Tom Deko putting the finishing touches on Musicians. (Photo: Dan Lepsoe)
Interview by Elaine Monds and Dan Lepsoe, April 2009
EM: Where do you get the ideas for your work?
TD: When I think of art, the first thing I have on my mind is colour. Shapes come afterwards. My sculptures are meant to be lively: viewers should sense the presence of life, not just an object. Looking at my artwork, you see everything flowing. Rivers curve and flow down to the sea; wind flows like a river. I want my figures to look like they’re floating in air.
For me, making art is recording your history. Others will look at what you’ve done and learn about you. My ideas are mostly drawn from my traditional cultural setting, but I draw from other cultures as well. I show changes that I see, too. For example, I’ve done a lot of work about music and musicians. I believe the changes that have come about in music are very important. People are moving away from traditional ways of entertaining, singing, and making music, responding to more modern influences. This fascinates me. I also like to do musicians because I find a strong energy in the relationship between a musician and an instrument.
EM: Have other artists influenced your work?
TD: Definitely. Gickmai Kundun was my sculpture teacher at the National Art School in the 80s. He worked a lot in metal, and I was inspired by his work and methods (he visited scrapyards too). I started working on commissions under his guidance and supervision, and to this day I continue to work with him on and off- most recently, on public sculpture in the capital.
I observed carvers from the Sepik River while working on the new National Parliament House in the 80s. It’s due to their influence that I started carving, though I haven’t had time yet to do much in wood. When I was in Zimbabwe in ’99 on a Commonwealth arts residency, I was impressed by Shona sculptors. I experimented in stonework and in some African styles, combining their ideas with my own. After seven months of sculpting, I had a solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, then returned to PNG. I’m looking forward to going to London for Hailans to Ailans. It will be very interesting to see the sculptures there- Henry Moore’s, for instance- in real life.
DL: Where do your materials come from, and how do you go about putting them together?
TD: I usually go to dumpyards and collect scraps, then bring them in and create art out of them. Most of the pieces in Hailans to Ailans are made from household stove parts, mixed with a few cupboards and cabinets. After I’ve got my materials, I cut up the metal, shaping it by beating and hammering, and then start welding pieces together. The materials I use have already been painted in the factory; when I apply a torch to them in certain ways, I can bring out interesting effects. I don’t add paint or varnish or anything not already in the material. I want to keep things natural.
My ideas come in while I’m working. Sometimes I prepare drawings, especially if a client asks for them, but I prefer to cut from my mind, like traditional carvers. Metal sculpture gives more freedom for my way of working than wood or stone, though. It allows revision, for instance, until I get things just right.
EM: You’ve been a tutor to students here at the University of Goroka for many years. What advice do you give them?
TD: Mainly, I show art students how to make something valuable- something that people can identify with- out of discarded objects. I tell students in other studies that they should pursue art too. In Papua New Guinea, a lot of students carve, but many pursue careers other than art- teaching, for example. There aren’t a lot of jobs available these days; if they add art to their studies and are good at it, they’ll have another way of making a living. Art supplies can be expensive and hard to get here, though- even scrap metal is getting rare as it’s salvaged for housing- so it’s good for artists to be part of an establishment like a university that can help if you run low on what you need.
DL: What can be done, then, to encourage further development of the arts in PNG?
TD: We need places to show our work as well as places to sell it. Recently, some people are beginning to establish commercial galleries in the capital, and that’s making it a little easier for some of us. But they’re mostly focused on arts and crafts, not really on fine art, and they’re far away. It would be great to have a gallery here for us to gather and work.
There should be more opportunities for exchange, too. As I mentioned, we’re influenced by other cultures. This works best when we’re working together.