The Gang’s waiting, as we speak, to be notified that Telstra’s about to switch the broadband across to Wyndham. Now, knowing all the glitches that can/do occur in these disconnected connections, we’ll either be up and running with little obvious disturbance by Monday, or the blog will have an enforced holiday until goodness know’s when. So -we’ll send out a few tid-bits while we can and then just hope the techno-gods are kind.
Glitches aside, glasscentralcanberra is going slip into slow-mo mode over the January break in any case. The Gang will be smelling the roses, devouring books and hitting the beach just like everybody else (except for all you poor buggers shivering in the snow-bound northern hemisphere!) Never fear, the show will go on – but at a gentler pace…
We thought we’d bring you a little holiday reading, and meanwhile whet your appetite for the Hunks of Glass exhibition that’ll be showing at ANCA Dickson (from Jan 23-Feb 3) during the upcoming Ausglass conference in Canberra. Tevita Havea is just one of three artists featured in the show (along with Brenden Scott French and Masahiro Asaka) and in case you missed the recent Craft Arts International article featuring his work, we’re giving it a run to bring you up to speed…
Contemporary Primitive: the art of Tevita Havea
Legend has it that Hina was a beautiful, voluptuous Polynesian girl who used to bathe daily in the lagoon. One day she was seduced by an eel named Tuna and they fell in love. Leaving his ocean home, Tuna changed himself into a man so that he could be with her. But the men in the village were affronted and they attacked Tuna and chopped his head off. Hina collected her lover’s head and buried it, and over time a tree began to grow. That is how the coconut palm came into the world. It’s a gift from Tuna.
This is just one version of the Hina and Tuna legend that is told from one end of the far-flung Pacific islands to the other. It’s a story that varies in ferocity depending on the host community; fierce warrior cultures tell of rape and revenge, others empathise with Tuna, some accentuate the perspective of a wronged husband (Maui). It’s characteristic that the Tongan version should be guileless, uncomplicated and composed – sterling qualities that just as appropriately characterise the work of Tongan born glass artist Tevita Havea.
Havea, who graduated from the ANU School of Art Glass Workshop in 2005, has been practicing for barely 18 months but already has attracted significant international attention, both at SOFA and, more recently, at the WheatonArts Glass Weekend ’07 (where not only did he sell all of his work, but one of the pieces was acquired by the Corning Museum of Glass). It’s not hard to see why. There’s a maturity to the work that seems glaringly at odds with his nascent emerging status. In truth, of course, it could be said that his formative years way pre-dated art school – that he’s been an artist-in-waiting since childhood. Not in a precocious Western sense, but rather courtesy of his early immersion in the flourishing cultural environment of his native Tonga. He’s one of those (increasingly uncommon) glass artists who doesn’t make work that’s designed to be ‘clever’. There’s no display of swaggering virtuosity, no affected intellectual posturing, no calculated gauging of ‘the potential’ (aka the saleability.) Not that his art isn’t marketable, quite the contrary –indeed there’s no shortage of galleries/dealers vying for a slice of him – but that isn’t the guiding premise of his practice. He makes, instead, out of sheer creative compulsion, with an artistic integrity that lifts his work above the common herd. And renders it immediately desirable. His other great advantage is the genuine individuality of his work; there’s nothing derivative here. He’s no pale imitator of mastery gone before – and this alone is extraordinarily refreshing.
It’s the early islander years spent with his grandmother that have most impacted on Havea’s aesthetic sense of the world. He grew up amidst traditional craft and ritual, his boyhood imaginings nurtured on ancient myth and legend. And even after his transportation (at the age of 10) to the somewhat less idyllic suburbs of Western Sydney, the woodcarving remained an occupational constant (though for personal pleasure only). He went to art school, he says, for all the wrong reasons, but in the process discovered vital self-determining principles and a predilection for sculptural form. He credits Jane Bruce’s encouragement as being integral to his ‘navigation’ through this formal academic period (she was the acting Head of Workshop following the untimely demise of Stephen Procter.) Havea spent the time honing a visual language compatible with his already keenly evolved sensibilities, and investigating that most fundamental conundrum: the resiling of the inevitable tensions between the customs of his native Tonga and the modern dictates of a now long adopted western existence. A self-proclaimed ‘contemporary primitive’, he said at the time “I find myself in-between worlds. There are always contradictions when there are two opposing forces, but instead of one dominating the other, I aim to create pieces that are neither ancient nor contemporary, but operate to explore the tensions of the space between.”
His Polynesian referencing, from the outset, was deliberately blurred in order to also address the primal question of a broader, universal humanity. His new western reality, after all, was one of post-modern urbanity; in which the fixation on the outward trappings of ‘fashionable’ tribalism (tattooing, scarification, piercing, costume) continued unabated. But it’s important not to misconstrue his decorative intent; the carved motifs carry no macho implication whatsoever, any more than the weaving is a mere ornamental device. In Tongan culture tattoos are symbols of protection (as opposed to aggression), and there are strict observances apropos the divisions of labour – women weave, men carve – and a man will weave only out of practical necessity (for construction purposes, etcetera.) It is in precisely this context that Havea uses the string (or hemp): to bind, or lash together, the sculptural elements of each piece, adeptly balancing the traditional (wood and string) with the (con)temporal (glass).
Havea’s more recent works are fed by the creation stories that interwove his boyhood, and that continue to retain his attentive respect. Again, as in earlier work, his interest is not entirely parochially bound – despite the predominant use of Polynesian titles, he’s perfectly aware of the common interconnectedness of all mythologies. The Bennu’s (06 and 07), for instance, represent an Egyptian/Greek/Christian nexus; a 500 year old male bird (bennu), nearing the end of its lifespan, builds a nest of cinnamon which it ignites, immolating itself, and out of the ashes the Phoenix rises. (The bird as a giver of life is found uniformly in numerous cultures around the world.) Nonetheless, despite such catholic gestures, both the tenor of this work and the material references (the hair and cinnamon, respectively) remain principally Polynesian. He approaches the process of making in much the same way as the myths themselves were used to explain subjects and concepts difficult to understand. “The more I entangle the materials” he says, “the more I unravel inside. The abstract forms that I make are symbolic answers to the mysteries that I don’t fully understand – of life and death and the hereafter. I like what Jung said about the collective unconscious – that we inherit at birth (from the very first human) ancient symbols that we are drawn to because they represent something profound within us that we have always known but have long forgotten. It’s all about that sense of the spiritual that touches us all.”
He only uses materials that have particular connotations, and even then never just for the sake of it. And he has no inclination to use colour per se (especially not in the glass), adhering instead to the natural palette provided by a selected range of limited, and carefully weighted, elements. In this we can surely sense the early tutelage and strong, guiding hand of the beloved grandmother; as a boy she had often sent him out to collect candlenuts and flowers, and the cinnamon bark from which she leached, drop by drop, the precious oil that she would later lavish (for protection) on his skin. The cinnamon, moreover, value adds to the context as a passing reference to the spice trade, while the oil is an ingredient in the traditional ink used for tattooing.
But it is the hair that evokes the heftiest sacred/ceremonial clout. Havea is prescribed by custom to use only his own – it would be unthinkable to use anybody else’s so flagrantly in public, and for purposes that didn’t involve the rites of kinship. (The cultural consequence can’t be underestimated; even the mere touching of another’s head can be loaded with sensitive implication.) An important precedent had already been set for Havea when, at the age of six or seven, his hair was cut and woven into the decorative rope that was used to tie his grandfather’s ta’ovala, or ceremonial waist mat. (More commonly this ‘kafa’ rope is coconut fibre, but the most prestigious are woven from hair.) The ta’ovala was not only worn on formal occasions but also, most significantly, for burial. There are several consecrations and funeral rituals involving hair, including the wrapping of the deceased’s body in hair and the cutting of women’s hair during the subsequent mourning period. Even the performance of the hair cutting itself has an additional inference of relevance to the cycle of life and death; at birth the first cut made is the cutting of the umbilical cord. The hair in a way is the spiritual chord that maintains that connection to the womb.
The import of the various symbolic elements has been so deftly and appropriately handled that one doesn’t need to be anthropologically savvy to appreciate the eloquence of the work. The use of salt in Pulotu 07, is an instance in point (pulotu meaning the underworld, where the soul returns once the body ‘breaks’.) The salt alludes to both the process of preservation and to the soul itself (represented by the colour white), but even that aside, the piece carries such a sense of inherent dignity – as does all his work – that one intuits the state of sanctity with or without an appended explanation. These works are not intended to be read in terms of ‘cultural artefact’. They are declarations of obligation, respect and fidelity. And in the case of the exquisitely tender Sacred Feminine 06, finely wrought expressions of love and appreciation. In this Havea’s oeuvre is compelling; it’s like a soulful, priceless gift of faith. With a surety and wisdom that generates a sense of timeless dignity, and a principle affirmation of humanity that we instinctively respond to.
This is a strictly limited edition practice. The technique is labour intensive and the output low. And so it will remain. Havea has no intention of devaluing the work’s currency of worth by going down the production road; it simply doesn’t suit the dictates of his nature. I’ve always had a pet theory about an artist’s work being a revealing reflection of the true character of the maker – a hypothesis clearly borne out by this quiet and modest man. It’s that ring of truth, and code of honour, that gives his work the aural gravity. As Havea himself points out, “through art you can create an expressway to your soul and, through the process of making, all that is within will flow through your body and out through your hands. And your hands never lie”
Megan Bottari is currently a Canberra based glass artist- writer- curator.
Tevita Havea was represented at SOFA and Glass Weekend 07 at WheatonArts by Glass Art Gallery, Sydney
More images at…