Rocky Ralifo is the only Rotuman club carver in Aotearoa, and likely one of very few in the world.

Collection Manager, Pacific Ruby Satele explores Rocky’s work within the traditional art form and his aspirations for its greater recognition and resurgence.

Historical accounts of Rotuma reveal that ‘ai peluag (war clubs), paki (war club imitations) and mak paki (dance clubs) were plentiful in the nineteenth century.1 This suggests that there were likely many Rotuman wooden carvers of that time period when civil warfare occurred in Rotuma. Today, Rocky Ralifo is the only Rotuman club carver in Aotearoa, and possibly one of very few in the world.  

Born and raised in Lautoka, Fiji, he is a proud Rotuman who hails from Hapmak and Malha'a of Rotuma. In 2015, Rocky began earnestly developing his carving and creative ability and eventually set up his home-based studio in Manukau, Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. Numerous ‘ai peluag or paki have since been made, specifically ko loa (scallop-edged club), heāphepa (flat-top edged club) and pak ta. His portfolio has since expanded into functional Rotuman art forms such as tano’a (kava bowl) and umefe (low tables used for Chief’s meals).

 

Rocky

 

Rocky’s practice is imbued with genealogy, spirituality, continuity. The work and effort in sustaining this traditional art highlights the significance of Rocky and his artistry and is reflected by often being approached for his works by members of the community and government offices. One of Rocky’s aspirations is to see this art form have greater recognition and understanding by Rotumans, as well as increase the number of practising wooden club carvers.

 

Background image: Rocky Ralifo in his studio.
Body image: Rocky holding a club he carved.

 

Learn more about Rocky Ralifo. Keep scrolling to read the in-depth blog.

Music used with permission: Hanua Pumua by Tropic Thunda.

 

Continuing a carving legacy

Rocky’s carving journey is a continuation of intergenerational knowledge and cultural practice. He was taught the art of carving at a young age by his maternal grandfather Aisea Anise (Hapmak, Itutiu), with whom he shared a close relationship. Aisea was a carpenter by trade of traditional and modern homes in Fiji, but he was most esteemed as a Rotuman wood carver. Aisea’s father and grandfather were also carvers who each carved and constructed their own vak (canoe).

Rocky recalls that his grandfather was approached by many members of the Rotuman community in Fiji to create pātē (wooden drums), tano’a, umefe and other wooden pieces for ceremonial uses and gifting. As Aisea worked on carvings, he would simultaneously show and explain his works to Rocky; from small technical details of carving and motifs to broader contexts such as Rotuman philosophies. The learnings continued and expanded so much that in his adolescent years, Rocky began compiling a scrapbook of sketches and notes.

 

 

Later in his adult years, he dedicated time to the development of his carving skills and this scrapbook became his companion in guiding him in the physical absence of his grandfather. Rocky shares “I see myself as an extension of my grandpa”. This endearment illustrates the unbroken, continuous and strengthened intergenerational relationship of Rocky and Aisea as demonstrated in his carving practise. 

 

Background and body image: Clubs carved by Rocky.

Technology meets tradition

While continuing traditions, Rocky’s carving shows a great level of adaptability. Practising in Aotearoa requires that his methods and materials have to adjust to what is available. In what would have been vesi wood, iron wood and mahogany in Rotuma and Fiji, Rocky uses the next best, available materials in Aotearoa, Australian blackwood and macrocarpa.

 

 

Modern adzes and machineries are tools used in his works, to which he shares that if such modern tools were around or available to his grandfather, he would have utilised the same. Art practices, while maintaining its foundation, can shift as demonstrated between Rocky and Aisea and reiterates Albert Wendt’s critique of the idea that tradition is a fixed or stagnant entity.2

 

Growing our knowledge of ‘ai peluag

The ‘ai peluag collection in Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland Museum has been visited by Rocky on occasions. Nine ‘ai peluag make up this collection and the Museum record of each item was significantly enriched by Rocky who as a valuable holder of knowledge identified several key components including club types, symbols and meanings. Several ‘ai peluag were also on display for the inaugaural Rotuman Language Week in May 2021.

He continues his learning, now self-directed, by studying the collection with cross-reference to his grandfather’s teachings. Like his grandfather, Rocky is inundated with requests for ‘ai peluag from numerous individuals and groups locally and internationally. The Ministry of Pacific Peoples (New Zealand), for instance, recently commissioned him to create three ‘ai peluag to acknowledge Rotuman language champions.3

 

Background image: Carvings by Rocky.
Body image: Rocky in his studio.

 

‘Ai peluag at Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland Museum

 

Carving his own legacy

Rocky’s reflections on his journey comes with both challenges and joy. His art practice, family and work life are very significant to him however managing and meeting the demands of all three has not come without challenges. Accessing quality wood in Aotearoa is not as easy as it would be in Rotuma or Fiji. However, these are overwhelmed by the positive and joyous aspect of his experience.

The process of making is therapeutic for Rocky, where the sound of tapping reminds him of the waves and the subtle sound of crabs walking on shores. More importantly, carving helps him to feel his grandfather’s spiritual presence, showing that art practice can be a connector. In retrospect, Aisea not only taught him the art of carving but also how to stay connected and in tune culturally and spiritually.

Rocky’s greatest aspiration is to encourage conversation and learning in the art of carving ‘ai peluag, which becomes more realised when each finished carved piece goes out the door. The legacy of Rocky’s ancestors continues to provide and gift, especially for the Rotuman communities in Aotearoa. 

 

 

1. Gardiner, J. Stanley. “The Natives of Rotuma.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 27, (1898): 470-476.

2. Ministry for Pacific Peoples. “Rotuman carver Rocky Ralifo carving a place in history.” July 5, 2021. https://tpplus.co.nz/community/rotuman-carver-rocky-ralifo-carving-a-place-in-history 

3. Wendt, Albert. “Towards a New Oceania.” The Mana Review 1, 1 (1976): 53.

 

Background image: Rocky in his studio.