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'We forget so easily' — Art keeps Polynesian Panthers' legacy alive 50 years on

In 1971, the central Auckland suburb of Ponsonby was dilapidated, rat-infested and constantly patrolled by the police, prompting a group of young activists to resist systematic racism. The 50th anniversary of the birth of the Polynesian Panthers is being marked this week. In part two of 1 NEWS' two-part series, Irra Lee examines the role of art in keeping their legacy alive for the next generation.

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Ness explains a new mural in Ponsonby, Auckland, which aims to "tell the truth" about New Zealand's history. Source: 1 NEWS

In an Auckland car park on the corner of Karangahape Road and Gundry Street near Ponsonby, a massive new mural marries the stories of the past, present and future. It also marks the 50th anniversary of the birth of the Polynesian Panthers, a prominent activist group.

The five-metre tall mural spanning 26 metres pays homage to social movements of the past and present — from the formation of the Black Panther Party in the US and a Black power protest at the 1968 Summer Olympics, to the 1981 Springbok tour protest and the Ihumātao occupation.

It illustrates the unique bond of the Black and Polynesian Panthers. The latter was inspired by the parallels — and the distinctions — between the Black civil rights movement in the US and the discrimination Pacific communities faced in New Zealand. 

Fifty years on, Tigilau Ness still calls himself a proud Polynesian Panther. 

As a first-generation New Zealand-born Pacific Islander, Ness said growing up meant having “one foot in the garage, one foot in the taro patch”. Ness joined the Panthers after being expelled from school for refusing to cut his afro, which he argued was against Niuean tradition.

“At home, we were comfortable in our living rooms, language and culture. Outside of home, we were forced to fit into shoes that didn’t fit us — in fact, we didn’t wear shoes," Ness said.

“Education helped shape our thinking and made us realise we do have rights. Our parents were very humble when they first came here. ... They taught us to turn the other cheek and be humble and don’t make waves and don’t upset the system. We rebelled against that."

A new mural on the corner of Karangahape Road and Gundry Street pays tribute to the Black Panther Party and the Polynesian Panthers. Source: 1 NEWS

In 1971, amid issues around tenants’ rights, immigration and police brutality, the Panthers came together in Ponsonby, intent on revolution. Among its numerous activities, they set up homework centres and distributed legal aid documents to help people understand their rights when dealing with police. 

But, it was the group’s activities during the dawn raids in the mid-1970s that cemented their place in history. In protest of the raids that targeted Pasifika, the Panthers organised “counter raids” on the homes of several prominent cabinet members at the time. 

The Panthers also stood with Māori over land rights issues, including the protest at Bastion Point. It also joined protest marches against the 1981 Springbok Tour, one of which saw Ness end up in jail for nine months. 

Ness said the group was “grateful” they “still had their wits about [them]” given all they’d been through. 

“We’re still around because the job isn’t finished yet, the work isn’t over yet. Racism is rearing its head again as we saw in 2019 down in Christchurch.”

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The PM acknowledged how traumatic Dawn Raids were for Pasifika people. Source: 1 NEWS

In recent years, some of the Panthers' members toured schools around the country to tell their stories. They also advocated for a formal apology for the discriminatory dawn raids, something the Government confirmed yesterday it would do

Ness wants the mural to spark conversation and serve as a reminder for the next generation.

“We want to tell the truth and keep our history alive as much as possible because a lot of our old ones have gone on. It’s up to us to educate to liberate, you know, to tell the truth about our history and the colonial impact upon our people in the Pacific,” he said.

That meant the Pacific community needed to tell their own stories, Ness said.

“Our passing down of stories is oral, but also, art tells our stories,” he said.

“Humans, we forget so easily … people come and go, but artworks, they remain. They’re a reminder of who we are.”

Tigilau Ness and Chris McBride. Source: 1 NEWS

Art curator Chris McBride said the idea for the mural came during talks with Ness after a trip to California in 2016 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Black Panthers.

While on the trip, McBride recalled seeing numerous public artworks in Oakland. McBride and Ness were also inspired by the works of graphic artist and Black Panther Party member Emory Douglas, whose images feature on the mural. 

McBride compiled the final design during last year’s Covid-19 lockdown over Zoom. After crowdfunding online, painting began with the community’s help earlier this year. 

“Bringing the community into the mix was really, really important. It also enabled those people to learn the story of what we were doing,” he said. 

“This is a community story. Therefore, if you neglect the community, then you’re not telling the story right.”

The photographer

Towards the middle of the mural stands the late Miriama Rauhihi-Ness (Ngāti Whakatere, Ngāti Taki Hiku), a prominent member of the Panthers, at a demonstration against the 1981 Springbok tour.

Miriama Rauhihi-Ness at a demonstration against the 1981 Springbok tour. Her image on the mural was traced from a photograph by John Miller. Source: Supplied / John Miller

As police at the time had started hitting demonstrators with batons, Rauhihi-Ness is seen on the mural clad in a helmet and face shield with a microphone, just as photographer John Miller (Ngāpuhi, Ngaitewake-ki-Uta) had captured 40 years ago.

Miller, who is renowned particularly for his images documenting protests and social movements, said he was pleased he was able to contribute to the mural. 

Since 1971, he’d documented the Panthers’ activities, first as a photographer for the University of Auckland’s student newspaper Craccum. 

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The renowned photographer has documented the activist group's activities since the 1970s. Source: 1 NEWS

“There were a lot of events happening. There were anti-Vietnam war protests, protests against sporting contacts with South Africa,” Miller said.

He also photographed the Panthers’ march down Queen Street in solidarity with Black Panthers jailed in the US, their bus service to Paremoremo Prison, and their after-school homework centres. 

“The dawn raids, the Panthers had quite a role in confronting and challenging the dawn raids. They stood up for the Pacific Island community. … They provided strength to younger people in the community when they’d been under pressure from an insensitive bureaucracy,” he said.

“In more recent times, I photographed up in Waitangi the Pacific Panthers — a new group, I saw a banner there. They’ve inspired the younger generation of Pacific Islanders to get active in issues.”

Some of Miller’s photographs of the Polynesian Panthers were displayed at the Objectspace gallery earlier this year in Grey Lynn, just walking distance from the mural.

John Miller's photographs displayed at Objectspace, Grey Lynn. Source: 1 NEWS

“You need these visual reminders. It’s very easy to forget events. It’s easier to remember them if you’ve got good visual documentation of them so you’re not re-inventing the wheel,” Miller said.

“Generally, it’s really important people keep documenting events that happen. It’s a lot easier now because digital cameras are easier to use, you’ve got the whole internet thing. Years ago, if you wanted to get your alternative viewpoint out, you had to own a printing press.

“I do speculate what would have happened in 1981 if we had digital technology feeding live streams of riot police whacking the hell out of protestors in Christchurch, for example. 

“I think the tour would’ve been called off a lot earlier.”

The curator

Miller’s photographs also feature in Pauline (Vaeluaga) Smith’s exhibition, Educate to Liberate. 

The title of the exhibition is a nod to the Panthers’ philosophy and features photographs, artwork and memorabilia from the dawn raids era. 

Pauline Smith's Educate to Liberate exhibition in Ponsonby, Auckland. Source: 1 NEWS

Smith said it was a coincidence the exhibit had ended up in Ponsonby’s Studio One Toi Tū in March, also a stone’s throw from the mural, in the lead up to the 50th anniversary of the Panthers.

Since 2018, it had toured around Invercargill, Christchurch, and Ōtara and Ponsonby in Auckland. At every location, Smith said she would hear more stories from people directly affected by, or knew people who were raided at dawn. 

“One of the things people don’t often realise is the dawn raids, while it was mainly Auckland and Wellington, it reached as far as Invercargill.”

Her family was among those affected in Southland. 

“We were just sitting at the dinner table and someone came to the back door and someone came to the front door, and it was immigration. And, they wanted to see my father’s papers. 

“My mum and dad went away quietly and got them, and I didn’t really realise anything was wrong. I was just enjoying my dinner.”

Decades later, the idea for Educate to Liberate was born out of Smith’s time as a teacher. 

Pauline Smith. Source: Supplied

“I realised people in New Zealand knew very little about the dawn raids,” she said.

“Initially, I hoped [with the exhibit] that they walk out with knowledge they might not have had before. A lot of feedback I get is people saying ‘I didn’t know about this, I can’t believe I didn’t know.’”

Smith, who had been made an honorary Panther, also wanted the exhibition to acknowledge the work of the original group. 

“They made a very important mark in history. To have that mark recognised even 50 years later, I think they’re still very, very relevant.

"The work they’re doing now, going around and educating in schools, talking about racism openly, talking about injustice, they’re as relevant now as they were as 16 to 19 year olds.”

“I think the arts are probably one of the most powerful tools for telling these stories and getting them out to people. There are so many powerful ways to tell the same story in so many different mediums. And, if you do that, it gives people more access to the information in a variety of ways," she added.