Tivaivai/Paintings / July 4 – August 31, 2017
Three brief but beautiful days and one fabulous exhibition. My trip to the island of Rarotonga, the main island in the Cook Islands, was uncomfortably sandwiched between auction commitments. I had to consider the offer to travel and speak at the opening of the exhibition closely and the haste of my visit was further compounded by crossing the International date Line. Despite this, I couldn’t have had a more enjoyable time or a better cultural experience.
We were greeted at the airport by local gallerist and personality Ben Bergman and his partner Luke. Their hospitality and enthusiasm is quite justifiably the stuff of legend and if you should ever find yourself in Rarotonga be sure to look them up. The eponymous Bergman Gallery is housed just outside of the main township of Avarua in the courtyard at the rear of the beautiful Beachcomber building. Originally built by the London Missionary Society in 1845 it was virtually destroyed by a cyclone in 1968 and then beautifully restored in the 1990s. Bergman Gallery is a classic and sophisticated white-walled contemporary dealer gallery, the likes of which you’d be just as likely to encounter in New York or London.
‘Today, Tomorrow and Yesterday – Tungane Broadbent and Reuben Paterson’ opened on the evening of July 4th. I can honestly say I’ve never attended an opening like it. Never before have I felt more comfortable completely surrounded by strangers. At a time when there seems to be an exhibition opening every night in Auckland, this was clearly a rare event to be savoured with the Cook Islands arts community coming out en masse. It opened with a traditional Cook Islands prayer, some speeches and a wonderful ‘Ute’ or traditional song called ‘Tumu Poroiti’ performed by the Pukapuka community, a local performance group. ‘Tumu Poroiti’ refers to a flower which is used to sew neck ei’s and head ei’s. An integral part of the song they performed is ‘hosanna’, which refers directly to the introduction of Christianity. The beautiful performance witnessed broad audience participation including dancing by exhibiting artist Reuben Paterson along with local Cook Islands artist Ani O’Neill.
The exhibition and the works themselves were just as special and equally as unforgettable. Tungane Broadbent can only be described as a master Tivaivai artist. Tivaivai is the art of quilt-making, Tivai meaning literally ‘to patch’ or to mend. Introduced by Christian missionaries to the Cook Islands in the early nineteenth century, within more recent times it has reached new heights of artistic and aesthetic sophistication as it has incorporated new concepts and designs reflecting the changing and increasingly globalized world. Tivaivai is a social, community-centred activity valued, outside of the current gallery context in which it is presently being discussed at least, for the manner in which it reflects aspects of the community and existence itself – plants, life, relationships and, as the title of the exhibition explicitly references, links between the past and the future. As Tungane mentioned in her speech on the opening night, like everywhere else the Cook Islands is changing and its traditions and essence are under threat from environmental change and modernity. Less and less young women are today practicing the traditional art form.
Reuben Paterson’s works in the exhibition were a direct response to the art of Tivaivai and more especially to the work of Tungane Broadbent herself. Ostensibly the contrast between media, culture and aesthetics was pronounced yet it didn’t feel this way in the exhibition where the works of the two artists jostled, colluded and challenged each other to present a generative contemporary take on art and life in the Pacific in the 21st Century. Like Tungane, Paterson appeared at the top of his game. Two master crafts-people both having refined their craft over the years and demonstrating ample mastery of their respective media. Paterson’s works have often found their genesis and inspiration in the textiles and dresses of his whanau and this, perhaps, was always going to make the pairing of the two artists an obvious success and fertile grounds for cultural conversation.
Reuben Paterson’s work has always been remarkably successful visually and in the manner in which it subverts distinctions of high and low art or kitsch and the avant-garde. Here though, something in his work has changed. Works such as the cheekily-titled Every Time a Coconut (2017) exhibited a newfound virtuosity resultant not just from the context and concept of the exhibition, both of which were undeniably intoxicating, but rather from the incorporation of different grades of glitter. This created a depth and strength to his work beyond the usual ‘shimmer’, made even more effective by the relatively large scale of the work. I Want to Thank You (2017) was similarly stunning, evoking a more literal nod to his engagement with Tungane’s works as well as to the costumes of local Cook Island women and especially the wonderfully vibrant ‘Muumuu’ worn by Tungane herself. Paterson has long been interested in the art of Tivaivai and worked at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki in the 1990s when a large exhibition of Tivaivai was held in the New gallery.
Tungane’s works, unsurprisingly, appeared far more restrained. Hung like paintings on the wall in European gallery fashion, the presentation was more unusual to locals than to myself where such a presentation seems naturally aligned with their aesthetic, if not their cultural or ceremonial value. The large ‘Tivaivai Manu’ work Fan made from just two solid-coloured fabrics was a revelation for me. In its simple symmetrical pattern based on the motif of the fan there was a formal eloquence and restraint undermining the strong pink and green contrast as well as a gentle figure ground ambiguity which seemed to recall so much western abstraction and particularly that of the esteemed New Zealand painter Gordon Walters. Tungane’s other large scale work for the show was entitled Roses and it was a wondrous example of ‘Tivaivai Tataura’, a more lavishly embellished style typically featuring stylized floral motifs.
‘Today, Tomorrow and Yesterday’ provided a timely reminder for me of the importance of art in the community and that art making is fundamentally a communal or social activity. It also explicitly and quite successfully delivered on its curatorial premise and imperative, that in order to chart the murky, rising waters of the future we would do well to acknowledge our collective past. The problems facing the Cook Islands are not endemic to them. Like Tivaivai, Reuben Paterson’s glitter paintings can also be seen as social biographies, rich in genealogy, community and history. Together Tungane and Paterson’s works demonstrated that despite boundaries of distance, time, culture and craft, art is a fundamentally social discourse. Like the Cook’s, it can also be a lot of fun.
Ben Plumbly, Director, Art + Object, Auckland, New Zealand.
For New Zealand Art News, Spring 2017.