Tensley Kuautonga – Art, family and coconuts


vanuatu artA horde of children surrounds Tensley as we endeavor to conduct this interview. Some are shy and quiet, some are screaming. A boy is trying to grab a cookie from a little girl and another girl is crying because she missed out on the cookie. Four of them are his kids, the others, I am not sure. Finally Tensely capitulates, and gives the children some loose change to go get more cookies from the local shop at Ohlen Nabanga, the Futuna island community where he lives in Port Vila.

Originally from Futuna, Tensley is related to well-known artist Sero Kuautonga, and it was Sero who first nurtured his artistic abilities. “When I was about five years old, we came to live at Sero’s house. He gave me paint, paper and paintbrushes and it was then that I started to paint. I continued to paint until I was about twelve when we moved to another house.”

Tensley has had the life of many who left their home islands a generation or so back, to come to the ‘big smoke’ of Port Vila; moving around a fair bit and sharing small spaces with extended family is all part of the new city dwellers’ life. “Space has always been a big problem for me as an artist. Having the right space to paint and also, having money to buy art supplies.”

colourful coconut shellAfter Tensley left Sero’s home, he stopped painting regularly, but by then, his talent had become apparent to Sero, who continued to be an art mentor, among other things, throughout Tensley’s life. This is how, when Tensley was a young man, his work made it to one of Sero’s friends, Julie Dupre, who was organizing art workshops at the Cultural Centre. For six months, Tensley had the opportunity to attend the workshops and learn a number of different techniques, such as printing, painting on cloth, ceramics and more. The workshops culminated in an exhibition, organized by the Nawita Art Association, of which Sero is a founding member together with artists of the caliber of Emmanuel Watt and Juliette Pita.

vanuatu paintingThis was Tensley first showing and since then, he has been a regular exhibit artist at Nawita’s annual exhibitions. “I paint for the exhibition and normally sell everything,” Tensley explains, “but the rest of the year I don’t have much time for painting, or money for supplies.” Tensley’s main paying work has been with the cultural groups ‘Fatuana Matua’ and later ‘Futuna Fatuana’. “In my earlier twenties, I worked stocking shelves in shops, building and as security in hotels. Then I found a job with the cultural groups. There are about 30 people who are part of the group and we perform in several hotels. Before the cyclone I used to perform about three times a week but since Cyclone Pam, everything has been very quiet and we only manage to get one or two nights per week now.” Tensley is a dancer and a musician in the group and plays a variety of musical instruments, from the guitar to the bamboo drums. This work, together with the canvases he sells at exhibitions and a number of commissioned art pieces through out the year, has been the bulk of his income for the most part of his life.

painted coconutsAbout six years ago, Tensley started to experiment with coconuts, first painting coconuts to be used as shells for drinking kava. “One thing gives me an idea for the next thing,” he explains, “the shells gave me the idea to make the boxes. Now the designs that I am making for the boxes, have given me the idea for designs to be printed into t-shirts.” His jewelry boxes are truly beautiful and delicate, with intricate drawings that are rich in color and texture, and modernist in design. Tensely makes the jewelry boxes by hand, cutting, filling and sanding the raw coconut shell itself into round boxes, before transforming them into art with his designs. It takes him a full day of work to make one box. Every box is special, a piece of art within itself, and not two are the same.

vanuatu coconut artBut finding one could take some time. “My wife, Belinda, works in a shop in town, and I am in charge of looking after the children, so it is hard for me to find the time to make these boxes and to paint in general.” There is a big demand for Tensley’s art, for his paintings and his coconut boxes, but for him, it is a case of finding the time and the motivation to work in a less than ideal space. At Ohlen, within the Futuna community in which they live, sharing with several families, space is scarce and people and children are always about. “For the past few years, my mother has been selling some of my work and putting the money in a savings account. This money was for me to build a house one day. She passed away not long ago and now the time has come for me to build my home. Sero bought land in Teouma and divided it between the family; this is where the house will be built, on our land, in Teouma.”

tensley art vanuatuIn a society where everything and everyone are connected and connections are complex, rich and multi-layered, it is no surprise that for Tensley, art and family, and the responsibilities and privileges that both bring, are intimately enlaced. If you are lucky enough to get hold of one these beautiful but rare, coconuts-turned-into jewelry-boxes-turned-into-art-pieces, now you know and are connected too, to its very particular story.

Tensley Coconut Boxes are available at Pandanus Gift Shop on Port Vila Main Street and at the Fondation Suzanne Bastien Gallery, Pango road.

Story by Patricia Gil. Photos by Patricia Gil and courtesy of Tensley Kuautonga and Dan Owen.