via NYTimes: The Saturday Profile
An Artist Sets Sail, but South Pacific Pulls Him Home
By LARRY ROHTER
Published: April 22, 2006
MOE ROA, Easter Island
WHEN Benedicto Tuki Pate was a child growing up here in the early 1950's, contact with the outside world was limited to a single supply ship that called just once a year. There was no radio, no hospital and no store here on this remote speck of land in the heart of the South Pacific.
"To me back then, the world was this island and this island was the world," Mr. Tuki said. "We were very, very isolated and hadn't read anything and didn't know anything about any other place or people, not even Tahiti," the closest group of islands, some 2,000 miles northwest of here.
Today, however, Mr. Tuki, now 60, is very much a man of the world. Almost by accident, he has ended up becoming a sculptor whose work has been displayed on four continents and who is one of the most ardent defenders and advocates of Easter Island's singular Polynesian culture.
Easter Island is renowned everywhere, of course, for its moai, the giant statues that stand mutely along the rocky coast here, and Mr. Tuki's first piece, carved when he was 11, was a miniature moai in traditional form. His only teacher, he said, was his father, a fisherman, farmer and sculptor who had to rely on all three trades to provide for his family.
"In those days, there was no money here, and our whole economy was based on barter," he recalled. "My father would carve something and then trade it to a neighbor for an item of food or clothing. I would watch him work, and that is how I learned."
IT would have been hard for Mr. Tuki not to have taken note of the monoliths his ancestors erected: there are perhaps a thousand of them, as tall as 50 feet tall, scattered over an island three times the size of Manhattan. But they are collective works, strongly linked to the island's original religion, not individual expressions of personal creativity.
Because of that, Mr. Tuki reached adulthood thinking of himself more as an artisan than an artist. It was when he met his wife, Ana María Arredondo, a Chilean historian, when she came here on vacation in the 1960's, that his thinking began to change. "She opened up the world for me and made me what I am," he said. "I was working then as a solderer for the government oil company, but she made me realize I had a talent in my hands that I ought to use for more than a hobby."
By the end of the 1970's, Mr. Tuki was officially recognized as the top sculptor on this island of sculptors. But his big breakthrough came in the early 1990's, when he was invited to the Netherlands to carve a wooden moai.
The Dutch were the first Europeans to arrive here, on Easter Sunday of 1722, and an exhibition was being organized on Texel, an island off the Dutch coast, to mark that event. Mr. Tuki jumped at the opportunity, which he saw as a chance to disseminate Easter Island's culture in places where it was unknown.
"I wanted then, and still do now, to promote this island at the world level," he said. "I know that many people think that the culture of Rapa Nui," as Easter Island is known in the language of its people, "is exotic or folkloric, but they need to know we are linked to a broader Polynesian culture that is one of the richest and most open in the world." [read on...]