Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Shine bright like a moko: the history of Rihanna’s tattoo

This is the story about a young woman of African origins from Barbados, a former English colony in the Caribbean (although Spain and Portugal claimed it at earlier points too) from which Indigenous people have been, if not exterminated, incorporated and made invisible. While in Aotearoa she received a tattoo on her hand that was done traditionally (tapping, not buzzing) by a Māori artist in the aesthetic form of a design he learned from a Samoan master tattoo cultural practitioner. While Pacific people in Aotearoa, the Pacific region and beyond debated whether it was a malu, moko, kiri tuhi or plain old tattoo, Rihanna decided she didn’t ‘love, love’ the tattoo anyway and flew a white tattoo artist to the Dominican Republic to rework it into a new tattoo which allegedly draws its inspiration from the designs of henna.

You’ve got to hand it to her: the landscape of a single human hand

This is, at its heart, the story of a single human hand; it is also, in its full breadth, the story of race, colonialism, empire, gender and indigeneity. In its full depth, however, this is the story of the fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange. Rihanna’s hand is now a landscape; literally it is a contested place, but also metaphorically it is the place where imperial histories play themselves out. She is not the first black woman whose body bears the traces of histories of violence and appropriation; she is not the first woman of African descent whose body is held up for close inspection by ‘the world.’ Her hand is a landscape in the way that Indigenous people know landscapes; it belongs to someone who has known it as long as it has existed, and while for some people it now represents a resource to be exploited, for others it is a result and continuation of complicated and important family histories.

We often talk in literary studies about the palimpsest; a piece of paper used over and over again so that when you read the latest text applied to its surface, you can’t help but be aware of – and even distracted by – the other texts that have existed underneath. The palimpsest I encounter most often in my day to day life is the shopping list scrawled on a piece of paper that turns out (upon closer inspection, while pushing a trolley around the supermarket) to be a bill, a letter or an interesting clipping. We are capable of reading one text for its meaning (I need tomatoes and shampoo) at the same time as we consider the literal meaning of other texts underneath (did I pay this bill?) as well as the histories of those texts (oops this is an article a student asked me to read), Palimpsests are actual things, because of the historical scarcity of paper or other such materials, but the palimpsest is also a rich metaphor.

We talk now about places as palimpsests: the impossibility of engaging with any one account of history (either a story about history or its material proof) without noticing – even being distracted by – the many layers of history underneath. Rihanna’s hand is a palimpsest because it is a surface on which has been layered many stories: a tattoo, another tattoo. However, each of those stories is itself another story. The first tattoo is wrapped up in a story of Māori and Samoan cultural revitalization, specifically in the area of applying ink to the body, and the involvement of another Māori person, a musical artist. This story is wrapped up in other stories, each of which is densely packed with still more stories: why revitalization was necessary (Christianity and the outlawing of tattoos in the Pacific, national and regional interruptions in cultural practice as a result of a long history of Europeans understanding Pacific people as savages), how questions about tattooing women have been negotiated in the past few decades (the range of understandings about gender and the tattoo, from a Samoan story about twins who swam from Fiji, to young Polynesian feminists in 1970s Auckland, and beyond), and why Māori and Samoan people would have such a close relationship in the first place (NZ’s colonial history in Sāmoa through overt as well as economic imperialism). Still more stories. And more. And more.  

She found culture in a hopeless place

The tattoos (malu? tatau? moko? kiri tuhi?) applied to her hand in Aotearoa piqued our collective interest not because of the aesthetic dimension of the design but because of these stories. The history of Indigenous Pacific control over our own cultural practices, including practiced of tattooing and other body arts, is so complicated that we have inevitably over-reacted to Rihanna’s hand. We responded to her decision to acquire the tattoo, and we responded to her decision to (attempt to) cover it up. Such an over-reaction is understandable, though, because her decision to acquire such a tattoo in such a context brings up a rollercoaster of emotions: pride, jealousy, defensiveness, anger and shame. Because so much has been taken, because cultural integrity and cultural proximity are still such flimsy things in 2013 in our region, and because of Rihanna’s sheer fame, we respond to the situation in ways that are important. We believe we are reacting rather than over-reacting because the weight of past and ongoing injustices and appropriations, weighing heavily as they do on ourselves and also on our descendants, justifies our response.

This is not really about Rihanna’s hand - what power could the small hand of a single Barbadian woman really have over us? – but it is about the many layers of history we cannot help but see when we look at her skin. And, as we ‘read’ each text, more texts become apparent: her African skin bearing the marks of Caribbean diaspora, the tattoo applied in Aotearoa, and finally a design applied in another (American-occupied, Spanish-speaking) part of the Caribbean which is apparently intended to look like the henna design which has its roots in the Indian subcontinent. Of course, the movement of ‘henna design’ from its home to the Caribbean comes through (at least) two pathways: historical movement of Indian people through the British system of indentured labor (which also brought Indian people to Fiji) to plantations in the Caribbean; and contemporary appropriation of specific Indian cultural (and food) items in hegemonic American popular culture (bindis, butter chicken, henna, and so on) which are both removed from the inconvenient truth of India’s geographic and cultural proximity to states deemed by the US as questionable in relation to terrorist activities, but also quietly pick up on a long history of what Said called ‘Orientalism’ back in the late 70s.

On some level, the conscious decision made by Rihanna to cover the prior ‘Pacific’ tattoo with a henna-inspired tattoo seems less significant here than the point that there is a longstanding link between India and the Caribbean, and the circulation of specific Indigenous cultural forms in the context of European (and American) imperialism. Am I claiming that Rihanna has no agency, that she has no choice, that she is powerless in the face of the broad sweep and devastating waves of colonialism? Do I see her as a thoughtless pawn in someone else’s game? Am I replicating the history of non-African people treating African people as if they have the intellectual capacity of children? Is it not okay to expect more from ‘our own’ – to expect that a person who is rather more from the victim rather than victor part of the colonial story would use her considerable position of power in order to make visible the plight of other victims, or at least not replicate the same old systems of cultural appropriation?  

Shine bright like a moko: a tattoo, a beloved grandchild.

This isn’t only about Rihanna - this is about us. We have all participated in viewing Rihanna’s hand as if it had been removed from the rest of her body, because this is how the photographs have been distributed in corporate and social media. Peering at the layers of ink, we find ourselves trying to separate overlapping patterns rather than asking the question about the rest of the body to which the hand is attached. Each time we do this, we normalize the chopping up of black women’s bodies. We like to think we are outraged by the unauthorized removal of body parts from Indigenous bodies for medical research but we are happy to visually detach a body part for the purpose of arguments about cultural integrity. It is awkward to realize that we have no problem treating Rihanna’s body the way Chris Brown did just before those famous photographs: as something to project our own violence upon; as something less valuable than us. Even as we stare at the photographs of her hand, making important arguments about the importance of cultural wholeness and continuity, we sidestep the rather awkward situation in which the ink on her hand means more to us than the blood that flows in and out from the heart which is located somewhere out of the view of the camera. We have chosen our holy liquid: ink is more important to us than blood.

Of course, in the Māori language we have a little pun on the word ‘moko’ – as well as meaning ‘tattoo’ it is widely used as a shortened form of ‘mokopuna,’ or grandchild. Rihanna is a descendent of her own family tree, a family tree that includes a number of branches. We all are. Surely our ancestors not only want us to be alive but they also want us to be well: physically, emotionally, spiritually, culturally well. I was angry with Rihanna when I started writing this, but now I feel aroha for her. I wish her all the best. I hope one day she finds a way to shine bright like a moko of her own ancestors, rather than looking for who she is in a palimpsest of other peoples’ moko stretched across the skin of her hand.


  1. Ka Rawe! Rihanna is clearly someone in engagement from several different kinds of trauma. The fact that she chose to undergo a tattooing procedure that was in some ways way beyond her previous experiences, and then in a sense regretted her decision to do so, says volumes about her own preparedness. She has always struck me as a fairly unhappy person. There are many ways in which she is simultaneously someone with a great deal of situational power, but who is also someone who is very much a palimpsest of other people's goals, desires and strategizing.

  2. Maruru no te post. I share the same sentiments exactly. Hope you're well Alice, and I look forward to more posts.