Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Strength Assigned by Tatau

Albert Wendt uses Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body and The Cross of Soot to illustrate the ancient art of body decoration through the practice of tattoos (tataus). He stresses the importance of nature, through the people’s admiration for it, which can be seen in the visible symbols of the adornments that cover the physical body. Both literary pieces eventually touch on the personal involvement that Wendt had with the practice that resulted in the cross on the back of his hand. Both works, one a personal interpretation of the rituals and customs of a region and the other being a short work of fiction, demonstrate the immense pride that Wendt maintains for his homeland and the consequent history that the region possesses. The reverence that Wendt has for the art of tatauing is seen when he writes of the young boy that he “sat for a long time clutching his hand has though he was holding something precious” (20).

It is necessary to first analyze Wendt’s analysis of the “post-colonial body.” He begins by stating that “In many Pacific cultures, body decoration and adornment is considered clothing” (400). He goes on to argue that it was not until outside influences invaded the Pacific that the native peoples were made aware of their nakedness. The artwork was even considered a form of savagery that marked inferiority. Before this unwanted colonization, the practices of tatau and malu were considered the “highest-status clothing anyone could wear” (400). He says that tatauing was not merely an ordinary custom but rather that it was a “way of life.” The Samoan definition of tatau is, simply stated, “balanced.” Similarly, the female version of the tatau, the “malu”, is defined as “to be protected.” Wendt’s most important argument, in my opinion, is this idea of balance that the individual finds once partaking in the creation of his tatau or her malu. The design puts the person through an enormous amount of pain that readies the individual for participation in the struggles of life. Through the process, the body is “opened” as a result of the repetition of stroke-marks that creates a flow of blood. This “bloodletting”, as Wendt puts it in Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body, brings the person back to the Samoan identity. It is a reunion with the earth in the simplest sense. This is stated quite clearly when Wendt says, “when you are tatauing the blood, the self, you are reconnecting it to the earth, reaffirming that you are earth” (409). This same notion of bloodletting is seen in The Cross of the Soot when he writes, “Blood was oozing from the tattoo like red paste” (19).

Wendt continues his theory of the overwhelming importance of the tatau when he demonstrates the repercussions of its creation. He writes that “The tatau and malu are not just beautiful decoration, they are scripts-texts-testimonies to do with relationship, order, form and so on” (403). One’s children and grandchildren are prone to ridicule if a tatau was not accurately completed. Moreover, Wendt argues that there was an enormous amount of pride that was attributed to the art. Wendt supports this notion when he argues that tatauing had to survive the colonization efforts of foreign countries. He believes that Samoa was one of the few places in which tatauing “refused to die” (403). The practice became the place. It could not be differentiated because the practice was joined with the nationalist identity. The art of tatauing is part of everything else that comprises the Samoan people. The notion of pride is what unifies the two works. In the non-fiction piece, Wendt seems to say that the tataued body absorbs a new definition and comes out of the Pacific. It assumes an identity that it did not previously have. Similarly, in The Cross of the Soot, the young boy assumes a new personality once the black cross is created upon his hand. He, for the first time, is able to look directly at his mother and not be afraid. The tatau had changed him. It had provided, for the young boy, a strength that he did not previously maintain. It is this strength, which comes with the Samoan decoration of skin, that Wendt argues is essential for one’s participation and readiness for life’s strives.

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