Issue 9.5: October/November 2006

Across the Reef

story by Robert Sullivan

Painting by Bobby Holcomb

"Polynesians must write,” believed the poet Henri Hiro. “It doesn’t matter what language they use … the important thing is that they write, that they do it!” Hiro was well-known and loved in Tahiti for his views on Polynesian living: He believed in simple open-plan homes without walls, in wearing the pareu (sarong) and in writing in his native Tahitian. In his last interview before his untimely death in 1990, he remarked wryly about how he was made fun of at first: “I was a joke! ... Everyone’s joke! ... The poet! The dreamer! The intellectual! The bumpkin! … Because of the pareu, I lived through a period of ridicule. Some people confronted me directly, but since I wore it on all occasions and everywhere, it shocked people and then became ordinary. And then, more and more people started to wear it…”

Hiro’s belief that French Polynesia should remember and support its native foundations was all-embracing. He believed the future would be fulfilled through family and backed this up by heading a youth club and arts center. He founded a political party, which became a key mover in Pacific independence and nuclear-free movements. Yet he must always be remembered for his writing, for here he was profoundly gifted. Witness this extract from his ode to the pareu:

Most of us in Hawai‘i have never heard of Henri Hiro. But his work, as well as his last interview, can now be found in Varua Tupu, a just-published special issue of the University of Hawai‘i’s literary journal Manoa. Varua Tupu is dedicated to te ao Maohi, French Polynesia; it features fiction, poetry, essays and interviews, many of which are translated here for the first time from French and Tahitian into English. With its photographic essays and paintings, it opens a window onto these islands; with its words and stories, it reveals the everyday and the inspirational, the frustrations and the delights of this part of the world.

The territory that Varua Tupu covers—French Polynesia—spans five archipelagoes far south of Hawai‘i: the Society Islands, the Marquesas, the Austral Islands, the Gambiers and the Tuamotus. The book offers introductions to a range of fascinating artists from throughout the region. There is, for example, Bobby Holcomb, who, like Hiro, was a native artist with many admirers and an unconventional style. Varua Tupu is filled with Holcomb’s artwork, and his life is celebrated in two essays in the book. “He was an exotic sight,” reads one Holcomb profile in Varua Tupu, written by his friend John Lind. “He wore a crown of ferns atop his golden braids. A shopping bag of woven pandanus leaves hung from his bicycle’s handlebars …. His feet were bare, and his body was decorated with Polynesian tattoos.” Holcomb was part Hawaiian; he never knew his father, and so he found a father figure in Duke Kahanamoku (a colossal photograph of Kahanamoku hung in Holcomb’s living room). Holcomb was a “free spirit,” writes Lind, and embodied the Duke’s sense of “goodwill to all nations.” He traveled the world—his anecdotes were filled with gypsy festivals, Afghan mountains, Istanbul mosques, Haight-Ashbury concerts, Parisian parties—but he settled on Huahine after a Swiss heiress bought him a trip to Polynesia on a luxury liner in 1976. In Huahine, Holcomb learned the Tahitian language and revolutionized Tahitian music with reggae and native song lyrics. He taught local children their cultural heritage. He campaigned against nuclear testing. In 1988 he was voted French Polynesia’s Personality of the Year. When he died tragically of cancer three years later, news of his death was covered by local television ahead of the first Gulf War and all day by radio stations.

Holcomb’s artwork in Varua Tupu uses warm colors and textures to draw on connections with Tahiti, the Marquesas, Rurutu in the Austral Islands and his native Hawai‘i. He would paint early, from 4:30 a.m. until sunrise, and his paintings explore traditional life and the symbolism inherent within it; Varua Tupu’s cover image of a tattooed man blowing on a hermit crab in its similarly decorated shell, for example, is a play on the idea that the tattoo is also like the crab’s shell: It protects the man’s soul. The depth in Holcomb’s art comes as no surprise, for, Bohemianism aside, there was a deeply contemplative side to his life. He cared for the open-air temple, or marae called Maeava and would anoint its stones in fragrant oil and drape them with garlands of flowers.


Painting by Bobby Holcomb

“We all belong to the Pacific, as brothers, sisters and cousins, and it is significant that we are able to travel freely across the reef, physically and through the imaginations of our artists, and get to know one another again.” The words come from French Polynesia’s president Oscar Temaru, in the foreword to Varua Tupu. Temaru himself can be seen in the book in a photographic essay by Michel Chansin; he is pictured during the campaign season, speaking with supporters in the Polynesian township of F‘a‘a‘a, near Tahiti’s airport. Chansin’s photographs also capture the faces of Temaru’s supporters on election night, first anxious as they await results, then erupting with pride and joy after his victory. The 2004 election of Temaru—a native leader committed to independence—was a watershed moment in this colonial territory.

Chansin’s slice-of-life pictures from Fa‘a‘a, an enclave of indigenous life, illustrate that while residents may lack material wealth, they possess a tremendous vibrancy and mana—the photos affirm Hiro’s call for a Polynesian lifestyle lived in tune with the environment. But it is not all social realism in Varua Tupu; there is magical realism, too. Chansin’s other photographic essay in the book, taken on the Marquesan island of Hiva ‘Oa during an annual arts festival, is a collection of images shot through with dignity and mystery: There is the caress of light against the islet of Hanakee, the hand of a cloud above Mount Temetiu, warrior dancers on a fire-strewn field, dancers practicing on a sun-lit deserted beach.

There are so many other captivating artists and writers—memoirists, novelists, poets—to celebrate in this journal, but too little space here to cover them all. To read Varua Tupu is to discover a whole parallel universe of Polynesian writing. HH