Old Gods, New Lives - Exhibiting Traditional Cook Islands Art

Jacqui Durant

10th Symposium of the Pacific Arts Association, Rarotonga, Cook Islands.


In late 2008, the National Gallery of Australia established its first Pacific Arts department, marking what director Ron Radford has described as the ‘renaissance’ or ‘renewal’ of the Gallery’s interest in Pacifica. It was a spectacular move, opening the Gallery to engagement with a multitude of cultures from across a region covering a third of the world’s surface. One project currently mooted is a major exhibition of pre-modern art featuring the most significant representations of deities from across Polynesia. Among the many ideal inclusions would be the rare carvings from the Cook Islands that are still of great cultural significance to many Islanders today. Against a backdrop of international debate surrounding the exhibition protocol of ‘Oceanic art,’ I decided to ask artists, curators and cultural professionals in the largest of the Cook Islands, Rarotonga, their opinions as to how images of their ‘old gods’ might be best exhibited, to see what a Western art gallery might take on board.


The Cook Islands are a chain of fifteen islands west of Tahiti. They are divided into Northern and Southern groups, united for administrative purposes but otherwise culturally distinct, Its Polynesian population is mainly bilingual, speaking (fortunately for me) English, and dialects of Cook Islander Maori. There’s a tendency in the West to view physically tiny Pacific nations as peripheral, and the Pacific Ocean as a vast, uninhabitable space. However, in terms of Polynesian art, the Cook Islands is in a central position, and the Pacific Ocean-Te Moana Nui Kiva-an occupied place of enormous meaning to a diverse range of seafaring cultures.


As a background, in pre-Christian times different islands, tribes and family groups worshipped a range of gods, as well as a host of ‘departmental’ deities. Gods served to reinforce tapu (forbidden and restricted activities), offer protection, bring good fortune, and -in the days when inter-tribal warfare threatened everyday existence -to provide hope.


Physically, they were represented in a variety of forms. Those that were to become the main focus of discussions on Rarotonga are the figurative wooden sculptures produced there and on the nearby island of Aitutaki. These are thought to have represented Tangaroa-the god of the sea and fertility, Rongo-the god of cultivated food, and a ‘tattooed’ goddess from the island of Aitutaki, of unknown name. 1


Today, knowledge of the cultural context of these carvings is slender. Certainly, they were originally housed on the sacred ceremonial ground of a marae inside an are-atua (loosely translated as ‘god room’).2 Away from prying eyes, theta ‘unga atua (priest) cared for these figures, bathing them in oil, clothing them with tapa, feeding them offerings such as taro and fish, and putting them ‘to sleep.’ When the presence of the gods were required for ceremonies such as the investiture of an ariki (tribal chief), hair cutting for women (to indicate their newly married status), circumcision, or for religious ceremonies involving offerings and karakia (chanted prayers),3 the figures were placed on a purpose-built platform, and ‘awakened.’


After Protestant missionaries began converting Cook Islanders to Christianity (from 1821 onwards), the manufacture of these carvings ceased.4 Although most carvings were surrendered and burned, missionaries retained some as trophies: ‘fuel for the lantern of the enlightening Christian,’ writes Arerangi Tongia. 5 Today, only a few survive, all belonging to foreign collections.


There are still evangelical Christians in the Cook Islands who don’t want to see depictions of the old gods, which they regard as physical reminders of heathen times. Despite this, the carved image of Tangaroa has become a national symbol, and many contemporary Cook Islander artists have reworked such images as a means of exploring personal, cultural and spiritual identity, as well as the continuities and fractures between traditional and modern life.


In the two hundred years since the surviving carvings were removed from their marae, shifts in attributed meaning have governed their display. Whereas the London Missionary Society originally assembled the world’s finest collection of Cook Islands carvings only as evidence of the ‘false idols’ they had destroyed, after the British Museum acquired this collection in 1911, they came to be regarded as ethnographic artefacts. Today, despite the fact that traditional Pacific cultures never made ‘art’ in the Western sense, objects such as these can also be found in fine art museums.


It’s sure-fire that when the philosophies that inform the display of Pacific art unexpectedly overlap, debate will be ignited. Such was the case with the opening of the Parisian Musee du quai Branly in 2006, a museum which pooled the collections of two former ethnographic and natural history museums, and then opted to allow predominantly fine art aesthetics rather than ethnographic values guide their selection, display and appreciation.


Quai Branly was roundly criticised for its lack of cultural context and reliance on curatorial theatrics, being described as ‘a spooky jungle, red and black and murky, the objects… chosen and arranged with hardly any discernible logic… briefly thrilling, as spectacle, but brow-slappingly wrongheaded.’ 6 However, in stepping back from the debate, one wonders if the objects on display haven’t simply become an arena in which curators and cultural commentators fight to validate their preferred Western epistemological frameworks.

Given this state of affairs, the first question I asked people in the Cook Islands was, ‘Can we call Cook Islander carvings “art” and is it okay to show them in an art gallery?’


Overwhelmingly, the response was that these traditional carvings could be considered ‘art’, even if the label sounded a little strange: ‘We used to just call them carvings, so hearing Eric Kjellgren [curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC] refer to them as “sculpture” took a bit of getting used to,’ said artist Mahiriki Tangaroa. (Her surname, a title from the island of Penrhyn, shares that of the god.) No one, including Tangaroa, had any qualms about highlighting the aesthetic qualities of these works. ‘If you were to look at the unconventionally carved forms of Mitiaro, Mauke, Mangaia and the staff gods7 in Rarotonga, they are indisputably sculptural,’ she said, adding that, ‘Polynesian art was ahead of its time!’


It was also commented that exhibiting the traditional carvings in an art gallery rather than in an ethnographic museum could ‘give them new life.’ Sculptor Eruera (Ted) Nia felt that, ‘To be able to see the works without any context… not to butter-up the audience with information beforehand,’ would give them some capacity to speak for themselves. This was important because, ‘The object itself has a persona of mystery, lost knowledge and uncertainty…’


None of this was to deny the deeper tribal, spiritual, genealogical and ceremonial values of these carvings, so the consensus was that the first curatorial objective should be to present these carvings as gods, and to accommodate them in a suitably sacred environment. As artist Ian Upoko’ina George put it, ‘They should be raised to a deity level [ie: recognised as gods], not shown as artefacts.’ As to how this critically important objective could be achieved, discussions revolved around the creation of context through spatial arrangement, lighting, and visual cues.


In terms of space, the concept of the marae proved significant, one reason being that the marae was ‘open ground [which] was public and served as a kind of open-air display room.’ 8 With this in mind, the idea was to honour each carving by giving the work its own space. Although marae are of no uniform size, they are roughly rectangular, and even today, some retain fixed, delineated boundaries-so this too could be a consideration.


Some called for the exhibition environment to have an open and spacious feel.9 Ideally, the carvings would be shown without intrusively close walls or the barrier of a glass case. ‘In terms of museum displays, I have yet to view our traditional gods displayed outside of a glass case as a sculpture would be,’ said Tangaroa. She felt that enclosing the carvings would fail to communicate what she describes as the ‘vibrant and boundless environment’ of the Pacific. Installing the carvings on tall purpose-built plinths would further acknowledge their sacred nature.


In speaking particularly of the marae on which he grew up, Secretary for the Ministry of Culture, Makiuki Tongia, explained that people always entered it from the side. Although the exact reason for this was lost in time, he speculated that it was done as a mark of respect. 10 His comments raise questions as to how a viewer might ideally enter the space in which a carving is displayed, especially as a means of creating context.

When I raised the issue of lighting, responses were varied. Everyone has noticed what’s now become the ‘quite conventional practice’ of exhibiting Pacific art in a darkened environment. As the curator of the Cook Islands Library Museum, Takura (Jean) Mason pointed out, ‘Black seems to be the preferred display background of French museums for Pacific art (certainly true in New Caledonia and Quai Branly where all the walls are painted black and each artefact is highlighted under its own lamp).’ With tongue in cheek, Mahiriki Tangaroa said, ‘It certainly highlights the savagery, heathenism and dare I say cannibalism of the Pacific People!’ Mason mulled over the various implications of this exhibition practice: When art is displayed [in this way] it speaks negatively to me: black being associated with darkness… it says this ‘primitive’ art work was produced by a person so unlike me… that this is an object to be feared; perhaps as an extension of that, his whole race is to be feared. But I could be reading into it more than is necessary because I am educated in the Western way… to the traditional Maori way of thinking… there was blackness at the beginning of time (the void from which all things emerged); the night is a female element.


What mattered most to George was to see the carvings lit to ‘make the form stand out and to highlight detail-to get the full impact of the figure.’ However, Tangaroa praised the new Oceanic Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for their approach, saying, ‘natural light was predominant and objects were placed within in a great open space where you could appreciate their scale and form. I felt that it successfully emulated an island environment.’ There is also evidence to suggest that some ceremonies were carried out at dusk, adding yet another possibility for exhibition.11


Other visual cues were suggested. George thought that Rauti (cordyline) leaves (which are commonly grown on marae12) could be spread around the bottom of, but not touching, the carvings to further indicate their sacred and ritual significance. A blue background, the illusion of waves or inclusion of fishing equipment with the figure of Tangaroa would better place him as the god of the sea. As some existing carvings of Tangaroa have feet that tum inwards creating a V-shape on the reverse side, it’s thought that they might have been made to fit the prows of Vaka (canoes). Cook Islands master carver Mike Tavioni was not alone in suggesting that a carving of Tangaroa could be placed near a Vaka or even mounted on one. Whether the Vaka might be evoked conceptually remains an open question.


Another issue relates to the written text that would accompany the works. In terms of basic labels, the names of the artists were never recorded, and -perhaps with the exception of some carvings of Tangaroa-even the naming of works presents a problem. With the introduction of Christianity, much of the knowledge associated with them was either lost or became disjointed. As a result, opinions as to exactly which god is being represented in what figure, and the exact nature of their significance, are varied. For example, some regard one particular figure from the British Museum (pictured) as being that of Rongo with his three sons across his chest, while others see him as Tangaroa, with the deified ancestors of a particular family or lineage. While this divergence of opinion is worth exploring, it led Wilkie Rasmussen, the Minister for Culture and Foreign Affairs, to describe existing interpretations as being primarily a matter of modem-day ‘protocol.’ Consequently, he felt that while any contextual information should make some attributions to history, overall it couldn’t be too specific.


Final ways of interpreting these carvings in text cover what Nia described as ‘dealing with the object itself.’ This is to say, their manufacture and materials, as well as their formal aesthetics. Rasmussen pointed to their swollen bellies and prominent male genitals, symbolising fertility, including food production and lifecycles in general. Mahiriki Tangaroa has looked beyond the presence of male genitals, questioning the limiting interpretation of male gender attributed to the British Museum figure, which is more delicately composed when viewed in comparison with the staunch masculine stance of the common Tangaroa figures. Generally, the images’ familiar crouching postures also link them with a broader Polynesian artistic tradition.


However, no matter what contextual information is provided, by their very nature, there are limitations as to how much viewers can comprehend what these works encapsulate. As Nia explained, ‘There are things attached to Polynesian art that will never be understood by non-Polynesians. Polynesian art also contains mnemonics, and is often deliberately ambiguous.’ He concluded that some objects also contain meanings and information that were ‘intended only for the initiated.’ Consequently, in essence, we must accept that we cannot understand everything about them.


An art gallery can never replicate the surrounds or the original cultural context of a marae, but it can endeavour to pay homage, and so dignify the works. On Rarotonga peoples’ suggestions for exhibiting ‘the old gods’ were expressed through Polynesian viewpoints, sometimes carrying Western influence. When placed together their ideas could create a mutually intelligible exhibition context that’s inclusive of non-Polynesian viewers-at least in sense of allowing them to identify the innate sacredness of the carvings themselves. Written text, provided on unobtrusive labels and ideally expressed from the Polynesian perspective, would flesh-out historical and cultural context. Nevertheless, there will always be inherent limitations in terms of comprehending these ambiguous works -not least because the sacred is mysterious and not always within easy reach.



This paper would not have been possible without the generous assistance of Mahiriki Tangaroa. To everyone on Rarotonga who so willingly gave their time and thoughts: meitaki ma’ata.

Jacqui Durrant is an arts writer with a PhD in cultural history. She specializes in Pacific Arts.

1 An important example of this goddess is in the Museum für Völkerkunde in München (reg. nr 190).

2 Are-atua are also referred to as pia-atua. The term pia-atua is also used interchangeably with ta’unga atua. In Cook Islander Maori, ‘are’ is loosely translated as ‘room’ or ‘space.’
3 Thanks to Makiuki Tongia, Head of the Ministry for Culture, for this information (in discussion 6.2.09).
4 This was not the case with ceremonial adzes on Mangaia, which continued to be produced for the curios market.
5 Tongia, Arerangi, Museums and Cultural Centers in the Cook Islands, Paper presented at the Pacific Arts Association 5th International Symposium, Adelaide, April 1993.
6 Michael Kimmelman, ‘ART; Heart of Darkness in the City of Light’, 2 July, New York Times, 2006.
7 The term ‘staff gods’ refers to carved wooden staffs surmounted by the depiction of god, with a series of small anthropomorphic heads extending down the shaft (though to illustrate genealogies), terminating with a phallus. In intact examples, the smooth mid-section of the shaft is very thickly wrapped in tapa bound with sennit, possibly containing red feathers and sea-shells.
8 Tongia, Arerangi, op. cit.
9 Incidentally, not over-crowding works would also help resolve what’s seen by Cook Islanders as a common fault in curatorial practice-the lumping together of works from the Northern and Southern groups, thus failing to acknowledge that they are culturally quite distinct.
10 Even today, Makiuki Tongia says that people don’t generally enter through someone’s front door (with the exception of important people) because the front door represents ‘the head of the fish’. Instead, one enters ‘through the tail’.
11 See: William Wyatt Gill, Cook Islands Customs, 1892; this ed. University of the South Pacific, 2000.
12 Red cordyline currently grows around an ‘investiture pillar’ at Marae Arai Te Tonga in Rarotonga’s north.

July 26, 2010