By Sera Tikotikovatu-Sefeti
Jack Isaac Junior’s woodcarving skill is an inherent talent that is shared by his clan, and their relationship with Jack’s of Fiji is an extraordinary one that has lasted generations.
“My grandfather and father used to sell their carvings at Jack’s Handicraft back when it was just a small shop,” Junior recalls.
“The owners wanted to introduce some wood carving to test it out, and it became very popular, so you could say my family has been part of Jack’s Handicraft from the beginning.”
The relationship—now into its third generation and counting—is built on mutual respect and shared benefits for the partners.
“For the last 20 to 22 years since I dropped out of school, carving has been a source of income in the family. I have been supporting my three children and wife with the money I earn from selling my carvings to Jack’s.
“The beauty about this is that I’m my own boss; I work at my own time and pace rather than your normal eight- to five-day jobs,” he said.
Junior learnt his craft by osmosis. “My father didn’t teach me how to carve, and my grandfather didn’t teach my father; he just observed and did it.”
It will likely be the same story for the next generation, “I will not teach my children; like all of us and the other young boys in the village, they will need to observe and learn themselves if they want to carve,” Junior said.
To walk around the village settlement close to Nadi is to be in awe of the talent on display. Teenagers and young men sit in groups, transforming simple slabs of ‘vesi’ wood (a high-value native wood they work with) into the works of art you see in Jack’s stores.
In order to understand this unique, raw talent, you need to understand their family lineage.
Junior and his family’s traditional role in the village is ‘Mataisau’, A Mataisau is the family of builders in the village, and they can carve anything from tanoa (kava bowls), war clubs and canoes, right up to houses in the village. They are entrusted with this work by the high chiefs and villagers.
“Wood carving is in my blood; I was not taught how to do it; it was my God-given talent, and everyone in my family is the same,” Junior notes.
“When I used to come home from school and watch my dad carve, I used to think it was boring, and I thought back then that I don’t really like that type of work,” he recalls.
But that changed as he matured. “As I grew up, the interest grew, so one day I picked up a small piece of wood and a chisel and started carving a very small object.”
Then he realised that his talent for carving could be a source of income. “In 2003, I stayed home one day. I picked up one piece of wood and I carved one small war club. That time we were in Navua.
“So I went with my dad, and the cost of that small war club was $25. Back then, that was a lot of money, [and] that was the first money that I got from Jack’s through carving.”
According to the head of the handicrafts product category at Jack’s of Fiji, Shalveen Sachin Prasad, the relationship between the suppliers of wood carvers and Jacks is unique.
“More than half of my job is dealing with our carvers, so they are like family to me. We joke around, but at the same time there is a lot of respect for one another,” he says.
This relationship comes in handy when carvers are faced with challenges such as accessing the vesi wood.
“There is a saying, ‘you have wood, you have money,’” Junior says. “And that is one of the greatest challenges we face. We have to go to Navuto village in Nadroga; we have to drive up the mountains and walk down to the river bank where the vesi grow. So sometimes when we are handed an order from Jack’s, they give a percent just to help us go get the wood.”
The carving process is difficult, and supplying major retail shops like Jack’s will mean that suppliers have to meet quality standards that match the price.
With quiet pride, Junior says what sets the wood carvings available at Jack’s apart from other vendors is “the quality, the type of wood, the details on the carvings. The quality of work will always match the price.”
This article first appeared in Fiji Traveller, April-June 2023.