Mahiriki Tangaroa
Earth, Wind & Fire….Irrespective of Place
New Paintings
22 July – 17 August

Opening Monday 22 July @6pm with Kahurangi Estate Wines & CITC Liquor.

Tina Browne, Leader of the Opposition | MP for Rakahanga
Brett Porter, Director, TOA Petroleum
Mahiriki Tangaroa, Exhibiting Artist

For a moment, lets imagine our society without history, religion, politics, ancient traditions, and what we consider to be ‘culture’. What would we have? If we were to start building, where would we start? Since my second year at Ilam School of Fine Arts, in 1995 ‘time and space’ had been a subject of interest. Further to this, the question was, is it our identity or / and environment that conditions the way we think and behave? Is this Culture? Furthermore what is Culture and how do we define this?

“The concept for this exhibition developed when national discussions re-emerged about a proposed name change away from the Cook Islands or its local vernacular ‘Kuki Airani’. As an advocate for cultural identity, this is a topic that I feel strongly about and, the question formed in my mind, ‘is this a national priority?’

Cook Islands society is experiencing substantial social changes including, continuing depopulation and a rising level of foreign labour, poor public health and education standards, rapid cultural evolution and access to technology and, record breaking numbers in tourism arrivals with its associated impact on outdated national infrastructure and the environment. How effectively are we addressing these changes? Do we have the foundation to support and manage these changes? Are we protecting our community and resources? Are the political, traditional and private sector leadership pillars of society taking responsibility and serving the needs of the people? Where do we see ourselves in twenty years time? Surely these are priorities far and beyond an abstract backlash to a colonial era country name.

The exhibition Earth, Wind & Fire, Irrespective of Place, is about life’s key elements. It is about stepping back, attempting to maintain an objective view of our breakable island environment, about identifying fundamental necessities and marrying them with our values and priorities as Cook Islanders. It questions whether or not we have our priorities in perspective.

In 1999, I was gifted a book entitled Guns, Germs & Steel by Jarrod Diamond. It was about how some human societies evolve better than others, if proper attention is paid to securing a human social system that exists in in harmony with nature. As we evolve as a species, as a global collective, it is necessary that we identify and effectively respond to change, for our survival.

While the Cook Islands has made recent advances in solar power generation, marine conservation and bans on single use plastics, for this exhibition I wanted to make a statement: When social changes are occurring at an increasing rate, within a confined, isolated, and vulnerable environment, do we have the foresight to recognize national priorities that will protect and conserve our country not just for ourselves, but, as best we can, for the many generations to come.” Mahiriki Tangaroa.

Earth, Wind & Fire….Irrespective of Place
Mahiriki Tangaroa

Artist Mahiriki Tangaroa tells a story of how she came to live in the Cook Islands. It is a story of two’s – how a planned two week stay turned into two months, and then two years. Twenty years later the Cook Islands is still home, and Tangaroa has opened her solo show, Earth, Wind & Fire….Irrespective of Place at Bergman Gallery in July 2019.

To start at the beginning though is to back track more than 20 years. It is Tangaroa as a school leaver living in Aotearoa New Zealand and asking herself, “What am I going to do for the rest of my life? What am I good at?  Art and design.”

Tangaroa was accepted into the School of Fine Arts at the University of Canterbury in 1994, and found herself drawn to photography over her initial choice of painting. During her second year of study she made her first ever visit to the Cook Islands, where surrounded by family and by the people, places and landscapes of Rarotonga, she did what any photographer would do. “What I loved was the architecture of the place – the limestone buildings,” says Tangaroa. “A study of the culture and people was what fascinated me.”

In 1998, Tangaroa returned to Rarotonga to exhibit her photographs in Paringa Ou, a group show at the National Museum of the Cook Islands. Curated by Ian George, the show included contemporary work by Cook Islands artists, as well as a series of workshops which reintroduced Tangaroa to painting.

She had planned to stay for two weeks but decided to stay a bit longer, and was asked by Mereana Hutchinson if she wanted to work in the gallery at Blue Note Café. There was no dark room available to enable Tangaroa to continue with photography but she did have some oil paints her cousin had found in his shed, and some left over hardboard from Paringa Ou. Enough to start painting. 

“My first three paintings I didn’t even have enough courage to hang on the walls,” Tangaroa says. She displayed them on the floor leaning up against the wall; two of the paintings sold in days, the other a week later. “I realised maybe I should paint some more pieces.” What followed was her first solo show at the invitation of Joan Gragg, at the Beachcomber art gallery. For Tangaroa the show was a way to pay for her ticket home. It went very well, and instead resulted in a painting commission. She stayed for a couple more months, and then another opportunity arose, Tangaroa taking on the role of curator at the Cook Islands National Museum in 2000.

The beginnings of the long working relationship between Ben Bergman, Director of Bergman Gallery, and Tangaroa began in a roundabout way. In 2001, Bergman became gallery director of Beachcomber Contemporary Art (BCA) when his family purchased the Beachcomber complex. He inherited a group show that was timed to take place shortly after the sale went through. And so in the first week of owning the property and the gallery, Bergman put on his first ever art show, which included work by Tangaroa. “I’ve lost count of the number of projects we’ve done and the conversations we’ve had,” says Bergman. “And there’s still quite a lot more to come.”

Since 2001 they have worked together in a myriad of ways to support contemporary art in the Cook Islands: when Tangaroa facilitated the first Creative New Zealand Pacific Artist in Residence programme Bergman provided support through BCA; together they have worked on exhibition schedules and co-curated shows in the Cook Islands, Aotearoa New Zealand and New York; Tangaroa has exhibited her work in group and solo exhibitions at BCA and Bergman Gallery, and they have had countless conversations about Cook Islands contemporary art. 

“Ben could see the long term benefits of exhibiting Pacific artists – not always an easy journey,” says Tangaroa.

While her early paintings were influenced by her photography, since 2004 traditional gods have been a significant feature of Tangaroa’s work. Her paintings include a variety of Cook Islands gods: Tangaroa the God of the Ocean, Rongo the God of Agriculture and War, and an unnamed Aitutaki Goddess. 

“It’s been 15 years of painting them,” she says. “Recreating and reimagining them. Defining the image – getting to know it.” The gods are used as representations of people, of us, Tangaroa explains, and in doing so they become a collective experience of “past and present social and cultural values, a documentation of what was happening – a record.”

In 2007, after leaving her curator role and a stint working in a gallery, Tangaroa was ready for something new. She approached Bergman saying, “OK let’s do something.” His answer, “Let’s take a show to New York.” 

“New York City is legend – the epicentre of modern contemporary art,” says Bergman. “What’s the dream? The dream is to get to New York.” This particular dream required, dedication, time and money, and a web of connections of who knew who. Support was provided through the Cook Islands Ministry of Cultural Development and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration, and through Tia Barrett, New Zealand High Commissioner to the Cook Islands. After a research and development mission to New York in 2008, an exhibition space was secured.

Manuia opened in March 2010 in downtown New York City, showing work from artists Mike Tavioni, Michel Tuffery, Andy Leleisi’uao, Kay George, Jerome Shedden, Syliva Marsters, and of course Tangaroa who also co-curated the exhibition. For Bergman and Tangaroa, Manuia was a huge success in terms of setting Cook Islands contemporary art on a global stage. 

Research has always been a key component to Tangaroa’s creative output – ebbs and flows of painting followed by periods of restoration and research. Through her work at the Ministry of Cultural Development and with archaeologists, she has looked deeply into the past to learn about Cook Islands artefacts, cultural art objects, pre-Christianity religious belief systems, oral traditions and sacred sites, and archaeology. Of particular significance for Tangaroa, was the three years she worked with the Michael Gunn, Senior Curator of Pacific Art, preparing for the exhibition Atua – Sacred Gods from Polynesia held at the National Gallery of Canberra in 2014.

“It all went into this vat of information,” says Tangaroa, knowledge which in turn fed her paintings.

Now, in Earth, Wind & Fire….Irrespective of Place Tangaroa looks to the future and asks us, “where do we see ourselves in 20 years’ time?”

“The exhibition is about life’s key elements, she says. “When social changes are occurring at an increasing rate, within a confined, isolated, and vulnerable environment, do we have the foresight to recognise national priorities that will protect and conserve our country not just for ourselves, but, as best we can, for the many generations to come.”

There is much for us to consider. Rachel Smith

All images by Turama Photography