I was born in Santo in 1980 and went to primary school there before attending high at St. Patrick’s College in the island of Ambae. I always had an interest in art because my bubu (grandfather) was a creative man. He was a sand drawing teacher and a renowned storyteller of kastom (custom) stories. During kastom ceremonies, he was always the lead singer and dancer.
It wasn’t until I finished high school in 1995 and returned to live in Santo with my cousins that my interest for arts started to grow. My family is originally from Ambrym, the island where tamtams, Vanuatu’s iconic slit wood drums, originate.
Some of my cousins had the rite to carve tamtams and I would sandpaper it for them when they finished. After awhile, they taught me how to carve pigs, lizards, fish, dolphins and other sea creatures.
In 1999, one of the boys went to Port Vila to attend a natangura nut carving workshop run by the Foundation of the South Pacific (FSP). When he returned, he taught us how to use the nut as a carving medium and by the time the FSP came to Santo in 2000, we were already making miniature sculptures.
The FSP invited us to attend a one-week workshop that was being held at the Church of Christ. But when they left, the chiefs refused to let us go. They didn’t want us sharing our skills with anyone else because the market was very small.
I decided to go anyway. I wanted to develop my skills and gain wisdom from all the talented artists that had flown up from the capital! I was learning so many new ideas but then the chiefs sent my cousins to find me and they beat me up.
When the program finished, I decided I didn’t want to work alongside my cousins anymore and set up my workshop near a nakatombol tree in the bush.
When I was alone in the bush, I experienced something different. My creativity started to grow and improve. Without any disturbance, it was easier for me to focus and I was inspired to create many new carvings.
All my cousins were wondering what I was doing in the bush and one day my little brother decided to visit me. He was so surprised when he saw my work and told everyone to come have a look.
When my cousins saw how good my work was, they wanted me to come back but I realized that I work better when I’m alone. I get too distracted if I’m working in the same room as other people.
It’s too noisy for the creativity to develop and if I’m receiving an idea, I need silence. It’s only when the idea comes that I can interact with people again. Even today, I will go the cascade waterfalls to carve because it’s quiet and not too many people are around.
I left to Port Vila with all my carvings in 2000. I didn’t even bother to tell anyone I was going. I had my first exhibition at Alliance de Francais in 2001 but then I didn’t do any work for a few years.
It was my first time in the capital and I was just enjoying living in town and partying with my friends. I started carving again in 2003 with the natangura nuts I found in Mele. Since then I’ve had several exhibitions as well as travelled to New Caledonia, France and Australia to showcase my work.
Everyday I work with the natungura nut. It is how I make my living. The other medium I use is lino printing, which I learnt how to make with a Torres Strait Islander community in Brisbane in 2013. I like using lino because I am able to tell a bigger story than on a natungura nut.
Although I can carve simple depictions of sea and land creatures, it’s not easy to tell kastom stories on the natungura nut. It can take me between half an hour to three days to carve a single scene such as a pig killing ceremony, a woman making laplap in an underground oven, adultery and land diving.
With lino, I can tell a whole story rather than just a scene. I am the only lino artist in Vanuatu and was lucky enough to meet a tourist who appreciated my natungura nut carvings and sent me plenty of lino to continue my other medium of work.
My style is influenced by the Torres Strait Islanders but I express myself using Ni-Vanuatu kastom stories and history. I believe that lino printing is a way of preserving our culture through art and I’m looking forward to learning more.
You can buy Tony’s natungura carvings at Pandanus shop. For a lino print, call him directly on +678 7769409.