Category Archives: Colombia

Tahiti – Time to eat time!

Around 1,000 years after Tahiti was first settled by Polynesians, the English sailor Samuel Wallis arrived to claim the territory as ‘King George the Third’s Island‘. The Tahitians attempted to repulse the intruders, but the superior weaponry of the English made an unequal match. When the French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville arrived the following year, in 1768, he was given a much friendlier reception. In response, he claimed the territory for France as ‘New Cythera’. In his 1771 publication, Voyage autour du monde, Bougainville depicted the island as an earthly paradise, far from the corruption of civilisation.

imageBougainville’s report had a strong effect on the French enlightenment, inspiring the utopianism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his Supplément au voyage de Bougainville, Denis Diderot uses the Tahitian figure Ohou as a foil for critiquing Western civilisation. Ohou explains the readiness of Tahitian men to share their womenfolk with the Europeans as a long-term strategy to appropriate all the best of their civilisation into their own culture. Diderot reflects, ‘Savage life is so simple and our societies are such complicated mechanisms. The Tahitien is near the origin of the world, the European near its old age.’ While the idea of South as a child is often presented negatively, particularly in a developmental paradigm, in this case it indicates an innocence with more future than the jaded Old World.

Following two visits by James Cook, Tahiti was chosen by the English as a source of breadfruit to be used as cheap food for slaves in the West Indies. In 1789, the captain of the ship commissioned for this purpose was deposed by rebellious sailors who turned their backs on civilisation and resigned themselves to die in the antipodes. The ‘mutiny on the bounty’ reflects the conflict in expanding English empire between the force of order located in the cold dark North and the temptations that seemed on offer in the warm verdant South.

image The spirit of Fletcher Christian continues. While playing the rebel in the 1961 film version, Marlon Brando turned his back on America, married his Tahitian lead and purchased the island first chosen by Bligh’s deserters as an escape. This came to a violent denouement when his first son called Christian murdered his Tahitian daughter’s native husband. The real Fletcher Christian’s men settled on Pitcairn Island, burnt the Bounty, and created an English-Tahitian hybrid micro-society, which is still alive today in Norfolk Island. As is usual, the only news coming from this world is of sexual abuse and murder. We hear little of the thriving artistic and literary life on the islands.

Norfolk Island fibre artist Margarita Sampson ‘Welcome/Greetings’ (2006) recycled books & ink. 6ft x4 ft wide. Photo: Alex Kovoskali, shown at Craft Victoria along with Dar Plait fe Ucklun Norfolk Island Weaving for Common Goods. image

Bounty Chocolate Bar, produced by Mars, used the idyllic image of the Pacific island as a fantasy for consumers to indulge while eating a ‘taste of paradise’.

image One enduring legacy of these first visits is the tattoo. In a society without capital, the tattoo was a principle means by which power and status could be acquired. All it needed was the capacity of the individual to endure great pain. After recovering from the ordeal, proof of their strength was available for all to see. The European sailors who acquired tattoos for themselves then introduced this skin economy into the West, where it still flourishes today, particularly among those who do not have access to other forms of capital. The tattoo is one of the most visible ways in which the South has imprinted itself on the rest of the world.

In 1842, Queen Pomare signed a treaty that made Tahiti a French Protectorate. Etablissements français d’Oceanie became a space for artists to position themselves against the conventional order. In 1891, Paul Gauguin arrived in Tahiti seeking escape from the modern world. Having grown up in Peru, Gauguin shared with van Gogh a love of ‘primitive cultures’ such as the Brittany peasant. His journal Noa Noa documents Gauguin’s journey away from civilisation into the full life of nature. After joining vigorous work with natives, Gauguin can finally claim to be one of them:


This cruel assault was the supreme farewell to civilization, to evil. This last evidence of the depraved instincts which sleep at the bottom of all decadent souls, by very contrast exalted the healthy simplicity of the life at which I had already made a beginning into a feeling of inexpressible happiness. By the trial within my soul mastery had been won. Avidly I inhaled the splendid purity of the light. I was, indeed, a new man; from now on I was a true savage, a real Maori.

imageGauguin’s paintings have become a universal symbol of Tahiti as a world of classical beauty. This has become ever more commodified through tourism and consumerism. In 1913, the first postage stamp from this region contained a dusky beauty with a hibiscus flower behind her ear. It was only a matter of time before Club Med set up shop.

In 1963, as France anticipated Algerian independence, Charles de Gaulle chose the Pacific territories as the new site for nuclear testing. The assumption was that the atolls and their surrounding waters were empty. Tensions rose during the course of atomic explosions on Moruroa. In 1977, the Polynesian Liberation Front was formed by Oscar Temaru, who is now president of the local parliament. In 1992, during the ‘day of the waters’, PLF leaders gathered in Salzburg to articulate their position. Myron Mataoa stated, ‘Now this island of Moruroa — you know what Moruroa means? Moruroa means “the land of secret”. The land of secret. And today that land is really a land of secret where we don’t get any information from the French administration on how bad was their testings since 1966.’

Tourism is a dominant force in contemporary Tahiti. The German-born sculptor Andreas Dettloff has produced a series of work in the mode of ‘reverse primitivism’, depicting forms like shrunken skulls but with Western iconography such as Coca-Cola. One of his most successful series were skulls supposedly of Gauguin. A resident for twenty years, Dettloff’s work is disliked by tourist operators, but enjoyed by native Tahitians.


Gauguin in his last décor (Andreas Dettloff, 2008)

image A major force in Tahitian cultural revival was the poet Henri Hiro, who called on his people to recover their lost culture. His called on Tahitians to ‘Eat the time! It is necessary to eat time! You must eat the time lost by your past!’ The Tahitian concept of time and space is opposite to the Western: Tahitians look forward to the past, while their backs are turned to the future. To eat the time is to devour the process of Westernisation that has alienated Tahitians from their culture. Like the Brazilian concept of anthropofagi, it evokes cannibalism as a cultural response to the outside world.

Hiro has been followed by a number of women writers whose writing has been described as a form of ‘ancestral realism’ in which previous generations are considered an active presence in daily life.

From the Western perspective, Tahiti represents the idea of South as a prelapsarian world from which an attack can be mounted on the dominant order. Tahiti was first used by bourgeois French intellectuals to critique the over-civilised Ancien Régime, and continues to be used as a satire on the contemporary global order by those at its periphery.

And where do the Tahitians themselves stand in this. Are they mere extras in cinematic Western fantasies? Recent Tahitian voices seem to revert back to the hostility they showed their first English visitor, Wallis. Perhaps that is the legacy of innocence. Cast as children, Tahitians are positioned beyond the law, without adult forms of exchange. Violence might seem the only way to assert identity. The situation appears similar to the myth of El Dorado in Colombia.

This duality of innocence/violence seems an important dimension to Western ideas of South. It’s interesting to understand its dynamics and whether the same applies to ideas of South from other directions.


  • Greg Dening Mr Bligh’s Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on Bounty Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992
  • Denis Diderot Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville (1772)
  • Rod Edmond Representing The South Pacific: Colonial Discourse From Cook To Gauguin New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997
  • Paul Gauguin Noa Noa: The Tahitian Journal (trans. O.F. Theis) New York: Dover, 1985 (orig. 1919)
  • Miriam Kahn ‘Tahiti: The Ripples of a Myth on the Shores of the Imagination’ History and Anthropology (2003) 14: 4, pp. 307-326
  • Dan Taulapapa McMullin “The fire that devours me’: Tahitian spirituality and activism in the poetry of Henri Hiro’ International Journal of Francophone Studies (2005) 8: 3, pp. 341-357
  • Robert Nicole ‘Resisting orientalism: Pacific literature in French’, in (ed. Vilsoni Hereniko, Rob Wilson) Inside Out: Literature, Cultural Politics, and Identity in the New Pacific : Rowman & Littlefield, 1999
  • Robert Nicole The Word, The Pen, And The Pistol: Literature And Power In Tahiti Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001
  • Tattoo: Bodies, Art and Exchange in the Pacific and the West edited by Nicholas Thomas, Anna Cole and Bronwen Douglas London: Reaktion, 2005

Thanks to Margarita Sampson and Andreas Dettloff.

Colombia – from El Dorado to FARC

The idea continues its southward journey. We move from an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean to a tropical land which, though part of the Northern Hemisphere, crowns the continent of South America. Not just geographically in the northern half, Colombia is also widely seen as ally to its northern patron, the USA, resisting the ‘pink tide’ that has pushed its southern neighbours to the left. How does Colombia inform our understanding of South?

It should be noted that Colombia is a complex story and this is very much an external viewpoint, related to the ongoing search for south-ness. To help explore a little more deeply, a number of people familiar with the country have been asked to comment on what might be missing in the world if Colombia did not exist. They help us reflect on a country that evokes the violence of gratuity.

It begins with El Dorado…

muisca95 On the shores of Guatavitá, a volcanic lake near present-day Bogatá, the new Zipa is prepared for the ceremony marking his ascension to the throne. He is stripped naked and covered with a sticky layer of balsam gum, on which gold dust is applied. Transformed into a golden figure, he steps on to a raft with other gold objects, including intricate votive figurines, tunjos. Once out in the centre of the lake, priests throw all the golden objects into the water, restoring the divine order of things. Finally, the Zipa plunges into the lake and swims to shore a new chief.

This legend of the ‘gifted one’, El Dorado, soon spread throughout the newly colonised world. When riches ran out in Mexico, Europe turned its attention to the tropics, seeking the valley of wild cinnamon containing untold gold reserves. The brutal colonisation of the northern stretch of South America can be traced directly to the expeditions in search of El Dorado.

The fantasy of El Dorado was based on the hypothesis that there existed a culture in which gold was of no value. Gold in Central America was used only for adornment, rarely currency. The Aztec word for gold was teocuitlatl, or ‘excrement of the gods’. The value of gold was only as it was crafted into precious objects. A Panamanian chief could not understand why the Spanish would melt objects down into featureless ingots.[1] In Candide, Voltaire writes about Cacambo and Candide visiting El Dorado, which is an idyllic isolated valley run on strict communitarian principles. The King treats them with great kindness, but is amused with their love of gold, which he dismisses as ‘yellow mud’. Like the number ‘zero’, El Dorado served as a null state that underpinned the emerging mathematics of global trade.

The dream of untold wealth was not an auspicious beginning.

Fault lines

Colombia emerged as a nation from the Viceroyalty of New Granada in 1810, lead by the forces of Simón Bolívar. The Bolivarian dream of a United States of South America came to a cruel end as the Colombian federation was broken up by reactionary forces in Venezuela and Ecuador. The conflict became a ‘war to the death’ (guerra a muerte) where no prisoners were taken. As Eduardo Galeano comments on Bolivar’s demise: ‘Was this, was this history? All grandeur ends up dwarfed. On the neck of every promise crawls betrayal. Great men become voracious landlords. The sons of America destroy each other. ‘[2]

The fault-line of violence continues into the modern era, with today’s three-way conflict between the government and left and right-wing guerrillas. The writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes the atrocities that have become part of everyday life in Colombia as a ‘Biblical Holocaust’. His News of a Kidnapping documents the national obsession with guerrillas, including children’s birthday parties broadcast on national television in the hope that their kidnapped parents may still be alive and encouraged by the happy scenes.

In this context, the fiction of Gabriel Garcia Marquez appears as a kind of imaginary haven from the violence outside. For Marquez, the world of fantastic places like Macondo in 100 Years of Solitude reflects the true nature of Colombian life. As he said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: ‘Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable.’

The happy sublime


Yet rather than succumbing to gloom, Colombia seems to counter violence with festivity. According to the Happy Planet Index, Colombians are among the happiest people on earth, second only to Vanuatu. This certainly reflects on the carnival of cambia, salsa, food and sex that is celebrated at the Colombian way of life. Colombian artists respond to this contradiction between reality and mood in different ways.

The artist Maria Fernando Cardoso has produced a number of exhibitions in Australia, including Zoomorphia in which animals perform baroque feats such as flea circuses. When considering what is unique to Colombia, Cardoso nominates its regional specialisations, ‘…being a particular Lechona (roasted pork) a Ternera a la Llanera, an Ajiaco, a Casuela de Mariscos, Cuajada con Queso, Melcoha, Alfandoque, Chicha, Arepa de Choclo, Pandeyuca, Almohabana, Chocolate Caliente, etc.  Colombia one of the most diverse countries I know, there are differences from town to town’ For Cardoso, Colombia is a nation of artists, including ‘street people, street culture, los recicladores, los vendedores ambulantes.’


Nadin Ospina

The artist Nadín Ospina created a series of work that reflected on the penetration of capitalism into Colombian identity. He commissioned objects from artisans who forged pre-Colombian artefacts and so produced objects incorporating Western icons like Mickey Mouse and Bart Simpson. His most recent work Colombialan uses the style of a children’s Lego game to reflect on the unreality of guerrilla violence. Ospina is critical of the escapist culture of Colombia; he says, ‘A society used to its pain and its violence is a society incapable of finding a solution to its conflicts.’

Oscar Muños gives expression to the fraught progress of Colombian politics with a series of portraits that require active participation in order to remain visible. Breath requires the viewer to breathe on steel plates to see the face, while in Project for a Memorial the face evaporates as it is drawn. The work evokes an anxiety about the lack of political progress.

What if Colombia did not exist?

Gabriela Salgado (curator, Tate Modern) sees Colombia as the projection of global anxieties:

Colombia is larger than the imagination and more positive than its media profile, which always associates the country with war, violence and drug production. If it did not exist, the ignorance- propagation machine of the global media would invent another Colombia to fulfil the need for gore and negativity with which invests selected parts of the world. On the other hand, if it did not exist, I would have not seen one of the most beautiful natural sanctuaries in the planet, and we would be missing a great deal of high quality contemporary art, literature, film, music, and intellectual production.

Jeff Browit (Coordinator of Contemporary Latin America at University of Technology Sydney) located Colombia firmly in the south:

Colombia is geographically ‘north’ of the equator, but philosophically ‘south’ in that it has a legacy of Iberian invasion and the imposition of an Iberian version of Westernisation and Christianity. It has subsequently laboured under neocolonial pressures from the United States and found itself trapped at times in the Cold War logics of the US-Soviet struggle for hearts and minds. In that sense it shares a common experience with many countries deemed part of the ‘south’. Aside from these geopolitical implications, it has an extraordinary diversity of geography, biology and culture and is blessed with a dynamic, hardworking, loving population, in spite of its constant demonisation in the press, in Washington and in Hollywood popular culture.

May Maloney, who has just returned as an exchange student in the region, the world owes an unacknowledged debt to Colombia:

If Colombia were to be missing from the world then all of Latin America would be suffering from a terrible identity crisis. If Colombia just zipped off the face of the Earth or was never there to begin with then we wouldn’t have ‘Pre-Colombian’ history, or Bolivar’s Pan-American dream. Spain wouldn’t have been able to transport (steal?) the all gold and silver of Bolivia without the port of Cartagena and, moreover, Henry Morgan and Francis Drake (along with all other pirates) would not have entered popular folklore if Santa Marta and Cartagena hadn’t been there to be sacked and razed at will. An obvious gap in the world economy would be left without Colombia—the Panama Canal as we know was once part of Colombia. The international drug economy, largely funded by the US, would have to be relocated to another part of the world and The War on Drugs wouldn’t have arrived at a Plan Colombia. Shakira wouldn’t be bringing her Laundry Service to the world, Miami could crumble to the ground and salsa would only be danced in Cuban circles if Cali hadn’t taught us that you can do it in straight lines. And worst of all for most Melbournians here in the South we wouldn’t be sipping at out ‘Italian’ coffee!

Sing as the birds do

The recent conflict between Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela has awakened the ghosts of Bolívar. Chavez is seeking to exhume the remains of Bolivar from his crypt in Caracas in order to discover if he was poisoned by the reactionary forces who then went on to rule Colombia.

Meanwhile, among the FARC guerrillas killed by Colombian forces in Ecuador was the folk singer Julian Conrado, who composed revolutionary songs in the traditional vallenato style, music of troubadours from the valley in north-east Colombia. One of his famous songs was El Canto

When you are going to sing
sing as the birds do
it has to turn out beautiful because it is done free of charge …
he who would pay for happiness,
no happiness will find.

The idea of Colombia is a world without value. Travelling through El Dorado to FARC we experience its sublime imagination and fraught reality. And along the way, we might glimpse a truth about the capitalist empire.

Next, southern Italy…

[1] Heide King ‘Gold in Ancient America’ The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 2002, 59: 4, pp. 5-55

[2] Eduardo Galeano Memory of Fire: II Faces & Masks (trans. Cedric Belfrage) New York: Pantheon, 1987 (orig. 1984), p. 138