The Cliche vs. The Artistic Revolution (in the Cook Islands) – Ben Bergman, BCA Gallery

It is a generic institutional belief that little of contemporary artistic merit could originate from the islands of the Pacific.

Traditionally, Pacific contemporary art has been defined by fantasy postcard images of swaying palm trees, white sandy sun drenched beaches, azure lagoons, the ubiquitous frangipani flower and the obvious lovely island maidens. Of more recent times, the Cook Islands have begun to realize its potential to become an exception to this rule.

Unlike other Pacific nations where fledgling artists where removed from their home environment to become part of the stereotyped Pacifica art movement of New Zealand, educated artists of Cook Islands heritage have made an inverse voyage home and begun what has rapidly evolved into a Pacific art phenomenon.

We have a coherent, niche art market not only attracts tourists but fellow artists and collectors. A market that offers an avant garde art form, born of its home environment. This is in stark contrast to traditional Tourist Art where the artist caters specifically to the expectations of the cliché. It is important to make this distinction given the reliance on tourism by the micro economies of the Pacific. When considering the origins of this new art movement, it is important to acknowledge the role of the first two contemporary artists in Cook Islands history.

In 1962, American artist Rick Welland arrived on Rarotonga with his wife Gwen. One year later, fellow artist Edwin Shorter found his way to Rarotonga via Tahiti. Both Welland and Shorter were the first commercial artists living and working on Rarotonga.

The stereotypical exotic & sensual beauty of the Islands and Islanders captured the imagination of both, and young maidens were freqently depicted. However, to describe their works as merely sensual is unjust. Shorter’s paintings documented the increasingly intrusive role of Europeans in his fragile Pacific garden of Eden, their tone bore an almost angst ridden plea for a return to a simpler way of Polynesian life.

Welland’s work was more original. Seizing on the little regarded legends of the Cook Islands, he developed a series of works that sampled old stories, demi-gods and superstition. His works resurrected aspects of Cook Islands culture that had long been discarded in favour of the Christian gospel. Unfortunately, most of Welland’s works reside in private collections offshore. Selections of Shorter’s works are in local collections.

The paintings of Welland and Shorter, while underappreciated locally, found a convenient tourist niche market. These works also (retrospectively), previewed the eventual rise of contemporary art practice in the Cook Islands. Edwin Shorter returned to his native England in 1988 and died in the early 90′s while Rick Welland departed the Cook Islands in 1990 and lives in the United States. Welland would eventually return to Rarotonga and exhibit in 2010.

In the early nineties, the very beginnings of the revival in contemporary practice began to surface in the form of a self taught, ‘returned artist’, Tim Buchanan. Of Cook Islands heritage but, born and raised in New Zealand, Buchanan’s works presented a modernist influence with a Cook Islands slant. His engaging, bright canvases typified the laid back lifestyle in the Cook Islands, and, like Welland, drew on Cook Isolands heritage.

Local motifs and icons wound themselves around stylized flora and fauna, pareu and tivaevae patterns. Buchanan’s work found instant favour with visitors and locals alike.

A short time later, another returned artist found his way home. Art educator, carver and painter Ian George began his long term exploration and pre-occupation with cultural icons, the god Tangaroa in particular. George’s 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 works of Buchanan and George are significant. They are the first domiciled Cook Islands artists to acknowledge their pre-colonial heritage in an artistic form, draw inspiration from it, and to seek and explore a modern identity from within it. George’s work actively intruded into the ingrained religious structure of Cook Islands society. Questions of repatriation of tribal art forms held in international collections were often overtly addressed in his work and were perceived by some as a challenge to Christian doctrine.

In 1998, the traveling exhibition Paringa Ou arrived on Rarotonga. This large scale exhibition was a collection of contemporary works by artists of Cook Islands descent born & living in New Zealand. Paringa Ou represented a spiritual & symbolic journey for the participating artists, some of whom had never been to Rarotonga. Among them was Mahiriki Tangaroa, the co-curator of the exhibition.

This exhibition achieved two notable outcomes. Firstly, it introduced an Island art audience to a wider concept of contemporary art. Presented in the Cook Islands National Museum, this exhibition challenged local perceptions of art as simply pretty objects, admired only for their obvious representational value. Secondly, Paringa Ou returned Tangaroa (the artist) to home territory. A graduate of Ilam School of Fine Arts, Tangaroa had traveled to Rarotonga to discover for herself the islands of her parents. Originally intending to stay two weeks, it would be many years before she re-visited her former life in New Zealand.

Over the next five years, the face of contemporary art practice changed dramatically on Rarotonga. Tangaroa, now employed as Curator to the Cook Islands National Museum, helped establish international & local artist residencies that reinforced the notion of Cook Islands Contemporary Art. In 2001, the commercial group show No Taku Ipukarea, was staged at Beachcomber Contemporary Art (BCA).

Featuring works by Tangaroa, George and Richard Cooper, this show introduced a professional format for domestic exhibitions and forever revolutionized island art expectations. By 2002, regular exhibitions were a local expectation. Included in the local exhibition schedule were shows by NZ/Pacific hybrid artists Mark Cross and Fatu Feuu. Perhaps one of New Zealand’s most gifted outsiders, Mark Cross and his photorealistic style took centre stage at the National Museum. His retrospective styled show featured finely detailed, large scale works of the artists adopted home, Niue.

Cross’s exhaustive depictions of Niuean land and seascapes peopled by figures in enigmatic dramas appealed to the aesthetic values of its largely local audience. However the darker, subjective nature of the works was eagerly consumed and actively discussed.

Fatu Feu’u, the Creative New Zealand artist in residence, concluded his time on Rarotonga with a solo show of large canvases and pearl shell installation. Feuu’s trade mark, stylized Samoan imagery and high prices were new territory for the now habitual, local art junkies.

Ben Bergman – BCA Gallery, Rarotonga, The Cook Islands

This text was part of a paper presented at the Christchurch edition of the Pacific Arts Symposium, June 2003. It accompanied the international BCA group show Te Ata Ou, hosted at Gallery O, Christchurch Arts Centre.