I have to admit, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I mean I’d seen him around town on a number of occasions, always colourful, often smiling and usually with an entourage.
My first attempt to interview him didn’t go well.
“Come back after lunch. He’s better after he eats,” said his gardener.
My next visit, fast approaching deadline, I was prepared to stage a sit-in until he saw me if I had to. I arrived after lunch and this time Mr. Aloi Pilioko would grant me an audience.
He was wearing yellow. What exactly I’m not sure of, but I did notice four yellow watches, what looked like yellow fisherman’s pants and a yellow singlet. His yellow hat had yellow flowers, feathers and sparkles.
Underneath it, his hair was showing signs of washed out yellow colouring.
Some of his entourage was with him, fellow Wallisian artists, possibly relatives although that point was never made clear. In fact not much of what I’m about to tell you about Aloi Pilioko came from the interview. Well, the art stuff at least. Thankfully, Aloi’s art is so loved around the world, researching his exhibitions is rather easy online.
Aloi Pilioko is an institution in the South Pacific, a famed and much loved artist who paints anything and everything. He, along with his partner, the now deceased Russian artist Nicolai Michoutouchkine have had over 1000 items from their collection exhibited in over 40 countries. It is estimated more than 25 million people have seen their work.
His paintings hang in many homes and offices around the world, and followers send all manner of things for him to paint – from pots and pans to sculptures and carvings.
The front wall of the Post Office in Port Vila has been sculptured and painted by Aloi and is one of the most photographed buildings in the South Pacific.
Aloi Pilioko is by far the most interesting person I have ever interviewed and possibly the most difficult. But not because of any arrogance or elitism that is synonymous with some artists – quite the opposite actually.
He gives away little, yet you cannot help but be drawn to his avant-garde style, him warmth and his humour.
“You drink vodka?”
“Um, sorry, what?”
“We drink vodka, then we talk”
I wanted to know what inspired him, how he wanted to be remembered and what his favourite works were.
Each time I asked a question I was offered another shot of vodka, homemade and as far as vodka goes, in the early afternoon shade of Aloi’s magnificent gardens, delicious.
Aloi was born on the Polynesian island of Wallis; he moved to the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) as a young boy and after limited schooling became a copra cutter.
That work took him to New Caledonia where he met Nicolai Michoutouchkine at a gallery the Russian opened in 1959 in Noumea. Michoutouchkine said he found Aloi sitting on a crate outside the exhibition trying to draw.
“And Nicolai looked at me and said come inside. So I went with him and I had never seen paintings like that. I saw the colour, I thought maybe I want to do something like that,” Aloi said.
Michoutouchkine never took credit for Aloi’s style or inspiration.
“He has by himself developed what he wanted to do, so in the beginning he started painting in oil, then he did some drawings, then he did some needle work on copra bags”, Michoutouchkine said in an interview before his passing.
Since then, Aloi has painted on canvas, timber, cement, porcelain, fabric and glass.
“I paint people, fish and animals. I love cats and ducks and love painting market scenes and dancing.”
After meeting Nicolai, the young Aloi traveled the world but remained inspired by the South Pacific. What you see is what he is feeling and it is always bright and colourful.
In 1978, the two artists established their own South Pacific art foundation – “The Michoutouchkine and Pilioko Foundation” in Vanuatu.
The Foundation supports and encourages young artists originating from Pacific islands with regular workshops and exhibitions of emerging artists. Aloi acts as a mentor to many young artists who have gone on to sell their own work throughout the Pacific as well.
The Foundation also plays home to Aloi’s home and the public exhibition of his and Nicolai’s personal collection of art and artefacts.
The gardens are rambling and intoxicating, full of wild ginger, heliconias, cordylines, palms, ferns and pandanus. The canopy of palms keeps the gardens cool and you are welcome to explore the Balinese huts housing South-East Asian sculptures, many of which Aloi has since painted.
A winding path leads to Aloi’s home and after several vodkas, he instructs one of his entourage to take me on a tour.
The timber house is three levels and everything – and I mean everything – is painted in bright colours. The floorboards, the cupboards, the doors, the windows, even the toilet seat.
Aloi wakes before dawn every day and takes his tea on the narrow balcony off his bedroom.
“He does this every day before starting work,” the youngest member of his entourage, a young Wallisian artist says.
“Then he paints. Either for commissioned work from all around the world, or if he notices something around the house not yet painted.”
Aloi’s paintings depict a way of life in the South Pacific. The abstract faces are often oversized, with large eyes and the bodies almost always dancing.
His market scenes are particularly engaging, depicting islanders and island food in bright, uplifting colours.
You get the feeling Aloi would have had a good time in the sixties, his house has a sort of commune feel to it and people, ducks and cats are welcomed to wander through. It’s the sort of place you want to stay, pick up a brush and learn to paint.
Aloi will celebrate his 80th birthday next year and to celebrate he hopes to have his work featured in a Vanuatu Post stamp series.
“They’ve never asked me, so I hope they will soon,” Aloi says with a cheeky smile.
So I try again, ‘how would you like to be remembered?”
“Let’s have one for the road,” he says with a cheeky grin.
Na zdorovje. (Cheers in Russian).