KRONIKling the K’lub—from 19th Century Savages to 21st Century SaVAgery
— Dr Billie Lythberg

HIStories and Savages
The first ‘Savage Club’, apparently named for Richard Savage (1697–1743), a free-spirited and penniless English poet, was convened in London in 1857. Outposts flourished throughout Britain’s Commonwealth: ‘Bohemian’ gentlemen’s spaces with ‘Ladies’ welcomed a few times a year. Though membership was technically unrestricted, certain echelons of society seem to have been favoured and several generations of royalty joined the Club, including the future Edward VII, elected an honorary member in 1882.

The eponymous Richard Savage had been a notorious rogue, variously pardoned for killing someone in a drunken brawl, paid an annual fee to prevent his publishing a poem that would denigrate his highborn mother, and eventually confined to a debtor’s prison in Bristol until his death. Yet the implications of the club’s name exceeded his eccentricity and excesses, connoting a realm “outside the pole of civilisation”[1] and sending “a class message. Stay away parvenus who were too busy amassing fortunes to know how to enjoy themselves and whose own veneer of civilisation was too thin and recent to be safely put aside; and stay away, pious dissenters whose righteousness would inhibit the festivities.”[2]

Ostensibly founded to promote liberal arts such as their namesake’s, many of the clubs also came to reference Indigenous peoples in their ceremonies, regalia, private art collections and branding, and some continue to do so to the present day. These associations sometimes pivot on real or tenuous relationships. Perhaps in memory of their hosting Oglala Lakota leader ‘Red Shirt’ in 1887 (as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West), the homepage of the London Savage Club’s website still depicts a warrior in a feathered war bonnet.[3] More commonly, their basis is in spectacle, ‘otherness’ and parody, which has shifted with local politics.  While the Melbourne Savage Club’s insignia still depicts a dishevelled-looking Aboriginal man, its website mentions only the Club’s “irreplaceable Polynesian and Melanesian artefacts”[4] and companion sites describe “wry double-entendre on the spirited nature of its founding members”.[5]
Savage Clubs in Aotearoa
Within 30 years of the Savage Club’s inauguration in London, clubs had formed in Aotearoa, with 5,000 members of 46 clubs nationwide at the peak of their popularity and the establishment of the ‘breakaway’ Orphan’s Club to accommodate prospects denied membership by a closed roll.[6] Each appropriated from Māori, calling itself a hapū (tribe), appointing a rangatira (chief), vice-rangatira or ariki (sub-chief), a komiti (committee) and heketari (secretary), with some also including a kaitiaki-moni (treasurer), kaitiaki-liquor (in charge of refreshments) and tohunga (Master of Ceremonies). Meetings were called kōrero and began with rites based in Māori protocols—haka, waiata, etc.

The 1902 Cyclopedia of New Zealand reported a current membership of 150 for the Auckland Savage Club, with “one of the finest orchestras in the city” and finances “in a flourishing condition”.[7] The Club invited “visitors of distinction” to attend fortnightly meetings dedicated to “the development of artistic talent, and the promotion of good fellowship and rational amusement.”[8] Its meetings began with an opening waiata, which in 1962 declared:
Te Whare is open
Te kai is preparing
Sing, Savages, sing
The trumpet note sounds for the joys we’ll be sharing
Sing, Savages, sing
Savage good fellowship reigns in this hall
Kapai te kōrero
Good luck to all
Ka-mate, ka-mate answer the call
Kapai te kōrero
Good luck to all.[9]
Following the Auckland Club’s removal of its ‘Māori’ format in the 1980s many accoutrements of office were accessioned into the collection of the Auckland War Memorial Museum. These include an ornately carved presidential throne, desk and gavel; kaitaka, heitiki, taiaha and other regalia and markers of prowess; a wooden trumpet, plaques and trophies. As Natasha Beckman rightfully observes, “Beneath such representations it remains difficult to find any traces of a deeper respect for the culture, serious attempts at accuracy, or an understanding of the significance Māori would have attached to the cultural fragments selected.”[10]
Yet the clubs attracted Māori leaders including Te Rangihiroa (Sir Peter Buck), Sir James Carroll and Sir Apirana Ngata. In 1925, Te Rangihiroa, then a life member of the New Zealand Savage Club, also became the Auckland Club’s ‘Rangatira’ or chief. During his term, the Club was hosted by Urenui Māori (Ngāti Mutunga) and contributed to their building fund; in subsequent years, clubs throughout the motu raised funds towards various Māori kaupapa, including sending opera singer Inia Te Wiata overseas to continue his education.[11] On 6 March 1929, Te Rangihiroa wrote to his friend Ngata,
After my first post-war lecture in Auckland, owing to the sympathy I could see in my audience I came to the conclusion that the New Zealander really wanted to know about the asset he had in the Māori race… the sympathy of Savage and Orphan clubs and other institutions convinced me that the Pakeha was ready to receive the information.[12]

The prominence of protocols and regalia drawing from Māori waned as the 20th century progressed, with the eventual decision to remove both from the Auckland Club cemented by the now-notorious haka performance by a group of Pākehā Engineering students at The University of Auckland in 1979.[13] Still, the Savage Club endures in clubrooms throughout Aotearoa (and the globe), though its chapters and members are dwindling. Neither covert nor clandestine these clubs have been part of the fabric of Aotearoa for nearly 150 years.
During a residency at the Museum of Anthropology and Art (MOA) at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, SaVAge K’lub instigator Rosanna Raymond was exploring the museum’s founding anthropological collection, donated by a man named Frank Burnett. With access to his personal diaries, she found he once gave the Canadian ‘Savage Club’ a talk about his adventures in the South Seas. Raymond was intrigued; her research began.

In response to (and revision of) the Canadian club’s continuation of notions of a savage ‘Other’, and also their exclusion of women (who likewise were not fully welcomed into the Aotearoa Clubs until 1998), Raymond decided to form her very own club. Larry Grant, a Musqueam elder attended the first SaVAge K’lub gathering, which coincided with the opening of the new MOA galleries in 2010. Issued his invitation to the K’lub just before he took the stage to give a formal address at the galleries’ opening, Grant responded with a poignant speech on the notion of the savage and its implications for life in this century. Thus, the SaVAge K’lub was launched. It is a literal vessel for traversing the connective quality of the vā, or connective space, which underpins Tongan writer Epeli Hau`ofa’s famous proposition that we might view the vast Pacific region as a “sea of islands”.[14]
is central to both the orthography and ethos of Raymond’s SaVAge K’lub. For Raymond and her fellow SaVAges, the vā is pregnant with the potential to engage with the past in the now. It is the vā which permits living dynamics to be performed and embodied, and allows all places and people to be creative and constructive centres. Significantly, the generative acts of art making and writing—or tā (the marking out of time)—contribute to the instantiation of this centre, bringing time and space, past-present-future, into glorious communion.
Since 2010 the SaVAge K’lub has been convened in locations throughout the UK, Europe, Canada, USA and Australasia. It is site-specific, but never location dependent. It has occupied museums, lounge-rooms, tea shops, subterranean wine vaults and Kurt Schwitters’ Merz Barn (where Schwitter was inducted posthumously into the K’lub). It has a life force and energy beyond that of its creator, who professes a certain reluctance to formalise either membership or proceedings lest this energy be compromised. Membership is fluid, inclusive, semi-automatic—if you have to ask, you’re not a SaVAge. Initiation is sparse, yet effective, acknowledging the power of transformation by costume: (1) Print your own SaVAge K’lub tee-shirt, and (2) bring your own regalia.

A safe-haven for experimentation, confrontation and fabrication, the SaVAge K’lub is for:
21st Century South Sea SaVAgery, influencing art and culture through the interfacing of time and space, deploying weavers of words, rare anecdotalists, myth makers, hip shakers, navigators, red faces, fabricators, activators, installators to institute the non-cannibalistic cognitive consumption of the other.[15]
There’s a clever play on ‘othering’ here, subsuming and consuming the ‘savage’ envisioned by European culture and stages of colonialism:
the ‘noble’ savage (carrying aristocratic connotations) and the ‘good’ savage (a bourgeois notion), the savage cannibal (a counter-utopia), the ‘ferocious’ savage  and the warrior (enemy images of the incipient and early colonialism), the ‘childlike’ savage (the savage turned subject, an image of mature colonialism), the ‘westernised’ savage (late colonialism or post-colonialism).[16]
Where ‘the other’ is invited for cognitive consumption (or communion), they may be non-corporeal—ancestors, spirits. Performance and ‘worship’ are, after all, parts of the same system, their damnation a tool for ideological conquest.

Indeed, the saVAge body reinvigorated by the K’lub has been described and proscribed for centuries. In the 1750s, following the felling of a sacred tree at Taputapuatea by invaders from Porapora, the Ra‘iātea priest Vaita fell into a trance and declared that a different kind of people were coming:
Here is the adorned offspring [the clothed Europeans] of Te Tumu
Who come to see this forest in Taputapuatea           
Their bodies are different, our bodies are different
but we are the same
We both come from Te Tumu, the origin
And this land will be taken by them.  
The ancient rules will be destroyed
The sacred bird from the ocean will arrive to this land Coming to lament over what this broken tree has to teach
The strangers come on board a vessel without an outrigger[17]
Among the remarkable features of this prophesy are references to the different bodies and adornments/garments of the newcomers, and the breaking of ancient rules. If ‘their bodies are different, our bodies are different, but we are the same’, what does this mean for overturning normative, gendered and colonial models of what a body is, has been, or can be?
The SaVAge K’lub addresses this challenge, centralising Indigenous embodied knowledge—the vā-body—giving space and priority to the moment-of-contact body; the tattooed body; the gendered and agenda-ed body; the genealogical body; and the clothed, adorned, dressed, undressed and re-dressed body. Its convenings offer places and dates for the exploration of space and time transcendence via the vā-body.

SaVAges actiVAte each K’lub to create the conditions conducive to a safe, inspiring and instructive experience for all concerned. Thereafter, the K’lub rooms themselves can be simultaneously fully-fledged workshop or gathering spaces; sites of potential, unfurling and growth; and performance residue. Each must be deactiVAted at its conclusion, again by “the most labile and complex site of reciprocal exchange”,[18] the living body.

In Raymond’s words, the K’lub is “a space for the revision and creation of new VA-ried conversations, relationships, and artworks”.[19] The power of such revisions and creations, is that they can take effect in diverse geographical and dialogical spaces, and be carried to different parts of the world by the bodies of the people involved, reconsidering how the body is employed and deployed to engage with broader social, political and cultural transformations.

When open to an audience these SaVAge K’lub convenings seem akin to what Christopher B. Balme has called citational practices, “in the sense that performers and spectators both draw on common, but not necessarily congruent repertoires of knowledge”.[20] Always performative they are nevertheless not always performances, and this distinction is vital. Always the proceedings include ancestors. While spectators are accommodated and can add vital energy to proceedings they are not necessary, nor are they of primary importance. SaVAge K’lub actiVAtions and deactiVAtions welcome past-present-future and the realms of the living and ancestors into communion, disrupting the “clearly defined performative functions and spectorial frames”[21] that have become tropes of entertainment-oriented Pacific performance—sometimes shocking, occasionally offending,[22] always eye-opening and thought-provoking.

Ten years on from that chance find in the archives of MOA, the SaVAge K’lub has been actiVAted and deactiVAted to both critical acclaim and strident critique worldwide, and has amassed its own archives of ephemera, regalia, haka and waiata, treasured people and objects. Unlike the appropriated accoutrements of Savage Clubs of old, these archives are themselves networks of connections; the tangible nodes of “corporeal and perceptual practices determined by a high degree of reciprocity”.[23]

And what words could never be adequate to convey, this website KRONIKles: a decade of 21st Century SaVAgery, endurance, resilience, and efflorescence.
This essay owes its biggest debt to Rosanna Raymond and the SaVAge K’lub, and to the unpublished MA thesis Estranged Gentlemanly Warriors: The Art of the New Zealand Savage Club and the Search for National Identity, 1880s – 1920s of Natasha Beckman, Director of British Council New Zealand and the Pacific; and a smaller one to some of my own previous writing for Broadsheet.  

1.  Club founder Robert Brough, as cited in Watson, A. The Savage Club: A Medley of History, Anecdote and Reminiscence, London, 1907, p.9.

2.  Johnson, J. Laughter and the Love of Friends: A Centenary History of the Mebourne Savage Club 1894–1994 and a History of the Yorick Club 1868–1966, Melbourne, 1994, p.14.

3.   Wernitznig, D. Europe’s Indians, Indians in Europe: European perceptions and appropriations of Native American cultures from Pocahontas to the present. Lanham: University Press of America, 2007

4.   Guest Information.

5.   Melbourne Savage Club.

6.   History of the Savage and Orphan’s Clubs of New Zealand.

7.   The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Auckland Provincial District], ‘Societies’.

8.   Ibid.

9.  No date, Canterbury Museum, ARC 1995.22, Box 7, Folder 24, Item 52.

10.   Beckman, N. Estranged Gentlemanly Warriors: The Art of the New Zealand Savage Club and the Search for National Identity, 1880s – 1920s. Unpublished MA thesis, The University of Auckland, 1999, p. 55.

11.   Potter, O. ‘Association History and its Aims’, no date, p.1.

12.   Sorrenson, M.P.K. ‘Na to hoa aroha’ From Your Dear Friend: the Correspondence Between Sir Aipana Ngata and Sir Peter Buck, 1925–50, Auckland, 1986–1988, p.179.


14.   Hau‘ofa, E. ‘Our Sea of Islands’, in A New Oceania: Rediscovering Our Sea of Islands. Edited by Eric Waddell, Vijay Naidu and Epeli Hau‘ofa, Suva: School of Social and Economic Development, University of the South Pacific, 1993: 7.

15.   Raymond, R. The SaVAge K’lub Inaugural High Tea Invitation, Tautai Trust, 2015.

16.   Nederveen Pierterse, J. White on Black: images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture, New Haven, 1992, p.233.

17.   As told by Richard Ariihau Tuheiava (Senator, French Polynesia; Cultural revivalist) in Tupaia’s Endeavour (2017).

18.   Balme, C.B. Pacific Performances: Theatricality and Cross-cultural Encounter in the South Seas, Palgrave, 2007, p.2

19.   Rosanna Raymond, personal communication, January 2015.

20.   Ibid.

21.   Balme, C.B. Pacific Performances: Theatricality and Cross-cultural Encounter in the South Seas, Palgrave, 2007, p.179.

22.   Mason, N. Contemporary Art in Honolulu in the Spring of 2019, American Quarterly 72(1), 2002, pp. 233–255.

23.    Balme, C.B. Pacific Performances: Theatricality and Cross-cultural Encounter in the South Seas, Palgrave, 2007, p.2.


1,2. Interior Whanganui Savage Club

3. Vancouver Savage Club Invitation

4. Dr Frank Burnett surrounded by his South Seas Artefacts

5,5,6,7,8,9,10. Interior Whanganui Savage Club

11,12. SaVAge Kʻlub President Rosanna Raymond at Whanganui Savage Club

Images by Rosanna Raymond