Benjamin Work: For King & Country

9 June - 30 July 2016 Bergman Gallery, Rarotonga
'Because it's been recorded once, does that make it the truth?'

Opening Speakers:

Halatoa Fua, CEO, Cook Islands Tourism
John Snowball, Manager, CITC Liquor
Benjamin Work, Artist

Can the history books be corrected? In the year of the coronation of King Tupou VI, in the Kingdom of Tonga, artist Benjamin Work addresses misconceptions around the recording of historical encounters in Tonga with early explorers like Captain James Cook. These 18th century accounts have survived to the present day and are referred to in exhibitions and publications that are taken as gospel.


One example is the continued and incorrect reference to the ancient Tu'i Tonga Pau or King of Tonga Pau as 'Tu'i Tonga Paulaho' or 'King of Tonga Paulaho'. The name Paulaho has been passed down from written records and documentation by early explorers, but the name Pau is what has been passed down through Tongan oral history. The term laho in the Tongan language means male testicles so 'Tu'i Tonga Paulaho' would translateto 'King of Tonga Pau-The-Testicle'. Such a highly offensive name would never have been given to the most chiefly person of Tongan society at that time and space. For researchers, academics and institutions to still use these terms today, simply because they have been written for posterity in early records, is highly erroneous and culturally offensive.


It has been over two hundred years and there is now a need to ask crucial questions as to how and why this name was recorded by early explorers. This exhibition follows on from a recent research trip by Benjamin Work to museums across Europe and the United Kingdom. This trip also included Benjamin attending and presenting along with a small Aotearoa, New Zealand / Vava'u, Tonga delegation at the Pacific Arts Association Europe (PAA-E) Conference in Madrid, Spain. At this conference academic and artist Professor Hūfanga Dr 'Okusitino Māhina and curator and writer Kolokesa U. Māhina-Tuai presented two possibilities for the current incorrect use of the name 'Paulaho'. 'Paulaho' could have been a misspelling of 'Pau lahi' where lahi in Tongan terms literally means greatness or symbolically means full of power, status, dignity, rank and wealth.


The second possibility is that the early explorer's informant could have been a commoner who was weighed down by his obligation and labour for his King that he gave the name 'Paulaho'. This was not uncommon in Tonga then and even now where across classes people express crude names for individuals out of spite and annoyance. This is known in Tonga as 'kape loto' or 'swearing inside one's heart and mind' and is best illustrated in the Tongan proverb 'ngulungulu fei'umu' meaning 'grumbling of the cooks.' The proverb is in reference to the cooks who were considered to be at the bottom of the Tongan social hierarchy where they would quietly complain to themselves yet still cook for the King as part of their hereditary role.


Hūfanga and Kolokesa have proposed two possibilities based on Tongan theory and ethnography, and provide a strong basis that can lead to correcting current misconceptions of aspects of Tonga's history. This exhibition makes an appeal for the importance of critically scrutinizing early historical accounts. It reinforces for the artist the Tongan proverb that, 'we walk forward into the past and backward into the future' and what he feels is a need for this generation to build on this rich history from a Tongan perspective. Benjamin has produced these works in light of the large number of 18th and 19th century Tongan collections that he viewed in museums during his research trip to Europe and the United Kingdom.


As a result of over a millennium of early encounters and exchanges over time and space, the bulk of Tonga's early treasures are all housed in museums overseas. Benjamin Work's experience of being one of only a few Tongans, and in some cases the first, to view and handle works of art by Tongan master artists of the past, are embedded in his exhibition For King and Country / Ma'ae Tu'i mo e Fonua.

 Kolokesa U. Māhina-Tuai & Benjamin Work.