drive back to Nuku’alofa through the dusk. Roadside coconut trees shake their heads mockingly at me. I was not prepared for Sunaia Siasau. I imagined him as a traditional artist, doing work identical to that of his ancestors, work that was skilled and yet essentially unoriginal. I supposed that Visesio, the foreign-trained son, was the innovator, the iconoclast, the man who made artworks rather than artifacts. I was wrong.
‘What did you think?’ Visesio asks.
‘It’s not what I expected.’
‘It wasn’t what a lot of people expected. Quite a few people were surprised by Sunaia’s vision.’
A couple of girls in their early teens are hanging around outside Havelu’s Catholic church. One of them is using a traditional Tongan broom, made from the spines of coconut fronds, to torment a scabby dog. She has trapped the dog between the church’s open door and the railing of its concrete ramp; she is poking at its ribs.
The second girl is gazing downwards, with a neutral expression, at the bits of hardened gum embedded in the ramp’s stone like trilobites. Neither girl notices us, as we enter the church. The phrase MY SOUL GLORIFIES THE LORD has been painted, in blue, on cardboard cut out letters, and pasted to a wall. Frangipani flare between each word. Beside the altar a concrete trilithon painted gold supports a Christ with a flat, leonine face, and two concrete angels, each of which is equipped with a cumbersome, presumably non-functional wing. The messiah’s long mane has also been painted gold.
‘It’s made from cement’ Visesio says, ‘the whole thing. My father used an iron frame to shape it, before he poured. He was interested in new materials. He was one of the first welders in Tonga, he put broken buses back together, all sorts of things. At the same time, he remembered Tongan history, and the support he made here, the trilithon, it recalls the Ha’amonga ‘a Maui.’
I think of the three slabs of coral that slaves cut from the coast of Tongatapu centuries ago, then dragged through the jungle to Heketa, first capital of the island’s kings.
Sunaia’s Christ is angry. His nostrils seem to flare; his wide eyes accuse us of some transgression; his thin face is drained of colour.
I wonder whether Sunaia’s emaciated Christs were intended to contrast with what he considered the decadence of modern Tonga. He would not have been the first Tongan dissident to prefer hunger to feasting, piety to indulgence.
On the southern edge of Havelu, a few metres from the lagoon, I recently found the grave of Senituli Koloi, the religious rebel who starved himself to death in 1980. Koloi was a minister in the state-supported Free Wesleyan Church who won a reputation for healing, mindreading, oratory. He gained hundreds of followers, and led them out of his church, holding meetings in Tongatapu’s bush, where he denounced tithing, feasting, and palangi medicine. Koloi was denounced as a heretic by his former employers; he relished the label.
I have a black and white photograph of Koloi preaching, in his church of trees, sometime in the late ‘70s. He has dragged a lectern into the forest. His mostly female audience sit at his feet, but he looks upwards, toward a blurred, dappled heaven. Koloi called on his followers to fast as regularly as they could; he expired after abstaining from food for a fortnight. His grave is a pile of gravel and a small black stone. No flowers desecrate it.
As Visesio and I drink coffee on the verandah of his family fale, I ask him whether Koloi’s theology ever tempted his father. Visesio laughs. ‘My father wasn’t that fanatical. He was a good Catholic. He could never have gone over to Koloi’s cult. But there is something prophetic about his sculptures. Go back into the house. Take a look at the old man.’
I step inside quietly. The concrete walls of the living room are almost dark, like the sky outside. I can just make out Sunaia’s thin face, his lidded eyes, his ribs rising and disappearing. Suddenly I understand what Visesio means: the old man lying in front of me resembles the figure crucified on those walls in Puke and Havelu.