Peni Saimone ‘Ben’ Fong, originally from Vanuavalabu, Fiji, is of mixed Chinese and Fijian heritage. He originally trained in welding at the National Training and Productivity Centre and the College of Engineering, Science and Technology of the Fiji National University.
Ben was working to become an expert in welding in 1997 when an advertisement brought him to a workshop for ‘art welding,’ held by artist Georgina Beier. Beier set forty professional welders a challenge: with a piece of chalk and some floor space, design something that God had never created. Ben came up with a design for a stingray based on the fan on the Fijian two-cent coin. Beier liked the idea, and the sculpture was built by a team of welders.
Soon after, Ben came to the attention of Epeli Hau’ofa, founding director of the Oceania Centre at the University of the South Pacific, and Ben has been at USP ever since. He now works as a technician as well as an artist, filling a wide variety of roles in support of the visual arts. Not only has he built sculptures of all sorts, he has also engaged in print making, set design, carving, and a host of other artistic projects.
Ben’s metal sculpture makes use of available materials, including especially scrap metal. He has drawn inspiration from other artists, especially in the Pacific, Asia and the Caribbean, who also make ambitious expressive works with limited resources.
Ben has explored a wide variety of themes, including political and social criticism. His sculpture, The Way the World Should Be, for example, is an eight-metre-tall installation fabricated from metal rods, car bonnets, and galvanised pipe. The sculpture symbolises both the idyllic superficial impression Fiji shows the world as well as the corruption and selfishness, like shark’s teeth below the surface. Other sculptures explore the dangers of racism, a topic about which Ben is deeply passionate.
Five times, Ben has won the National Sculpture Award in Fiji National Fine Art Awards, and his work is now on public display in a number of national galleries and other prominent collections, including in American Samoa, Australia, Fiji, the Dominican Republic, Palau and Papua New Guinea. He has represented Fiji in exhibitions and festivals, and completed international commissions.
Ben’s art demonstrates that, with skill and imagination, artists can overcome a host of limitations and produce work that achieves international attention. By traveling and representing Fiji overseas, Ben’s own sense of what makes his art distinctly Fijian has grown sharper, and his desire to address immediate problems through art has only grown.
“Work that we do here... we know that these works will live on forever.”