Kay George, Sylvia Marsters, Mahiriki Tangaroa, Tungane Broadbent & introducing Miriama Arnold.
Kia Maeva Tatou
Paintings, Tivaivai, Textiles
October 7-26

Opening Monday October 7 @6pm with Rapaura Springs Wines & CITC Liquor.

Her Excellency, Tessa Temata, New Zealand High Commissioner to the Cook Islands
Ben Bergman, Director, Bergman Gallery

Kia Maeva Tatou – a celebration of us, a celebration of Cook Islands contemporary art, of Pacific voices in a changing world, and in this case of vaine Cook Islands artists.

“As this exhibition was being developed I wanted to make a statement, a statement of celebration and a statement of satisfaction – to acknowledge just how far our artists have come after near 20 years of constant exhibition,” says Ben Bergman, Director of Bergman Gallery. “As this exhibition took its final form, it turns out the most accomplished artists were women.”

Opening night of Kia Maeva Tatou at Bergman Gallery in October, and guest speaker, Tessa Temata, New Zealand High Commissioner to the Cook Islands, describes her time in Papua New Guinea in 2000 when “you would see extraordinary art work being sold on the side of the road, held down by stones. It was a place where genuinely world class artists would sell their work once a month down at the market in Port Moresby on a tennis court.” To assist in bringing value and recognition to these women artists, Temata and a friend, both members of the Business and Professional Women’s Group, organised the very first women’s exhibition in Papua New Guinea. The show was a success in terms of earnings for the artists and raising $25 000 for education scholarships for young women. 

On the other side of the Pacific, Kia Maeva Tatou brings the same opportunities and recognition, featuring paintings, tivaivai and textiles by senior Cook Islands artists Kay George, Sylvia Marsters, Mahiriki Tangaroa and Tungane Broadbent, and debuting the work of Miriama Arnold. Last year Kay George celebrated 30 years of living and exhibiting in the Cook Islands with a solo show at Bergman Gallery. For Kia Maeva Tatou she looked back even further, to the early 80s when she was painting cotton and linen fabrics to sell at markets in Sydney. Her two large textile works were inspired by her “old style of hand painting” and feature George’s signature tribal designs and photographic images. 

Across the gallery hangs another textile based work, Tivaivai Taorei, Tiare Onu by Tungane Broadbent – thousands of small fabric squares stitched together in a kaleidoscopic flower and turtle design. Broadbent grew up watching women making tivaivai on her home island of Mangaia and has been cutting and stitching tivaivai, and exhibiting her work in the Cook Islands and internationally, for close to 50 years.  It is the decades of work to perfect their craft, each disparate from the other, that make Kia Maeva Tatou the celebration it should be. For Sylvia Marsters this is 21 years of painting tiare taina, mastering the application of shades of white to show the full life of the gardenia flower from bud, to full bloom to decay, resplendent with drops of early morning dew. Marsters presented her solo show Tiare Taina, at the beginning of 2019 and has continued to be absorbed and dedicated by the form of the gardenia, shown in her two new paintings Resound and Resolve for this exhibition.

In a similar dedication to form, Mahiriki Tangaroa has been working with images of the Cook Islands gods, in particular Tangaroa, for 15 years – as she describes it, recreating, reimagining and defining the image, the gods used to represent people and a collective experience. For Kia Maeva Tatou there were three new works in shades of yellow ochre, mute pink and mushroom – the pink inspired by a previous work seen afresh by Tangaroa in a recent magazine shoot. 

What then of the debut artist Miriama Arnold, of her artistic direction on a stage set by these senior Cook Islands artists? From the garden of her family home, Arnold, 24 years, paints water colours, a continuation of creative side projects that have journeyed with her through secondary school and studying architecture at the University of Auckland.  Arnold began painting watercolours seriously a couple of years ago, designing a wedding invitation for her cousin and then painting her first floral series, before being spotted by Bergman on Instagram and in the office of her father and lawyer Tim Arnold. She works in a variety of styles including pen sketches and graphic design from her architecture study, taking inspiration from tattoo motifs and patterns, artists such as Judith Kunzle, Loretta Reynolds and Apii Rongo, and the world around her.

In June 2019 Arnold moved back to Rarotonga after deciding that architecture was not the path she wanted to take. Where in Aotearoa New Zealand she painted from photos, she now had an entire island to experience.  “What I really enjoy is the process. My art is for other people – the process is for me,” says Arnold. “I have the opportunity to observe from life, to work with light and shadow, to paint how I see it and how I interpret it.”

Kia Maeva Tatou, is the first time Arnold has shown original works, her two paintings Pu’era Ta’i and Pu’era Rua a development from her original floral series. This celebration is a more personal one, one of a new artistic direction.  “My art is a reflection of my lived environment. Returning to the Cook Islands has provided an abundance of subjects. Flowers of the Pacific have inspired my latest collection, working with water colour and pencil,” Arnold says in her opening night statement. “Focusing on local flora has presented both challenges and opportunities. So often we take for granted the complexities of design within nature. As an artist I am able to remind viewers both of the complexities and the simple beauty of the whole.”

It is this connection between the artist and the viewer that led the conversation when Bergman first met Temata. “Tessa spoke of her experience with Pacific art,” he says. “A passionate recognition of the role that art plays irrespective of place and whether we are conscious of it or not.” For Temata, providing support and a space to exhibit work by Pacific artists is one part of the equation. The other is how Pacific artists are represented on a global stage and ensuring that their authentic voices are heard. “You can’t just display art and have that filtered through the voices of others who don’t live it, who don’t breathe it, who don’t paint it,” says Temata. “It’s not appropriate…..this is incredibly important, you can’t just take the art works and think that you are hearing the whole story.”

To ensure artists have a strong and authentic voice, on a Pacific and international stage, takes financial support, which in Bergman Gallery’s case means continued support from valued sponsors and clients. “When you think of the world we live in now, when you think of climate change, who is going to hear our voices if we don’t enable them? When you run the risk of having to leave your island, you don’t just leave your families, you are moving an entire culture. How do you do that, how do you preserve a culture, how to you protect a culture, how do your promote that culture?” says Temata.

“It’s through artists like this with their international connections that you see these things happening. What we have here now, and it is about 20 years later, is extraordinary artists and we’re standing in a beautiful gallery. We have people from all sectors of the community who recognise just how special the art works are here tonight, and its part and parcel of a recognition that culture is not just something on a wall or something displayed on a side table, it is a living, breathing beautiful thing.  And we need to protect it, we need to promote it and they need to hear our voices not others interpretations of it.” Rachel Smith.

Images by Turama Photography.