Tevita Kunato is a fine artist from Papua New Guinea (PNG) who will be participating in this weekend’s Pasifika Living Arts Showcase, presented by the Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum in conjunction with the Museum of Latin American Art. He and many other artists are gathering to demonstrate traditional techniques, share their work, and connect with the community.
Tevita’s work is deeply rooted in traditional wood carving. I asked him how he got started.
“I was born and raised in Papua New Guinea,” he said. “It is a culture rich in wood carving and canoe building. I lived in PNG until I was 18, so I was just kind of raised in and around it. I took up wood carving full-time only about 8 years ago, but it has always been a part of me.”
I asked him if he had formal training.
“I learned,” Tevita said, “by spending time in the village with woodcarvers who have been at it for generations. There is no such program in the US that teaches traditional Oceania art. I went to Portland State University, in Oregon and was trained formally in contemporary art, but I quickly abandoned my contemporary training.”
I asked if he was able to meld any aspects of his contemporary training into his more traditional work.
“Composition,” Tevita replied. “The idea of Western composition has helped me a great deal. I learned how a piece is broken down into something appealing, to talking about painting, how the brush strokes are all the same size, and scale. From the Bauhaus movement I learned a great deal about how all the elements of a composition fit together. It is interesting how the primitive aspect of where I grew up didn’t find that important.”
I asked him how traditional carving makes use of composition, and decorative aspects of the work.
“First of all,” Tevita said, “I know of no such word in Pacific language that translates into the word ‘art.’ When translated into English it comes out as ‘a mark of our ancestors’ or ‘something ancestral.’ Wood carvings in the Pacific would be mostly to protect against spirits, or to tell a story. [There is] no written language. So, a wood carving used correctly would be placed outside of one’s home so as to protect the house from anything evil.
“The decorative aspects are a ‘mark,’ a mark that says ‘I am from this village’ or ‘from this family line’ or from ‘this island.’ Marks are very important. I celebrate them, and fuse them together to celebrate the cultures I love.”
I asked if he found a mark that speaks to his current home.
[laughs] “Seeing that my wife is Filipino and me, I don’t know where I’m from, I have yet to come up with my personal mark, but I have created, or am working on, an artistic signature that I hope will evolve.
“Have you ever heard of the term ‘liquid continent,'” Tevita asked. “That’s what we, Pacific Islanders, call home. We are all very different yet of one family.
“The ocean is what gives most islanders life. The ocean is the life blood. The cultures that inhabit the ocean are black, light brown, big, and small, but we are all connected by the ocean. We are the first navigators who explored, and I guess that’s how we came to be. All the languages and cultures are very similar.”
I asked Tevita what was it like coming from PNG to the US.
“It was hard,” he said. “I was excited to see America but, when I got here, I didn’t quickly fit in. That was before the days of the Internet, so I had no way of finding people like me. Culture shock for sure.
“I remember going the a Baskin and Robbins ice cream shop and not knowing what to do with all the options. where I come from we only get one flavor. I ended up running out of the store.”
I asked Tevita what value or purpose there is to working with traditional tools.
“The first big project I did was a fully tradition canoe,” he recalled. “I made my own tools and used fire to burn out the hull of the canoe. It was a great experience, and a very spiritual one indeed but, from now on, I use chainsaw. I did it, and now it’s time to move on. I think it’s important is experience it but you don’t have to stay fully ‘traditional’ all the time.”
For more information about Tevita’s work, visit http://www.oceaniacarving.com/.
PieAM is located at 695 Alamitos Ave, just South of 7th Street. For more information about PieAM, please visit PieAm.org.
Read an interview with PieAM Executive Director Brenna Barrett about this weekend’s Pasifika Living Arts Showcase.
MOLAA is located on the East side of Alamitos, at 628 Alamitos Avenue. For information about exhibitions and special events, visit MoLAA.com.
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