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Chamorro body ornamentation

Julie “Jill” Quichocho Benavente (1958 – ) is a traditional and contemporary Chamorro body ornamentation artist. Benavente carves fine jewelry from local materials such as hima (Tridacna or giant clam), Spondylus (thorny oysters), stone, cow bone, wild boar tusks, and more. Benavente has been creating and carving since the 1990s.

As a traditional Chamorro jewelry artist, Benavente gradually established herself in this male-dominated art form of the 1990s. Initially, she had a difficult time being accepted by her fellow male carvers. Therefore, she began experimenting and developed her own processes and style as an artist. Eventually, the men could not ignore her skills as a craftswoman nor her beautiful designs.

Benavente owns and operates a cultural shop, “Guinahan Chamoru” (What Chamorros Have), located at #8 Sagan Kuttoran Chamoru, Ipao Point. It is open from 11 am to 6 pm, Monday through Saturday. Work from more than 60 local artists is available for purchase, ranging from paintings and prints, to CDs and carvings. Benavente places her finely crafted items alongside her fellow carvers in display cases filled with jewelry and other items.

Benavente’s commonly commissioned and produced pieces include men’s traditional sinahi (new moon) pendant made of hima with a full strand of cone shells. For this piece in particular, Benavente designs the shape and size of the sinahi for the person purchasing it to ensure that it is not too large or too small but well suited to the individual based on their height and weight. The cone shells are often times gathered from the beach by Benavente herself. She then cleans, shapes, refines, drills and sorts them based on their color and size.

One of Benavente’s one-of-a-kind pieces is a whale fin shaped necklace she made for her daughter. The pendant and clasp are made of hima and are shaped into a whale’s tail fin or fluke. On the pendant at its base is an inlay of an oval spondylus slightly protruding from its surface. The strand is also made of small spondylus beads, while the cord is detailed with macramé.

Benavente is fondly referred to as “Mama Jill” by younger artists and friends. She provides many artists with a place to work, gives advice on design, instruction on technique and tool use, consultation on finishing, and even provides a recycled shipping container for housing art pieces. For her artist friends there are hours of conversations, lots of laughter and emotional support, if needed. Conscientious of her role in passing on knowledge of her craft, Benevante conducted an apprenticeship program in 2008 with five young artists through the Guam Council on the Arts and Humanities Agency (CAHA).

Benavente regularly participates in Guam’s annual anticipated Nissan’s Infiniti Art Gallery Woman’s Exhibit and Guma Mami’s Creative Spirits Art Exhibit. She also contributes to group exhibitions at the local annual Micronesian Island Fair and the Flame Tree Festival in Guam’s sister island of Saipan. Moreover, Benavente is frequently called upon by CAHA to participate in events throughout the island.

Benavente was born in Hawai’i in 1958 to Manuel Baza Quichocho and Vicenta Santos Quichocho. When her family moved back to Guam while she was in her teens, they settled on her father’s family land in Maga, Mangilao, where she currently resides. She married Ed Benavente in 1982 and together, they have two daughters – Amber B. Sanchez and Tasi Q. Benavente. They have six grandchildren, Amber’s daughters Ha’ani, Sinahi, son Rai, Nina’i Fauna and Tasi’s daughters Na’ina and Tala.

On 21 October 2014, Benavente was awarded the prestigious title “Sainan Minehalom Manlasgue-Adotnon I Tatåotao,” or Master Carver-Body Ornamentation from CAHA. She joins an elite group of local artists recognized as master practitioners who preserve the island’s history and cultural traditions.

By Nathalie Pereda

For further reading

Guam Council on the Arts and Humanities Agency. “Artists – Guam CAHA.”

Humanities Guåhan. Picturing Guam Teachers Resource Book. Hagåtña: HG, 2011.