Updated: Dec 21, 2020
Since the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the terrorist attack on Christchurch masjidain outlines fascist propaganda as a source for Brenton Tarrant's radicalisation, it is important to reflect on the use of fascist propaganda within New Zealand's art scene. Mercy picture’s co-directors Jerome Ngan-Kee, Jonny Prasad and Teghan Burt, promoted Nazi Swastikas, white supremacist slogans and fascist symbols, including the neo-Nazi Black Sun symbol decorated on the Christchurch terrorist’s rucksack, at the exhibition People of Colour. These were displayed within close proximity to a Jewish synagogue, once fire-bombed in 1967 by the neo-Nazi leader Colin Ansell. The gratuitous display was also an affront to the plight of LGBTQ, ethnic minorities and Māori. Despite protests, what is concerning about Auckland's art community, is the apathetic response and even open support for the display of decontextualized fascist symbolism.
An important aspect left out from much of the criticism of the Mercy Pictures exhibition People of Colour, is the need in Aotearoa art schools and institutions for education in anti-fascist art theory. An art theory that addresses the art world’s ambivalence and the current depoliticization of art which allows for fascist transgressions. Also taking into account the exhibition is part of a long historical legacy to promote and normalise white supremacist and fascist aesthetics in New Zealand.
Scholars and journalists specialising in contemporary far-right propaganda describe a worrying international trend to normalise white supremacist and fascist symbolism within mainstream discourse. The far-right aesthetics of meme culture, irony, edgy performance art, and trolling is a gateway to racist and fascist ideology.  The scholar Emmi Bevensee argues the far-right has been organising for some time to shift the Overton window on what is acceptable in public debate, by using inflammatory statements in otherwise benign settings. Therefore, the People of Colour exhibition needs to be placed within the context of an international dissemination of ‘edgelord’ fascist symbolism from a growing alt-right movement.
Ana Teixeira Pinto a cultural theorist and scholar in alt-right aesthetics argues the use of irony in the artworld permits a form of entryism for depoliticised audiences to consume far-right messaging. Different to classical fascist propaganda of the 1930’s, the ironic use of gesture, humour and ironic nihilism by contemporary alt-right propagandists allows greater room to push ‘edgy’ white supremacist ideas.
The ensuing political fallout of the People of Colour exhibition had supporters clamouring to deny any politicisation of the show. The result of depoliticization allows audiences to safely consume far-right aesthetics and ideology within the confines of an uncontextualized environment. It is within this depoliticised vacuum that far-right aesthetics is able to take on its ideological form by targeting vulnerable groups or individuals within the community.
Adding to the farce, Mercy pictures attempted to evade further scrutiny by issuing a statement to the effect “we are not fascist simply because we are ethnic and queer”. Religious identity, sexual orientation, and ethnic identity do not determine your politics, political positions determine your politics. The backlash at displaying symbols of hate only seemed to embolden their bigotry.
Angela Nagle argued: “The standard online shtick, has been to flirt with Nazism but then to laugh at anyone who took these gestures at face value.” Pinto describes this type of irony as a strategy that combines plausible deniability with a non-conformist, countercultural flair.
For supporters of People of Colour the use of irony is viewed as a positive freedom. In this case the strategic function of irony is to deny responsibility for aesthetic choices that transgress ethical norms. As evident by the enthusiasm expressed for this mindless exhibition, the successful transgression of boundaries is measured by the amount of pain inflicted on minority groups or individuals within society.
When reading the comments section of John Hurrell’s gushing review ‘Hoist That Rag” one can be forgiven for assuming, like the supporters of the far-right exhibition LD50 in London, there are many useful idiots for the far-right within New Zealand’s art scene.
Mercy pictures and supporters claim of ‘pushing boundaries’ or ‘creating dialogue and discussion’, as transgression from ethical norms, takes on the role of what Ana Teixiera Pinto and Kerstin Stakemeier (art theorist) define as social sadism. 
They write: “The term we want to suggest for this,“social sadism,” is not simply a form of directed, invested cruelty. It involves a redoubling, at the symbolic level, of material depredation. Privilege always denotes the prerogative to define and control the frame of interaction. Sadistic taunts hinge on what Gregory Bateson called a more complex form of play… Art-world edgelords insist the chauvinistic epistemes in which they traffic must be read as irony, no matter how hurtful or distressing others might experience them to be.”
This form of social sadism David Neiwert also describes in his book Alt-America, is found in “troll culture” credited to Andrew Anglin the editor of a prominent neo-Nazi site, the Daily Stormer. “Troll culture” was instrumental in radicalising white supremacist Brenton Tarrant who used ironic symbols and gestures learnt from web forums 4chan, 8 chan and YouTube during and after the Christchurch mosque terrorist attack .
In 2016 on the election of Donald Trump, Richard Spencer an alt-right entrepreneur led a Nazi salute to a packed audience in Washington. Reacting to media scrutiny Spencer claimed the salute was only an act to show the “spirit of irony and exuberance”. Further irony and far-right in jokes were adopted by the buffoonish far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulus,also adapted by the artist Mathieu Malouf, represented in the antisemitic exhibition“#LUKETURNERISRETARDED”.
Historically irony and performance art were part of white supremacy propaganda to gain acceptance within the wider community. Although, different to today’s alt-right propaganda, performative art was first used in the late 19th century and later based upon avowed white supremacist propagandist JR Dixon’s 1906 screenplay The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan.
When the Ku Klux Klan adopted the use of white pointed hats and robes they introduced pantomime, fantasy, and nostalgia to vigilantism. By calling themselves Grand Dragons, Knights, and Wizards, like black face minstrel shows, they were able to hide behind buffoonish caricatures and performance theatre. The Klan’s first outing in robes was during sadistic street carnival performances in the late 1890’s. Appealing to communities through carnival was captured in this photo from 1926 when the Colorado Klan was at its height. 
Colonial New Zealand was not immune to the influence of this new form of white supremacist aesthetics imported from abroad. Entertainment and art was used to normalise racism and bigotry. The Ku Klux Klan film The Birth of A Nation toured the country to rave reviews in 1916. Minstrel shows regularly toured New Zealand from the 19th to the mid 20th century. In 1917 an Australian Variety magazine review praised the John Fuller & Co. tour of Ted Tutty’s blackface performances in Wellington.  In 1939 on the eve of WWII, Black minstrel shows were being organised by the Pioneer Mothers Centennial Finance committee reported in the NZ daily star’ '… Mr. F.G. E. Broad, who suggested organising an up-to-date nigger minstrel show…These were accepted with much appreciation.' 
It can be rightly assumed both public and private institutions normalising white supremacist aesthetics further entrenched racist ideology throughout the country. It was common for black face to be worn by attendees at New Zealand costume parties. Middle class pākehā in brown face mocked kuia (old women) and Asian migrants. Contemporary books The Way we were - a pictorial history of NZ describe settlers with brown face as 'all fun and games in Beaconsfield'
As late as the 1960’s local community theatre groups in small community town halls across New Zealand delighted in masquerading as black face. A show titled the De Nigger Minstrel was described in the Nelson bay photo magazine in 1964:
"All the old darkie songs, plus many of the most popular songs of yesteryear, were sung by the Otago-Southland Club Nigger Minstrels at a club birthday night recently. The programme was a most entertaining one and was thoroughly enjoyed by the big crowd that attended." 
If entertainment was not enough to spread racist ideas cookbooks stocked in kitchens throughout New Zealand had recipes for ‘nigger cakes’. It was typical at farm fairs for children to have named their pet animals ‘nigger’.
It could be argued that mainstreaming of racist aesthetics and sadistic entertainment culminated in the attempted normalisation of Nazi swastikas into New Zealand politics in the 1930’s. Like the directors and supporters of the People of Colour exhibition, far-right propaganda was able to find its useful idiots for the far-right.
Used as a relatively benign symbol for good luck up until the 1930’s the swastika gained widespread reputation as a grotesque symbol during and after WWII. Despite protests against swastikas in the early 30’s, from working class anti-fascists, and religious groups, the Nazi cultural appropriation of the Hindu symbol for good luck was able to gain a foothold in New Zealand’s political discourse thereby further entrenching the racist ideas that came with it. 
Perpetuating the Nazi belief that the swastika represented the German people’s ancient lineage to a mythical master race of pure white Aryans the use of the image was able to exploit already fertile ground in parts of New Zealand’s political and academic elite.
The sociologist Robert Bartholomew in his book No Maori Allowed describes the now debunked theory of Aryanism having a peculiar local variety‘…for some New Zealanders the association between Māori and European as ‘Aryan Kinfolk’ served as a positive symbol’ Leading anthropologists Te Rangi Hīroa (Sir Peter Buck) and Apirana Ngata along with the famous author James Cowan were avid supporters. In 1910 James Cowan described ' (Māori) show strangely close affinity to some of the dominant traits of the Anglo Saxon-Celtic race’.
However despite being 'brown skinned Britons' were on a 'lower order' to white Europeans. The Māori anthropologist Te Rangi Hīroa wrote in 1921 that Māori were 'Caucasian, certainly of Aryan descent, and therefore ultimately blood brethren with the whites at the fountain head of the race.”
In the 1930’s the Nazi swastika began to be used in New Zealand advertising. Several manufacturers displayed Nazi swastikas for products from Swastika Confectionaries to medical supplies. There was an attempt to print swastikas as letters N.Z interlocked and stamped onto butter prepared for export to Europe. English based C.T Skelton Company offered a series of farm tools branded with the Nazi swastika superimposed over the Māori word, “Kia-Ora”.
Corresponding from Germany for the Evening Post, Geoffrey Cox in 1934 described the successful use of aesthetics by the Nazi propaganda machine. In the same year barely two months after the Nazi party murdered political opponents in the Night of the Long Knives, London manager for the New Zealand Fruit Board Harvey Turner on business with Nazi officials in Germany described “that a feeling of tenseness prevailed amidst the forest of half-masted Swastika flags which met the eye down most of the streets in Hamburg and Berlin”. 
Anti -fascist resistance existed in New Zealand, Sister Rene Shadbolt and Millicent Sharpies toured giving lectures on their experiences nursing for the International Brigades fighting Spanish fascists and Nazis during the 1936 Spanish civil war. Umberto Colonno an Italian migrant was a well-known anti-fascist leader in Christchurch.  An anonymous letter to the editor in 1934 complains about the gratuitous use of Nazi swastikas appearing on the Christchurch NZ Bradshaw railway guide, ending the letter with ‘… there must be something sinister behind it’.
During the 1930’s it was common for Nazi swastikas to be flown at the German consulate in Wellington. When Field Marshall Von Hindenburg died swastikas were lowered to half-mast at the consulate, reporting in The Levin Daily the same gesture was repeated at the Levin post office. 
In 1936 at a Wellington military ball the Dominion president of the South African War Veterans Association bitterly complained to the commanding officer that no Union Jack hung next to the Nazi swastikas and Italian flags decorating the room. 
As part of the continued normalisation of Nazi symbols students adopted white supremacist symbols for university debating chambers. In 1936 the evening post reported of a large Nazi swastika was waved aggressively by members of the student body at the Victoria University debating society. 
In 1938, the same year as the Nazi terror kristallnacht was to be unleashed on German Jews, an enthusiastic reception was held in honour for the visiting Nazi apologist Count Felix Von Luckner at the Auckland German Club. Attended by New Zealand elites, including Princess Te Puea Herangi, the room was decorated with Swastika flags as a throng of Nazi supporters gave the Nazi salute singing the Nazi anthem ‘Deutschland Uber Alles”. The Auckland Star reported Te Puea speaking on “behalf of the Maori race invited the Von Luckners to Ngaruawahia” 
As the Nazi horror was unleashed during its darkest hour in World War II my grandfather Joseph Vita Southon of Samoan and British heritage, a barber from Taumarunui, was a warrant officer navigator for the Royal Air Force 39th squadron. Flying bombing missions against Nazi shipping convoys, the 39th squadron was nicknamed the ship busters.
After surviving the war, in the 1960’s, on a family return trip from Auckland to Taupō, Joseph Southon along with my then young father and his wife Rowena Irihau Asher Southon (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Pukenga, Ngāti Pikiao) of mixed Māori and Jewish heritage were turned away from a restaurant near Pukekohe South of Auckland. They were turned away for being a coloured family.
As proof of the laxed attitudes toward the normalisation of far-right aesthetics by New Zealand elites - including ministers of parliament - segregation was practiced in the Franklin district South of Auckland from the 1920’s to the 1960’s. The members of the Pukekohe council included leaders of the notoriously racist White New Zealand League. It was common at the time to have No Maori Allowed signs displayed in shop front windows in Pukekohe.
In today’s political climate of MAGA, anti-Black lives Matter, far-right QAnon conspiracy theories, the growth of hate crime, islamophobia and anti-semitism, the western world is facing what many academics and public intellectuals view as elements of an American style Fascism.
Taking into account New Zealand’s racial and colonial legacy in far-right symbols, ironic artforms, that impacted the lives of Māori and migrant communities, supporters of Mercy Pictures and the public institutions like the Auckland Art Gallery - presently silent - must denounce the promotion of symbols of hate. Apathy in the 1930’s in the face of symbols of hate and fascist ideologies, like now, further entrenched colonial racism. If fascist aesthetics are allowed to percolate, through apathy and open support, it will only take political will by the few to further entrench racism and the growth of fascist organisations within our communities.
Mercy Pictures’ promotion of fascist symbols, and the useful idiots that support them, claim they are the victims of a perceived threat of political correctness and cancel culture. A common complaint made since the 1930’s by both contemporary and historical far-right propagandists.
Consider that part of cancel culture in 1933 was the Auckland Jewish Congregation protesting the owners of John Court Ltd to abandon the use of the Swastika emblem as a trade sign on the iconic department store on the corner of Queen and Victoria streets. Disturbed on learning it was a Nazi symbol and objectionable from a Jewish standpoint with considerable expense John Court Ltd complied.
This is not an issue about freedom of speech, but a deeper ethical issue on the problems inherent in the depoliticization of art, questions on how best to combat resurgent fascisms, and the art world’s conservatism.
“Freedom of speech is the right to articulate one’s opinions without fear of government retaliation, not the right to be given a platform to do so.”
Ana Teixiera Pinto 2019
 https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/23/alt-right-online-humor-as-a-weapon-facism  Ana Teixeira Pinto, Artwashing NRx and the Alt-Right (2020)  Pinto, https://springerin.at/en/2017/4/ironie-und-alt-right/  https://thebaffler.com/latest/ld50-nolan  A Brief Glossary of Social Sadism by Ana Teixeira Pinto and Kerstin Stakemeier (2020) For pushing boundaries refer: https://www.thebigidea.nz/stories/no-mercy  Pinto and Stakemeier, 2020 Pg 3  https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-story-behind-this-mystifying-photo-of-kkk-members-at-a-colorado-fair https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Clansman:_A_Historical_Romance_of_the_Ku_Klux_Klan  https://ozvta.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/fuller-john-snr-2992014.pdf https://ozvta.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/tutty-ted-2132015.pdf PIONEER MOTHERS NEW ZEALAND HERALD, VOLUME LXXVI, ISSUE 23431, 22 AUGUST 1939  https://photonews.org.nz/nelson/issue/NPN46_19640822/t1-body-d46.html THE CRISIS IN GERMANY KING COUNTRY CHRONICLE, VOLUME XXVI, ISSUE 3424, 24SEPTEMBER 1932  https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-29644591  Robert Bartholomew, No Maori Allowed, 2020, pg.80-82  MARKETING GOODS BAY OF PLENTY TIMES, VOLUMELXII, ISSUE 11397, 18 APRIL 1934  Bartholomew, pg. 81  EVENTS IN EUROPE HOKITIKA GUARDIAN, 10OCTOBER 1933, THE NEW GERMANY EVENING POST, VOLUME CXVIII,  TRADE WITH EUROPE EVENING STAR, ISSUE 21861, 26 OCTOBER 1934  EARLY MORNING ASSAULT. NEW ZEALAND HERALD, VOLUME LXIX, ISSUE 21101, 8 FEBRUARY 1932 HAS CRISIS PASSED? HOROWHENUA CHRONICLE, 31 MARCH 1938  PASSING NOTES, OTAGO DAILY TIMES, ISSUE22272, 26 MAY 1934 SAAR TO GERMANY EVENING STAR, ISSUE 21929, 16 JANUARY 1935  The Levin Daily Chronicle, THURSDAY, AUGUST 27, 1936.LOCAL AND GENERAL.  TO FIGHT OR NOT? EVENING POST, VOLUME CXXII, IISSUE 76, 26 SEPTEMBER 1936  GERMAN CLUBNEW ZEALAND HERALD, VOLUME LXXV, ISSUE 22969, 22 FEBRUARY 1938 GERMAN CLUB, AUCKLAND STAR, VOLUME LXIX, ISSUE 44, 22 FEBRUARY 1938  LOCAL ANDGENERAL. NORTHERN ADVOCATE, 17 JUNE1933