"My love of the craft can be traced back to my indigenous and family heritage: in the pre-colonisation state of Cundinamarca, the Muisca tribe created gold ornaments and statues, and my uncles and grandfather worked with metals as watchmakers and jewellers."
Ernesto Ovalle is an artist living and working in Auckland. Originally from Colombia, he immigrated to Aotearoa in 1999. He’s been a traditional jewellery maker for 25 years, coming from a family of jewellers and sought to develop his practice expanding into contemporary jewellery. He started carving pounamu in 2001, mentored by Chaz Doherty of Tuhoi, who taught him protocols and techniques of wood and bone carving, and how to carve a tiki. Chaz and Ernesto met at the Royal Jewellery Studio in Kingsland.
Ernesto started working full-time as a carver in 2002. In 2010, he attended Taipotini Polytechnic in Greymouth to study carving and further his skills. At the end of the year he opened up The Bridge Gallery Studio in Auckland Central, the name inspired by his interest in intersections of cultures and indigenous practice. To develop his practice he went to Elam School of Fine Arts in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014. At the university he studied under Dante Bonica of the Maori department in subjects Te Kete Aronui and Maori traditional methods to work with pounamu. He trained in hand finish techniques and tool-making, and learnt to produce sandstone files to create carvings. He follows traditional Maori greenstone carving traditions, and the Maori influence is evident in the balance, composition, patterns and techniques he uses. Today he normally carves toki blades, hei koru and hei matau - fish hooks.
As a descendant of the Muisca tribe in central Colombia, a tribe now extinct due to Spanish colonialism, Ernesto identifies as an indigenous person. Passionate about the intersections of indigenous cultures, I researched the ancient artifacts and jewellery of the Muisca and Tairona tribes from Colombia, the appearance of which is similar to some Aotearoa stone artifacts. He believes that indigenous peoples around the world are one, and has a profound respect for the values and principles of Te Ao Maori and Tikanga Maori. Learning about Aotearoa culture and pounamu in particular has helped me understand my roots, and create a platform for me to be able to share my culture and experience with the world.
Ernesto aligns himself with the mission of Ngāi Tahu to distinguish pounamu from other types of jade, and feels a responsibility to protect pounamu as heritage of the iwi and help the general public understand and respect the importance of pounamu and the kaitiakitanga of Ngāi Tahu.
Pounamu, or New Zealand Jade, is a majestic stone sourced from the coastal regions, riverbeds, and Glaciers of Aotearoa (New Zealand). Traditionally utilised by Maori tribes, the stone was, at that time, seen as the strongest substance known to man. Pounamu was sought for its robustness when used as a tool for hunting, fishing and fighting. For spiritual practice, the stones ethereal qualities and deep green colour were admired, also now, in our contemporary world. It is popular belief that Pounamu contains something more than rock, and when touched, this is noticed, whether this something is metaphysical or otherwise. Pounamu was formed into jewelry, heirlooms and spiritual symbols by the tribes most highly placed individuals, among the chiefs: the carvers. Employing sandstone, bark, and black obsidian, these masters of the elements spent weeks, months, even years, to gratify the best outcome for a piece of Pounamu.