Mahiriki Tangaroa, Cook Islands Contemporary Art, Origins and Prospects.

Cook Islands Contemporary Art: Origins and Prospects.

CIRA 2050 Conference 2009

“Carving Out the Future of Cook Islands Contemporary Art”

Mahiriki Tangaroa


Throughout history, art has played a critical role in expressing, reflecting and challenging cultural ideals and social conventions fostered by society.

Its potential to communicate and inform beyond place and time is one of its finest attributes, promoting a sense of appreciation and understanding of the diversity inherent to other cultures.

Art in the Cook Islands is not a recent phenomenon.

It is simple logic to suggest that it extends from the arrival of the first people to these shores at least 800 years ago. The tattooing of motifs onto the body, patterns painted onto tapa and the sculpting of wooden deities all conform to theories of conceptual art practice.

Several major social changes have greatly altered the course of creativity in the Cook Islands, chief among these were the arrival of Christianity in 1821 and the attainment of self government in 1965.

This presentation looks briefly at artistic origins in the Cook Islands and the changing role of Cook Islands Art throughout these phases.

It looks at societal developments over the last decade including the significant influence of developing technology, which has played a major role in re- shaping Cook Islands art today and tomorrow.


Religion and Traditional Artistic Expressions.

When using the term ‘traditional’ we often associate it with practices that were unacceptable to the Christian missionaries.

At the time of their arrival to the Cook Islands, a wealth of artistic activity was evident including sculpture through the creation of carved deities, god staffs & intricate ceremonial pedestal axes as well as body tattoo and painting with vegetable dyes onto tapa cloth.

Carved deities were central to traditional Cook Islands spirituality; they were revered as physical manifestations of spiritual beings, a fundamental religious principle common to most world religions.

Tribal gods were housed in pia-atua with other ceremonial treasures.

Here they were clothed, oiled and replaced when they were thought to have lost their spiritual power.

But, Christians considered it essential that in adopting their beliefs and subsequent social structure, the concept of multiple gods be destroyed.

Labelled false idols, these indisputably works of art were either burnt or curiously enough given the Christian standpoint, collected by the very same missionaries that ordered them destroyed for European Museums.

Documentation of the British Museum collection demonstrates distinct variations in form and design, respective to each island.

Generally they fall into two categories, gods that were carved in conventional human form (most commonly in Aitutaki and Rarotonga) and those carved in unconventional form.

Ironically today, the traditional gods of Polynesia are acknowledged for their distinctive sculptural qualities, becoming a prominent feature in major museums and art galleries throughout the world. (Met Pic)

The art of tattooing was also a victim of the Christian ideology, condemned as a form of scarification.

In lieu of a written language, it was one of the most fundamental practices preserving codes of genealogy, ancestry and ranking.

In 1879 tattooing was legally prohibited through the introduction of the infamous ‘Blue Laws’.

With the elimination of traditional Cook Islands objects & practise thought to challenge Christian teachings, emphasis was subsequently placed on the decoration of ceremonial and functional objects.

Carved patterning continued on the Atamira (ceremonial stools), Adzes and Kumete (carved bowls), preserving the use of some local patterns and motifs.

Due to the introduction of the Tivaevae quilt and cheap cotton cloth, labour-intensive tapa production eventually died out.

Today, Cook Islands Tivaevae is celebrated internationally and praised for its distinctive, elaborate and unique design. (APT image).

Cook Islands Tivaevae also featured in the last Asia Pacific Contemporary Art Triennial held in Brisbane.

Visual Documentation of Pacific Encounters.

Between the mid 19th and early 20th century, drawing, lithographic prints and photography were evident in the Cook Islands.

Since the time of the early explorers, to the missionary and colonial eras, visual documentation was a vital record of life in the Pacific.

An influential testimony, it raised the profile of a given mission or enterprise, exposing to a home audience, the discovery of distant exotic lands and the courageous attempts to engage with an uncivilized native race.

The finely detailed lithographic prints of the missionary era not only conveyed the challenges and triumphs of conversion but also communicated successful settlement in a new and foreign land.

Approximately seventy years after the first Europeans settled in the Cook Islands, the introduction and use of photography constituted an advanced technical leap.

The first official series of photographs were taken in the Cook Islands in 1900, recording the first official New Zealand Government visit to the Cook group. This historical event marked the annexation of the Cook Islands to New Zealand.

Just over a decade later (approx. 1914) a series of photographs were taken by George Crummer. Unlike previous visual records, these focused exclusively on social aspects of Cook Islands life.

The collection is a record of the people, daily activities and the surrounding tropical environment. This collection today serves as a valuable reference of life in the Cook Islands in the early 1900’s. *websites

A New Era: Tourism, Art & Perception.

The attainment of self-government in 1965 was followed in 1974 by the completion of the Rarotonga International Airport and the subsequent birth of a modern tourist industry.

Handicraft makers, wood carvers and full-time artists have profited greatly from the tourist industry which inadvertently created a stage for artistic and creative freedom.

Reproductions of various traditional gods resurfaced and although geared towards the market, they have kept the tradition of sculpture alive. In this respect, tourism has helped to sustain elements of the traditional ways of life.

The return of the carved deity Tangaroa is a primary example.

Its mass reproduction has inadvertently preserved a traditional icon.

Its popularity exposes an interesting, mutating role in local culture, questioning its existence in a past and present context. While the ensuing popularity of the carved form still provokes debate, Tangaroa is generally recognized as an essential link to an imperative cultural history.

Today, with the assistance of improved technology the local tourist market has created the opportunity for further merchandising among contemporary artists.

Art images transposed onto gift cards, prints & t-shirts help preserve the authenticity and financial value of original artworks.

But, in some circles, the regurgitation of the same wooden objects and imagery, the emphasis on easy images & quick money with the associated the lack of creative development has somewhat typified the view that nothing of true artistic value comes out of the Cook Islands. Indeed, it has been labelled ‘Tourist Art’.

However, this perception is changing.

From Traditional to Contemporary Expression.

When considering the origins of this new art movement, it is important to acknowledge the role of the first two contemporary artists in Cook Islands history.

In 1962, American artist Rick Welland arrived on Rarotonga with his wife and son. One year later, fellow artist Edwin Shorter found his way to Rarotonga via Tahiti.

Both artists were the first commercial artists, living and working on Rarotonga. The stereotypical exotic & sensual beauty of the Islands and Islanders captured the imagination of Welland & Shorter. The two artists frequently painted young, Island maidens although Welland’s delivery was refreshingly free of the influence of Gauguin.

However to describe their works as merely sensual is unjust.

Shorter’s paintings documented the increasingly intrusive role of Europeans in his fragile pacific garden of Eden, their tone bore an almost angst ridden plea for a return to a simpler way of Polynesian life.

Welland’s work was far more original. Seizing on the little regarded legends of the Cook Islands, he developed a series of works that sampled old stories, demigods and superstition.

His works resurrected aspects of Cook Islands culture that had long been discarded in favour of the Christian gospel.

Unfortunately, most of Welland’s legend series reside in private collections offshore. Selections of Shorter’s works are in local collections.

The works of Welland and Shorter, while largely underappreciated at the time, found a convenient tourist niche market at the time. These works also retrospectively, previewed the eventual rise of contemporary art practice in the Cook Islands.

Edwin Shorter died in 1998 while Rick Welland departed the Cook Islands in 1990 and lives in the United States. His wife, remains on Rarotonga.








Drawing on the Past to Navigate the Future.

The travelling exhibition Paringa ‘Ou, hosted at the Cook Islands National Museum in 1998, marked a large turning point in the direction of Cook Islands contemporary art.

The exhibition exclusively showcased the work of New Zealand born and resident artists of Cook Islands origin and presented a refreshing variety of diverse mediums to challenge its local audience.

Paringa ‘Ou received a mixed response as the collection of work clearly expressed a distanced view from the realities of culture in the islands themselves.

As opposed to harbouring tradition (or taking it for granted) the exhibition celebrated cultural origins and identity, salvaged from dialogue, memory, or brief encounters. Many of the exhibiting artists had never been to Rarotonga.

One of the intentions of this show was to break an existing local art perception and promote the view that painting didn’t necessarily have to conform to a landscape or a portrait for it to be worthy of appreciation.

An exhibition workshop was facilitated by Paringa ‘Ou artists Ian George and Richard Shortland Cooper.

It focused on re- exploring local legends, stories, traditional motifs and imagery and using these elements as a basis in the creative process.

At this point in time, I think it is fair to say that we can acknowledge Paringa ‘Ou as a genesis point for the new Cook Islands Contemporary Art Movement recognized today.

One of its chief accomplishments is continuity and evolution and features all the hallmarks of modern art practice including the use of foreign (and traditional) art materials, modern construction processes and an applied theoretical and critical approach in its production.

ON a personal note…It was after the Paringa ‘Ou exhibition and the artist workshop that my scheduled two week visit developed into a ten year art & life residency!

Cook Islands Contemporary Art 1998 – 2004.

At the time I left New Zealand, the Creative New Zealand Arts Council began to reinvigorate its support of contemporary art practise. The push to promote contemporary artistic development was endorsed with vigorous mission statements such as;

“Where there is human dignity there is artistic excellence”

“The health of the arts reflects the health of a nation”

“Placing value on the arts is taking pride in ones culture. Preserving an historical record for the generations to come”

When I was appointed as Curator of the Cook Islands National Museum in 2000 the aim was to adopt a similar framework and apply the following key objectives;

Develop a local art resource and transform it into a valuable national asset.

Encourage contemporary art development through hosting in country workshops, residencies and exhibitions.

Ensure continuity through hosting annual workshops & Artist in Residence Programmes.

Promote the value and develop the standard of contemporary Cook Islands art domestically and internationally.

Identify new audiences and marketing opportunities domestically and internationally.

Generate exchange through securing and hosting domestic and international exhibitions.

Future Initiatives:

Advocate with government, the private sector and the community to increase the profile and role of contemporary art in the community.
Invest in the development of contemporary art and opportunities for all Cook Islanders to participate in and have access to the art.
Support local artists and art organisations through funding programmes.
Build the capacity of the contemporary art sector by providing resources and capability building programmes.
Advise government on issues relating to contemporary art.

Creative New Zealand invests a significant sum into their local community, organizations, private galleries and artists.

The funding for the financial year 2007/2008 was $31,289,000.00

Contemporary Art Initiatives and Projects at Home and Offshore.

Having established the aims and objectives, a host of exhibitions, workshops and residencies followed in Rarotonga.

In 2001 the Cook Islands set a regional precedent in hosting the first Pacific Artist in Residence Programme funded by Creative NZ in association with the Ministry of Cultural Development.

The scheme allowed for a New Zealand based artist of pacific origin to spend three months in the Cook Islands. During their tenure they were required to present a lecture, artists’ workshop and an end of residency exhibition.

The three months was to give time to interact with the local community and build a substantial body of work inspired by the local environment.

Recipients to the residency included Veronica Vaevae (new media), Fatu Feu’u (painting, printmaking and sculpture), Sylvia Marsters (painting), Filipe Tohi (sculptural installation), Johnny Pennisula (sculpture) and Nannette Le’laulu (painting).

The outstanding benefits of the Creative NZ residency programme soon captured the interest of Rarotonga businesses.

The Bank of the Cook Islands Patronage Programme was launched in 2002, enabling local artists to pursue a fully funded in-country three month residency. In addition an artists’ training workshop was funded which attracted highly acclaimed NZ artist John Pule.

Beachcomber Art Gallery followed suit and in 2002 hosted its first three month artist in residence programme. Beachcomber Art Gallery also established a highly successful and continuing Contemporary Art Exhibition Schedule in association with local and international sponsors. Beachcomber Contemporary Art has also supported several international exhibitions of Cook Islands Contemporary Art.

Running simultaneously was the hosting of international exhibitions.

In 2002 the National Museum hosted a hugely successful retrospective exhibition of realist paintings by pacific artist Mark Cross.

The exhibition, which comprised fifteen major art works, was shipped to the Cook Islands from Niue. The exhibition also featured the ‘Tulana Mahu’, a contemporary installation constructed within a shipping container.

Very much in the vein of the ‘postmodern’ was the travelling international exhibition “Iki and Thanks for All the Ika” shown in Rarotonga in 2004.

First shown in Lithuania, the exhibition showcased cutting edge contemporary pacific art, beyond the traditions of the frangipani flower. The exhibition could be viewed as an inadvertent sequel to Paringa ‘Ou – 5 years before.

The ‘Iki’ show included works by Ani O’Neil, Lisa Reihana, Ava Seymour, Filipe Tohi, Natalie Robertson, Jim Vivieaere, Reuben Paterson, Damon Fepuleai, Graham Fletcher, John Pule, Lonnie Hutchinson, Veronica Vaevae, Craig Fasi, Niki Hastings-McFall, Emi Tamua, Rohan Wealleans, Francis Upritchard and was currated by Tobias Berger.

In 2003 the first major exhibition of contemporary Cook Islands art, Te Ata ‘Ou, travelled to Christchurch, New Zealand.

Not only was it a ground-breaking initiative but a testimony that celebrated confidence and maturity achieved in the local contemporary art sector.

Through the support and sponsorship of Beachcomber Contemporary Art, Air New Zealand and the Cook Islands Development Investment Board, the exhibition delivered a major statement to a foreign audience as to the progress and state of Cook Islands Contemporary Art.

It also secured NZ representation for several Te Ata Ou exhibiting artists at Salamander Gallery.

The following year Salamander Gallery hosted “Turama” a group show of Cook Islands Artists. The exhibition attracted an excellent turnout and received impressive media reviews.





Today & Tomorrow?

On a regional level the Cook Islands have made exceptional progress in the growth and exhibition of contemporary art.

The local art community has been fortunate to secure private patronage and sponsorship which has subsequently engendered international partnerships.

The exhibition of public art has flourished and advanced tertiary training programmes through AUT and USP have ensured a healthy and vibrant contemporary art community.

These all effectively contribute to the fabric that allows local artists to ascertain and actively participate in global and future events.

Although buoyant the ongoing viability of Cook Islands Contemporary Art requires solid support.

It is my intent now, to rearticulate the immediate position of a Cook Islands National Art Gallery …with a national policy to acquire and house a permanent contemporary collection.

It is essential.

A National Art facility will:

Celebrate and reflect national pride in local art and culture.
Foster an internationally marketable local resource.
Enhance the tourist industry by demonstrating a point of difference from other pacific destinations.
Given the existing value will provide economic benefits on a domestic and international front.
Provide as a centre for art education and research.
Provide an imperative cultural/historical link and provide a recognisable platform for Cook Islands Contemporary Art.
Showcase both traditional and contemporary art forms.

A facility of this kind will be a first in the Pacific Island Region.

Toward 2050; Mobility, Technology & A Digital Past.

Since 1950, some 91% of Cook Islanders have left our shores, first for New Zealand, now more for Australia, and increasingly for Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North America.

Those of us who live in the Cook Islands travel internationally ever more. In the past decade an increasing number of Europeans, Fijians, Filipinos & Indians have migrated into the Cook Islands.

The increased immigration of people and ideas is inevitable before 2050. This will have a predictable impact on creativity, but a precise direction is difficult to predict.

One must also strongly consider the rate of advancement of modern technology.

Who could have predicted the recent phenomena called Damian Hirst!

Computer manipulation, digital imaging through film and straight photography are accelerating exponentially.

Instant accesses to the latest technological breakthroughs are now made possible through the Internet, which has also become a global forum for artist exhibition and exchange.

Virtual reality sites via the internet are evolving, creating a solitary virtual world for human consumption. This has created added opportunities for artists to experiment within new, progressive and wider formats.





Digital Marae – The Art of Lisa Reihana

In summary, and, as an envisaged approach to the future practice of Cook Islands Contemporary Art, I will take this opportunity to offer the work of Lisa Reihana and the series ‘Digital Marae’.

‘Digital Marae’ is a series of surreal, imposing images that very much invoke the feeling of stepping into a futuristic world.

In a dramatic black carnival staged setting, Reihana has ‘photographed’ Maori ancestral figures & mythical creatures (Taniwha) within a wider construct of a Maori meeting-house. (PIC)

Within her alter – world she expertly unites the contemporary and the traditional, not only reliving the epic stories of her Maori ancestors but giving them context and relevance within a startling new environment.

Perhaps this too is our purpose, to ensure that, through the artistic medium, our ideas, our culture, our knowledge and our stories continue to be remembered and represented so that our future generations are never threatened with a loss of such imperative information as our past generations were not so many years ago.

Kia Orana e Kia Manuia!









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