Accepted paper:

Made in Tonga: authenticity and the commoditisation of identity in modern Pacific woodcarving


Andy Mills (University of East Anglia)

Paper short abstract:

How do identity and authenticity operate in the modern material culture of a post-colonial, media-globalised, economically peripheral social context? This paper will examine these issues in the case of modern wood-carving in Tonga, Western Polynesia.

Paper long abstract:

Modern wood-carvers in Tonga exist in an ambiguous context. On the one hand, Tonga is peripheral to the global capitalist networks which interconnect it with the larger economies of New Zealand, Australia, Fiji and Hawaii; touristic Western representational discourses of the Pacific Islander, and the Pasifika discourse of cross-cultural Polynesian unity, directly impact on the nature of sculptural art in modern Tonga. Conversely, the ancient cultural classification of carvers as tufunga accorded them a social prestige unparalleled among those outside of the chiefly class, which also permeated the artefacts they produced. Processes of Christianisation and technological Westernisation radically transformed this conception of the carved arts over the 19th and 20th centuries, and continue to do so today. In recent decades, however, a growing body of academic research and glossy art publications have introduced a counter-discourse exalting the arts of two centuries ago, which modern Tongan artists now have an awareness of that their fathers never did. Where identity manifests in such politically and economically-charged, fragmentary, contradictory and strategic ways, can authenticity mean anything, and if so, then what? How does authenticity operate in the globalised, postcolonial periphery?

panel P06
Appropriating authenticity: anthropological and archaeological enquiries on a shared theme