An entry in The Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism
TOM Deko’s passion for the arts has given him international exposure, enabling him to participate at various international art exhibitions including in Basel, Switzerland later this month.
Tom is from the Makia village in the Bena Bena District of Eastern Highlands Province. He has left for Switzerland to install a sculpture he created for the Basel Tropical Institute.
In 2005, he was commissioned by the Institute of Medical Research in Goroka to produce a sculpture portraying its work. Tom created a sculpture including a scientist with a microscope, a person holding a test tube next to a tree and a mosquito representing the disease.
Little did he know that this sculpture would gain him international attention and an invitation to showcase his work in Basel.
Professor Marcel Tanner from the Basel Tropical Institute was on a visit to the Institute of Medical Research, saw the sculpture and requested a similar one for his institution.
Tom designed a sculpture featuring a warrior with a shield and bow and arrow trying to shoot the mosquito.
The sculpture was packed in pieces and shipped to Basel last December. Tom’s trip will allow him to assemble the sculpture and install it. He will also get the opportunity to meet the world’s richest art collectors in Basel, where he will also produce more artwork and showcase his own work.
As a child, Tom Deko had a passion for artifacts, creating human figures from bamboo. His interest in art continued to grow at high school.
From 1981-1984, he enrolled at the National Arts School and undertook foundation courses covering all subjects in the visual arts. He majored in three-dimensional study which led him to create sculptures out of metal and wood. He graduated with a certificate in visual arts.
Following graduation, in 1985 and 1986 Tom stayed in Makia, married and had a child. He then moved to Port Moresby, joining the production workshop team in the Faculty of Creative Arts at the University of Papua New Guinea.
“My mentor was Gigmai Kundu,” Tom said, “and I produced miniature sculptures.”
While working there, he was offered a commission.
“From there, I started to build my reputation and received further invitations to exhibit artwork in Australia, New Caledonia and New Zealand, which gained me international exposure”.
In 1996, Tom was invited to the Asia Pacific Triennial Arts Festival in Queensland. He produced a jazz band sculpture from scrap metal. After the show, he received an invitation from the Flying Arts Association and joined two other artists as they conducted workshops in the Queensland outback.
In 1998, he was invited to Sydney to participate in the annual Sculpture by the Sea exhibition. He created ‘A Family Piece’ sculpture at Bondi Beach. After that he went to a fellow artist’s property at Walcha near Amaidale and produced a huge sculpture of an Aboriginal warrior standing on one leg and holding a spear while looking out for an animal to hunt.
In 1999, Tom received a Commonwealth Arts and Craft Award which took him to Zimbabwe. He stayed for some months working at a local gallery. While there he conducted workshops with local artists and in neighbouring countries.
In 2003 he joined the University of Goroka as a tutor in the Expressive Arts Department where he continued to produce sculptures and paintings and participate in local art exhibitions throughout PNG.
Tom was one of the artists selected to participate in the 2008Hailans to Ailans tour and exhibition sponsored by Christiansen Foundation. During this tour he produced some sculptures which were shipped to Canada and London. Some of the sculptures were sold to the London and Glasgow museums.
A year later he was selected for an artist exchange program. German artist Ingo Kuhl visited the University of Goroka and he and Tom travelled to the mouth of the Sepik River and produced paintings together for three weeks. Tom then joined Kuhl in Germany where they worked on a project, The Wedding Chair, which embodied a PNG motif in a kundu shape.
“When traveling and interacting with people, you learn new ideas and you incorporate what you learn into your artwork,” Tom told me when I asked whether he was excited about his trip to Basel.
“I also know that I represent the University of Goroka, therefore I try to learn as much as I can.
“The knowledge I bring back should enhance the arts program at the University of Goroka and PNG at large.
“However I am not fully utilised and sadly the knowledge I acquire remains in me. The University of Goroka needs to maximize my potential and that is to transfer my practical knowledge and skills to the students.”
The training of new generation of artists is important to sustain painting and sculpture in PNG.
Tom Deko, a prolific artist, needs to be recognised and given an opportunity to support arts programs in educational institutions and the private sector.
We need to promote Papua New Guinean artists in a society where globalisation is posing a threat to our arts and indigenous knowledge.