Anthony Bailey talks to two Vanuatu artisans, Trudi Kalotiti and Daniel Sandy, who use traditional and contemporary materials and techniques to create beautiful jewellery and art pieces inspired by local traditions and practices.
The arts and crafts of Vanuatu are part of a rich and living culture. Items such as baskets and mats, woven by hand using techniques passed on through generations, have deep cultural significance as symbols of celebration, mourning and reconciliation. There is a vibrant group of ni-Vanuatu artisans who are not afraid to embrace change and adapt traditional techniques and designs to create contemporary jewellery and art that pays homage to the heritage of Melanesia. This fusion of contemporary materials and traditional design demonstrates the vitality of the arts and crafts community in Vanuatu today. In this article we hear the story of two artisans, Daniel Sandy and Trudi Kalotiti, who in their work respect the past at the same time as exploring the possibilities for contemporary handicraft in Vanuatu.
Daniel Sandy was born and grew up in Port Vila. He is a lively soul and becomes very enthusiastic when he has the opportunity to talk about his art. I caught up with Daniel at the Vila Handicraft Centre on the Wharf Road to hear his story and learn more about the unique jewellery pieces he creates with discarded pieces of communication technology. Daniel studied visual arts at the Vanuatu Institute of Technology (formerly INTV). INTV was well known for the quality of its arts programs in those days and a number of graduates, such as Daniel, are making a name for themselves as contemporary artists in Vanuatu. Daniel said he really took to the carving during his studies as it gave him the opportunity to shape pieces of timber that had “no soul”, as he put it, into something that reflected his interpretation of kastam.After graduation Daniel took a holiday job at Melanesian Shell Products which ended up as a full-time position. At Melanesian Shell Products he learnt shell polishing and increased his technical skills and knowledge of handling shell as an artistic medium. He said that at the time he didn’t realise how important these foundation skills would be for his work today. He left Melanesian Shell Products to work with an Australian jeweller, Kevin Maxploran. After seven years working with Kevin, Daniel went to work in the studio of Jennifer West. Here he found his true metier, making rings, earrings, resetting stones and creating one-off pieces. He stayed with Jennifer West for more than ten years before finally making the decision to establish himself as a jeweller. It was not an easy transition and still today Daniel augments his income from jewellery work and sales by driving a taxi. But he says ‘I am always busy when I’m not in the car. People come to me for to designs and to make wedding rings and to do settings for precious stones and repairs.”
Daniel’s work with redundant technology shows that one man’s rubbish can be another’s creative inspiration. Daniel was in Tassariki one afternoon and a friend had some satellite dishes he was about to throw away. Drawing on his experience with Jennifer West, who had always encouraged him to think about new designs and pieces, he looked at the dishes and asked himself what he could do with them. The result is a visually fascinating range of jewellery and sculpture pieces that combine precision in shape and design with a future-age, techno edge. Daniel creates these works using the black metal sheets with their lozenge-shaped perforations that line the satellite dish. He cuts the sheets and shapes them into bracelets, earrings, rings and three-dimensional fish. The repeat design of perforated holes is a unique element in each of his works which Daniel exploits to create visual interest in even the smallest items such as rings. Some of the pieces are polished or painted gold.
Daniel’s fish sculptures demonstrate the depth of technical skills and artistic flair he has developed over the last twenty years. He uses wood to shape the body of the fish and then polishes different sections with geometric designs. Daniel has plenty more ideas for jewellery and art using the satellite dish metal. “I don’t want to copy others,” he said. “Lots of artists are working with shells. I want to try new things and do something different.” With more time Daniel hopes to increase the range of jewellery and even take on a commission. Perhaps the local municipality could engage Daniel to design a sculpture for the Seafront area.
Trudi Kalotiti has quite a different artistic trajectory, although she too explores the combination of contemporary design and traditional materials. Trudi has been at the forefront of reviving and maintaining traditional weaving techniques and has been responsible for preserving kastam weaving designs that were at risk of being lost forever. Trudi was born on Aneityum Island and started weaving as a young girl with her mother. They used to make pieces for sale to cruise ship passengers on Mystery Island. She came to Efate Island aged 19 when she married and now lives in Port Vila.
Trudi’s artistic talents extend beyond traditional weaving of mats and baskets to jewellery such as bracelets and necklaces. She is always looking for new inspiration and ideas to create pieces that appeal to visitors and help her to make a living. Trudi learnt about contemporary shell jewellery techniques from artist-teacher Chris Delaney. She also learnt to research what clients want with design and product. This, Trudi says, was the most beneficial part of the training. Trudi loves working with shells. For her it is not a matter of any old shell collected from the seashore. She prefers the high-quality shells from Anietyum, where she was born. “My mum collects them and sends them over to me and then I take the necklaces back to Mystery Island for sale”.
Although she has a passion for contemporary jewellery using shells, Trudi is keen to keep weaving. She makes baskets, hats, mats and trays. This is an important part of her artistic practice because she believes weaving is helping keep the culture alive. As Trudi is not from Efate she saw different types of weaving compared to Anietyum. “We all have our own cultural items,” she said. It was obvious when we were talking that she feels a deep connection between personal identity and cultural expression through art and craft.
Not one to remain with the status quo, Trudi creates pieces that combine the cultural traditions of her birthplace and Lelepa, where she lived when she married. It is this fluidity, this moving in and between local cultures that Trudi believes is important for maintaining cultural knowledge of weaving. When she lived on Lelepa, instead of weaving baskets she designed and wove tiny hats to represent Hat Island. Her late husband was instrumental in establishing the Roi Mata Domain on Lelepa.
Trudi is not scared to embrace contemporary design and in fact she is well aware of the economic benefit women and girls can enjoy by making unique items that appeal to visitors to Vanuatu. As a handicraft trainer with the Australian Government-funded Vanuatu Skills Partnership, Trudi is supporting local artisans in the handicraft sector to generate income and help their families and communities. She travels to different parts of the country sharing her knowledge and expertise with women artists, many of whom want to enhance their existing jewellery-making skills and knowledge.
Trudi says she really enjoys working with women and girls especially in places where they have lost their skills in mat weaving. She tells the story of how the skills to weave a mat for men to wear when performing cultural dances in Lamap were lost. A former director of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre found a picture of the particular mat in a museum in Paris. He gave the picture to Trudi and she set about studying it and then taught the women in Lamap how to weave those mats again. She did something similar with the Mangaliliu community, who had lost the knowledge of making a special kastam basket. She studied a photograph of the basket given to her by Chris Ballard and then set about teaching the women how to make it. “I see part of my work as putting lost products back into the islands,” Trudi told me.
Two artists, two different approaches to working within their culture and two examples of how contemporary flair and design can take a seemingly simple object or material and turn it into something beautiful. But it is not only beauty that inspires these two artists. Through their work they want to show younger generations that traditional culture and traditional crafts are a vibrant part of contemporary Vanuatu and the foundation of a united community. They also want to show the visitors to Vanuatu that there is more to tourist souvenirs than blue dolphins painted with the word “VANUATU”. There is art and craft that is unique, beautiful and tells us something about the history and culture of Vanuatu.
Daniel Sandy’s jewellery is available for sale at Vila Handicraft Centre, Wharf Road, Port Vila.
Trudi Kalotiti’s jewellery is available for sale at Pandanus, main street Port Vila next to ANZ Bank. www.pandanusvanuatu.com