Article 1

The Success Story of Cook Islands Art

Michael Tavioni: Stone carving

Michael Tavioni

Loretta Reynolds

Loretta Reynolds

Mahiriki Tangaroa: Oil painting

Mahiriki Tangaroa

Joan Rolls-Gragg: Wood-block print

Joan Rolls-Gragg

Apii Rongo

Apii Rongo

Fertile soil for Art

Art is booming here, in the Cook Islands. Our many overseas visitors are certainly partly responsible for this success, but there are other reasons why our different art forms are thriving. Apart from showing Cook Islands culture to tourists, the purpose of the arts is to get more out of life, to make it more interesting. The arts entertain, decorate, explore and reveal, make us think, and our lives would be a dreary routine without them.

All over the world, art has flourished most in cultures that enjoyed prosperity: Egypt, China, Greece, Roman Empire, during the Renaissance, etc. In the Pacific, the art of different cultures have developed highest in communities that were socially well organized and without threat from neighbors. The special status of the Ta’unga, a priest or artist in ancient Polynesia, also indicates that artists worked under a certain protection and were often exempt from other work in the community.

Pacific Renaissance

The Pacific Arts Festivals show how art in the whole Pacific region is thriving, maybe like never before. In the last twenty years, we have witnessed Cook Islands dancing develop to an increasingly varied art form, with very high standards, which is demonstrated and pushed further at the yearly dance competitions.

Carving has also been revived, traditional sculpture has been rediscovered and new designs are more and more intricate and original. Tattooing is very popular again and here too, new patterns have evolved.

Textile art has come a long way since the early tapa costumes and designs, and it is now one of the most high-profile art forms in the Cook Islands. Our fashion designs are playing an important role in the Pacific, and Cook Islands Tivaivai exhibitions are held internationally.

The new art form

But of all the art forms practiced in the Cook Islands, painting has developed the most. Twenty years ago you could have counted the local artists on one hand, with the few papa’a (non-Polynesian) artists thrown in. A USP workshop in 1984 encouraged several artists who were among the first to take painting seriously and who are still working as artists today. In another USP workshop in 1996, established artists Pilioko and Michoutouchkine from Vanuatu told the local and resident artists to get “cracking”, many of them did, and a few never stopped.

Over the last 10 years, the local visual arts were fertilized by several artists with art education returning from New Zealand and Australia. Together with dynamic new galleries on Rarotonga, they developed their ideas and created a vigorous art scene, encouraging several young artists to take up art as a career.

Although many elements of the contemporary art works are based on traditional images and symbols, painting in the Cook Islands is a young art form, which has emerged recently. Even so, Cook Islands painting is already gaining respect and attention overseas.

However it is the local patronage and support that has allowed it to gather momentum in the first place. Without the interest of the public, the backing and substantial encouragement of local art lovers and members of the business community, few artists would have had the opportunity and courage to continue with the development of their work.

Artist’s responsibility

It is now the job of us artists, to continue the development, to keep up the research for traditional images, and to create new visual languages to show and share our imagination, feelings and ideas.

Judith Kunzlé