Issue 15.3: June/July 2012

Objets d'Oceania

Story by Jon Letman

Photo by Matt Mallams 


Dylan Thomas points to an exquisitely carved miniature canoe in the Havaiki Oceanic and Tribal Art gallery in Hanalei. It’s an example of the unique pieces for sale in the gallery, but to him it also symbolizes teamwork—the kind of collaboration necessary to bring art from the farthest reaches of Oceania to the North Shore of Kaua‘i.


When lifelong sailor Jim Punter and his wife Vicki took on the poetically named South African as a deckhand in 2002, they planned to travel from the Virgin Islands through the Panama Canal and into the South Pacific to create a charter sailing business. Their journey became instead an odyssey through Oceania. A year at sea drifted into two, then three, their schedule guided not by clocks or calendars but by winds and currents. They sailed through Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia, going as far as Indonesia. They collected from artists who would paddle out to greet Firebird, their eighty-four-foot ketch. They traded in villages where currency mattered little, bartering fishing supplies, hardware, batteries and canned fish for traditional works of functional and ceremonial art.


Traveling by boat gave the trio access to remote areas where few art collectors tread. Over five years and forty thousand miles, they collected handcrafted pieces like ifelele and u‘u clubs from Samoa and the Marquesas, Tahitian fatatea and toere drums and ebony nguzunguzu (the gs are silent) canoe prow figureheads from the Solomon Islands.


Recognizing that such art was the modern equivalent of pieces described in early historical accounts of the Pacific, and inspired by their love for island peoples, they opened Havaiki (the name for the legendary homeland of the Polynesians) in 2007. Dylan (pictured at right) manages the ever-changing collection, about a third of which comes from artists in Hawai‘i, while Jim and Vicki continue collecting and sailing in the western Pacific.


For his part, Dylan doesn’t seem too upset about staying behind; the gallery he manages is doing important work, he believes. “It’s a team effort,” he says, admiring the miniature canoe. “This is where we are: in this boat together, driving forward. We’re minor players in a big resurgence in cultural recognition.”