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The photographer and the carver – friendship and freedom

Saturday May 23, 2020 Written by Published in Art
Mike Tavioni carving in his workshop, in his inimitable style. 20052201 Mike Tavioni carving in his workshop, in his inimitable style. 20052201

Award-winning photographer Alex King was awestruck at being let into the life and work of artist Mike Tavioni. He, in turn, was surprised she saw value in his art and workmanship. Together, they are taking his traditional art to the world.

Alex King is drawn to people, intrigued by their backgrounds. Where they’ve come from, who they are and what makes them who they are today.

For herself, her mother has New Zealand Maori ties and through her father Wayne, she is connected to the island of Mangaia. She is bringing up her small daughter on Rarotonga.

Born and raised in Atupa, up Kaikaveaka road, every day she would drive by renowned cultural artist Mike Tavioni and his workshop.

She was intrigued. “I’ve always thought he was a very interesting person and felt quite intimidated about approaching him, because I didn’t know him; but I felt there was a connection, especially because our families lived quite close, in the same village.”

Randomly one day, she thought, “I would really like to actually meet him… everyone has a story.”

Alex King’s self-portrait in Ruatoki, New Zealand. 20052221

That opportunity to meet him, without being too direct, came about when her daughter’s class at Apii Te Uki Ou had a school project at his workshop.

King was drawn to everything about his workshop, and waited patiently for the class to finish, to talk to him alone.

She was mindful of a respectful and humble approach, and introduced herself properly; sharing her family heritage and personal aspirations.

Tavioni welcomed the idea of King documenting and photographing his work, and invited her to visit whenever she pleased.

“I felt extremely privileged to be given this opportunity, because he didn’t know me at all; I think it’s also because he knew who my family was, so he was more open.”

King loves the freedom of photography.

“Freedom in the sense that, I can literally do whatever I want with it, I can take it wherever I want, there’s no right or wrong and there’s no limits to it … you can go out and do anything with it.”

That photography is a tool King carries with her, to pursue her other passions: travel, animal welfare, fashion and wildlife nature, people and their culture. So it made sense for her to explore photography professionally, an art that embraced what she loved.

Photography has given her financial and career independence, and decision-making on projects of her choice, without the control of somebody else.

“It really is having that freedom to create,” she said.

Until she picked up a camera, the more she thought, and the more she saw and felt deeply about the art.

King felt an instant connection to Tavioni. “And I knew that I could build an amazing relationship with him.”

The very next day, she stopped by his workshop and their special friendship started.

“I was mind-blown and drawn in more, and in a way defeated; because for years and years, I didn’t know all these things about our culture, about our people, who we are … he was teaching me these things.”

She continued to visit him daily for five months, captivated at learning and embracing more of the richness of our culture from Tavioni’s knowledge and a lot of information to retain.

“We have a special bond, and an amazing relationship.”

During this period, she had no idea how she was going to develop the documentary.

Tavioni was the perfect taonga for her put out there to represent, “He is perfect for that because of who he is, what he does, and what he knows, and what he teaches as well.

“I wanted to tell stories using my images, somehow the alignment was made, an amazing opportunity for people, country and culture.

“I wanted to do it, just because. And I wanted other people to see it, but I didn’t have an actual plan for what would become of the documentation.”

One day, King randomly came across details of the Contact Photography Festival 2020 in Toronto, Canada. It was about original perspectives from Photographers Without Borders.

It was difficult to select nine photos of Tavioni from six months’ work. But after three long months without news, she hear back: she had made the top three. The other two finalists were photographers from Bolivia and Brazil.

It was an unreal feeling, she says. Previously, they had picked nine photographers from around the world.

As the only representative from the Pacific, she is enormously grateful. “The organisation fell in love with our work, his story and what he represents.

“They loved that he was an indigenous artist from the Pacific, something that they hadn’t seen yet. The story about preservation and keeping our traditions alive, that was the most eye opening and captivating thing for them.

“I was also super excited to tell Mike about it.”

King says the project is important. She wants everyone to see the value in us, our culture, and in someone like Mike Tavioni.

If she was awestruck at being let into his life and work and studio, Tavioni couldn’t believe that she, in turn, saw value in his art and workmanship.

King says: “I think it’s important that he understands that he is an important person in this community, that is basically what my job is about – reminding people like him that they are valuable and what they do is special and unique in some way.

“There’s always a reason why I do this, it’s not just to create a beautiful photo, I want them to feel great about what it is they’re doing.”

Aware that we are such a small community, King believes our tiny nation is rare, “we have our own people and our culture, I think it’s important to show the world, in the right light, what the Cook Islands is.”

“It’s not just tourism, it’s about our people – about the ones that everyone sort of forgets about, those in our community; they don’t get the light that they deserve.”

King’s has a simple and unexpected piece of advice to other keen photographers: Don’t study it.

The first piece of advice from a professional should always be the same: The only way you’re ever going to learn is to go out and do it. Always look for the light, always.

And find what you’re truly passionate about and stick with it.

“You can try different genres of the art, it took years until I really found my niche; it’s a journey, embrace that journey.

“If you’re passion-driven, it will always open those doors for you.”