February 17, 2015

The skilled x-ray art of Kiki Kuautonga

I was in Port Vila for the opening of the annual Nawita Contemporary art exhibition, showing off the best works by young Vanuatu artists. The opening night was held in the Alliance Francaise gallery on Rue Mercet and was packed with dignitaries including the Prime Minister, respective diplomatic representatives, and all the artists. With typical French flair extremely tasty, and highly alcoholic, punch was served, alongside the ubiquitous massive tub of Kava to the crowds admiring the work of Vanuatu's top artists.

The theme of the exhibition was 'recycling'. The first exhibit was a sculpture of a totem, similar to a Tam-Tam statue from Ambrym, but made from soft drinks cans. The tables of jewelry were equally clever, with glass ear rings and necklaces recycled from old coke bottles discarded by the US navy during the war in Havannah Harbour. Even old satellite dishes had been converted into wall hanging fish and large silver striped ear rings.

My favourite exhibit was the intricately cut x-ray art showing Vanuatu custom stories. We are talking about actual medical x-rays being used for art, and not the ancient aboriginal rock paintings from Arnhem land. There were still signs of the original broken bones and twisted backs that caused the x-ray to be originally taken, amongst the designs of Spirits, Gods and Ceremonies intricately cut out by knife. The art was a focus for many of the visitors and I wanted to know more, so I decided to come back the next day when the artist Kiki Kuautonga, was going to be there for an hour to show how he created his artwork.

Kiki was working hard on a new artwork when I arrived the next morning. A class of ni-vanuatu school students was surrounding him and looking on with awe as, only using a sharp box cutter knife, he cut out precise designs on an old x-ray on the table in front of him.

I started talking to him, while he focused on his cutting. He is from Futana, a small island off the east coast of Tanna, bit has been brought up and lived most of his thirty four years in Port Vila. He started out cutting paper and discovered he had a knack for creating intricate designs by hand. He discovered that paper was not the best medium for his work, easily getting spoiled and damaged, and discovered an old x-ray at home. Kiki loved the new medium, although it required a sharper knife to cut through the plastic, it was easy to work with and more robust than paper.

The best place to pick up old x-rays was the Port Vila General Hospital in Seaside. Kiki spent half a day trying to find the right person to talk to, and finally found an administrator who pointed him to the storeroom where all the old x-rays were kept. Doing a deal, Kiki arranged to buy the old x-rays for 100 Vatu (US $1) each, and he now has a ready supply which will keep him going for quite a while. Even though the rest of the world is turning to digital online x-rays, Vanuatu has older medical facilities, often given as aid by hospitals upgrading to the latest technology. Kiki's supplies will not be in any danger of drying up.

Kiki uses Kastom (Custom) traditional stories for his designs. Tales that were taught to him by his parents and grandparents, about life on the small island of Futana. What makes them so impressive is that they are each done free hand and not copied from a previous design. It takes him between two to five hours to make each one, and he rarely has to throw away one because of a mistake.

Kiki Kuautonga's work is gradually being recognised as a unique art form, and has been collected by galleries in Vanuatu, France and New Caledonia. Recently the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre in Noumea bought one of his works and this is now on display in the Pacific art gallery there.

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