Ian ‘Upokoina’ George was a painter, sculptor, curator and avid art educator. Born in 1952 in Rotorua, New Zealand, Ian was of Rarotongan and Atiuan descent. He graduated with a Marsters in Fine Arts from Te Toi Hou, Elam School of Fine Arts, Auckland University in 2002. He was also a former Chair of the Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust.

In 1988, Ian and his wife, fellow artist Kay George, moved to Rarotonga where Ian worked at the national college, re-establishing a neglected art curriculum and Kay setting up their studio and workshop. Between 1994 – 2002, they returned to New Zealand where Ian headed the art department at Hillary College (Otara) and both George’s regularly exhibiting in solo and group shows. Ian & Kay made the journey home permanently to Rarotonga in 2002, with Ian taking up the position of Visual Arts Adviser for the Ministry of Education and Lecturer at the Cook Islands Teachers Training College. In 2006, Ian & Kay established ‘The Art Studio’, a commercial gallery hosting regular Cook Islands community group shows and exhibitions of renowned artists from across the Pacific.

Ian George’s art work is known for its central focus on the restoration and reinvention of Cook Islands iconography within a contemporary timeframe, in particular, the traditional Cook Islands deity Tangaroa. His engaging, multi-layered works sought not only to re-affirm his identity, but also served as a way to preserve the history and dignity of the spiritual beliefs held by pre-missionary Cook Islanders. “The art I have made over the years has been a personal journey where I have been reclaiming and reaffirming my identity as an artist of Cook Islands descent. I continue the traditions of our Ariki (traditional chiefs) and use the painted and sculptured form to tell the histories, spiritual beliefs and experiences of Cook Islands people’s, past, present, future.”

In the triptych ‘Access, Locate, Retrieve’ (2002) he makes direct reference to the restoration of a spiritual and artistic livelihood. “ The home (is)land gives one a sense of belonging in the physical realm but not the spiritual. The god figures are in foreign museums, but not in the Cook Islands National Museum.”

In 1998, Ian curated the travelling group exhibition Paringa Ou (Cook Islands National Museum, Fiji Museum and Gus Fisher Gallery, Auckland). Paringa Ou was a collection of contemporary works by artists of Cook Islands descent born & living in New Zealand. This collection represented a spiritual & symbolic journey for the participating artists, some of whom had never been to Rarotonga. George also co-curated the group exhibition Te Ata Ou (2003 – with Mahiriki Tangaroa & Ben Bergman) which was, in part, an inverse response to Paringa Ou – the works, like the artefacts of long ago, being packed into wooden crates and exported. Te Ata Ou opened at Beachcomber Galleries, Rarotonga before travelling to Christchurch, New Zealand and presented at Gallery O, as part of the VII International Symposium of the Pacific Arts Association.

Ian participated in many workshops, group and solo exhibitions including projects in New Zealand, Rarotonga, Australia, New Caledonia and London. His exhibition CV is extensive and his artworks are held in collections around the world. Ian George passed away in 2015.

Selected Exhibitions:

  • 1998: New Work by Pacific Artists, Morgan Street Gallery, Auckland.
  • 1998: Paringa Ou, Cook Islands National Museum, Rarotonga.
  • 1999: Totem, Arch Hill Gallery, Auckland.
  • 2001: No Taku Ipukarea, Beachcomber Galleries, Rarotonga.
  • 2002: Tatou, Beachcomber Galleries, Rarotonga.
  • 2002: Hybrid/Iconographics, Cook Islands National Museum. Rarotonga.
  • 2002: Group Show, Tasina Studios, Auckland.
  • 2002: Aroa Rarotonga, Beachcomber Galleries, Rarotonga.
  • 2002: Group Show, The Art Studio, Rarotonga.
  • 2003: Inside Out, The Art Studio, Rarotonga.
  • 2003: Au Taeake e Iva, The Art Studio, Rarotonga.
  • 2003.Te Ata Ou, Beachcomber Galleries, Rarotonga.
  • 2003: Te Ata Ou, Gallery O, Christchurch, NZ – for the VII Symposium of the Pacific Art’s Association (PAA).
  • 2005: Auckland to Raro, Morgan Street Gallery, Auckland.
  • 2009: Facing the Sun, The Art Studio, Rarotonga.
  • 2011: Just Paint It, The Art Studio, Rarotonga.
  • 2012: Art by The Lagoon, The Art Studio, Rarotonga.
  • 2013: Celebration, The Art Studio, Rarotonga.
  • 2015: Summer Group Show, BCA, Rarotonga.
  • 2016: Dreams of a Rainbow, The Art Studio, Rarotonga.
  • 2016: Divergence, Bergman Gallery, Rarotonga.
  • 2020: Tatou 2, The Story of Us, Bergman Gallery, Rarotonga.