Oro Negro & Frankie Ruins
Nestled in the Samoa House community on Karangahape Rd lies the workshop and gallery of Colombian jewellers Oro Negro and Frankie Ruins. It is in this workshop that we learned about the historical and cultural ruminations of Ernesto’s practice. Ernesto Ovalle (Oro Negro), his son Sebastian (Frankie Ruins) and daughter Manuela (soon to start her own brand), all work together fashioning metal and stone into their inspired collections.
The name Frankie Ruins comes from their cat Frankie, and Sebastian’s long-held fascination with ruins. “There’s something special about seeing something that was so meaningful be destroyed, and how you can (hopefully) add life to it…”
The Ovalle family’s lineage traces back to the indigenous Muisca people of modern-day Colombia. Famous among the Spanish Conquistadors for their gold-laden ornaments and rituals, the Muisca were once a thriving culture that was destroyed during the conquest. Ernesto talks about the importance of his family’s ancestry in relation to the way he creates today.
“There are traces of my DNA that is them. Even though there’s a small percentage of Muisca in me, I claim it back into me because they have the knowledge of working with their hands.”
Upon discovering a sacred culture around jewellery making in NZ, Ernesto was able to breathe life back into a practice that played a large part in his ancestral culture. Coming from a family that traces back many generations of crafters and makers, the importance of nurturing these traditional practices is celebrated. From a young age, Ernesto inherited a fascination for metal jewellery and craft from his grandfather and uncles, who were artists, poets, jewellers and watchmakers alike. Through a lifetime of exposure to fine craft artisans, Ernesto developed a meticulous eye for detail that he has devoted to jewellery making.
Emigrating to NZ with his family in 1999, Ernesto naturally turned to what he knew to make a living. While working at a jewellery store in Kingsland, he relearned and was exposed to working with new materials. He then met Chaz Doherty of Tūhoe, a traditional carver, who showed him how to carve wood, whalebone and eventually pounamu. His fascination with New Zealand stones and the protocol surrounding them grew enormously. This was a pivotal experience for him as he was able to apply his skills to that of a new cultural practice.
“For me, it was like spending 50 years in the desert and finding a cold coca-cola. I got to embrace the culture as my own culture. Of course I’m not Maori… I’m a descendent of the Muiscas.”
While talking to Ernesto in his studio, he uses the metaphor of a GPS to explain how he has gotten to this point in his practice today. He acknowledges that when he first arrived here he felt lost – like he’d lost his GPS signal – because he only knew the ways that he’d developed in Colombia. Becoming closer to this land, the people, and the culture, allowed him to regain his signal.
“As soon as it was on, I knew the people I represented, the people before me, and now I can go to you and get more information. I can go places because I know where I started the journey.”
Ernesto has grounded himself as a unique artist within the Auckland art sphere. He practices in a way that honours the protocols of tikanga Maori, while remaining true to his own heritage. Throughout his career he has experienced hesitation when faced with challenging pieces, such as restorations of precious pounamu. He understands the sacredness of what he is doing. Explaining the feeling as though his grandfathers are looking over his shoulder, he is reassured that he has the strength and skill to honour the stone. It’s understandable when people ask why he carves pounamu if he’s Colombian, but for him it’s a great privilege. He feels pride in answering, “we’re tangata whenua too”. Ernesto follows the protocols, he loves the stone, he feels the stone, and he knows the people that represent its land.
For Ernesto, carving and making jewellery is his livelihood, it’s his contribution to his kids, an upbringing that embodies knowledge, ancestry, community, and mana. Carving just feels right, and by giving them the skills to make, he has created an environment where everyone is welcome to partake in this shared conversation. Providing a place, a platform, and a space where cultures can come together and money comes and goes, it’s more than just a job.
A piece of jewellery has an inherent nature of love and giving. Whether it is a gift to yourself or a loved one, Ernesto and his family pride themselves on the part they play in enabling people to express love.
“I try to help people express love… This is why our work is important. It’s about love.”