For my grandfather’s love of the ocean

From the chilly South Island city of Christchurch, all the way to the big island of Savai’i, sculptor Ioane Ioane is ready to present the work that kept him occupied over the last three years.

He will present his work at the Centre for Samoan Studies at the National University of Samoa at 12.00 p.m. tomorrow. 

Ioane is the N.U.S. artist in residence and has spent nearly two months between the islands of Samoa learning the ancient craft of building va’a, starting with the va’aalo.

Rumours and whispers led him to Savai’i to search for an elder tufuga (carpenter) from whom he could learn, and after two weeks of apprenticeship under a different tufuga, Telaa Telefone Alefosio on Manono, they finally found each other.

“I saw a va’a on display in a resort, and asked who made it,” Ioane said.

“So someone pointed away and said the old man, so I followed that direction, and followed lots of different people pointing until I finally found him and asked him to teach me.”

Mulitalo Malu Fautua hardly speaks English, and as a Samoan raised in New Zealand by parents who felt they ought to prioritise English, Ioane’s Samoan is minimal. But with the help of Mulitalo’s wife, and the art of showing, not telling, Ioane was able to learn the skills of building and carving va’a from an expert.

“For my art, it has been a case of going backwards to go forwards,” he said. As a modernist sculptor and performance artist, Ioane’s work is typically considered contemporary art. 

Going back to thousand-year-old crafts and skills was a challenge he needed to embark on.

Ioane said for a lot of Pacific artists, there is a revival of the ancient traditions happening, especially when it comes to tools and expertise.

“The old way was cutting edge,” said Ioane.

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“Pacific navigation, using the environment as their map, building va’a with no nails and few tools, that blew the first Europeans away.”

“But that part of the story wasn’t written down, and it has to be included in the narrative by Pacific peoples.”

Ioane said his passion for studying va’a comes from a broader love for the ocean, which he learned from his late grandfather, Leiataua Herbert Phineaso.

“He was an ocean lover who is now resting in Lepuiai in Manono,” he said.

“My love for my grandfather and his love for the ocean, that is how this all started.”

Leaiataua was the captain of the Lepuiai fautasi (long-boat La’au ole sau’uali’i) racing boat that competed in the early Samoa Independence Day races. 

The project of learning to carve and build va’a was recorded every step of the way in video diaries and filming of the workshops.

As a relatively new filmmaker, and with a subject who might have been camera shy, Ioane said he learned a lot about where to place the camera to make himself and his tufuga most comfortable.

Recording the journey was an important part of a process which has barely begun, said Ioane.

“Two months is like two minute noodles,” he said.

“It goes very fast.”

He said he has to return to New Zealand to continue researching and speaking to his peers, colleagues and elders in preparation to return to Samoa and resume his learning.

Part of that preparation has to include looking after himself, Ioane said.

“Surrounding myself with good people, eating well, staying fit, and keep swimming… it’s all important.”

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