A graduate of the Ilam School of Fine Arts, Canterbury University (1997), Mahiriki Tangaroa is an artist of regional renown. Finding inspiration in pre-colonial artefacts, legend and folklore, her research centres on the Cook Islands God of the Ocean, Tangaroa, the God of Agriculture and War, Rongo, and the unnamed Aitutaki goddess. Her art work also addresses change and identity within a modern cultural context.
She has an engaging style of painting, as curator Arthur Buerms noted in 2019. ‘Each of the paintings is a visual feast catapulting you to a campfire where old stories, about the dangerous heights of the mysterious mountains, the spirits of the ever- encircling sea, the expressive radiance of the fauna and flora, are told while dancing and eating. The evolution of her artwork can be read as a metaphorical voyage: Tangaroa’s (the Gods) journey, a voyage of the Cook Islands as a constructed nation and her own personal voyage as a driving force in modern Pacific art.’
Mahiriki Tangaroa’s recent paintings have addressed multiple social issues surrounding the Cook Islands community. The Cook Islands nation itself is in a transitional phase, as its modern day identity evolves and seeks to reconcile with its past. Her major 2019 solo show Earth, Wind & Fire….Irrespective of Place, questioned the nature and evolution of Cook Islands culture in a contemporary timeline, with specific reference to the ongoing debate of a country name change away from the colonially tainted ‘Cook Islands’ to a more culturally appropriate identity.
For 20 years, Mahiriki Tangaroa has been a catalyst for Rarotonga’s contemporary art identity, organizing international artist residencies and training workshops for established and aspiring artists and exhibiting both domestically and internationally. Her extensive exhibition history includes shows in Rarotonga, Auckland, Dunedin, Christchurch, Sydney, New York and Stockholm.
In The Presence of Guardians…
From Avarua to Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin, Sydney and New York, Tangaroa’s popular canvas works have been exhibited and shaped by a unique set of circumstances and experiences. A graduate of Ilam School of Fine Arts, Canterbury University with a major in photography, Tangaroa returned to the islands of her families’ genesis in 1998 and set about establishing & ultimately leading the existing contemporary art movement.
Beginning with the traveling exhibition Paringa Ou (organized with fellow Cook Islands artist Ian George), the artist’s ‘temporary’ return to Rarotonga soon turned into a full time residency. It was during a three year tenure as curator at the Cook Islands National Museum that the opportunity arose for Tangaroa to research Cook Islands artifacts.
She states: “In viewing the photographic collections of artifacts in overseas museums you come to realize that these were in fact artistic creations. Although many of these artifacts are locally condemned as heathen ‘idols’, in a wider art history context, the photographed objects serve as valuable records, demonstrating the visual aesthetic of a particular time.” Tangaroa quickly became recognized for her non-traditional illustrative technique, her engaging yet potently subdued canvases representative of idiosyncratic elements of Cook Islands culture, past and present. The artist states that “The earlier art work (1998 – 2003) is based on visual impressions, much of it resembling early photographic work. The experiential narrative approach has been consistent, a style formerly pioneered by modern American photographers.”
In 2004 Tangaroa’s style evolved, her focus shifting to interpretations of past beliefs, specifically questioning the manner in which they remained relevant in a modern Cook Islands society. Manifest in the art works are the supreme Cook Islands deities Tangaroa, Rongo and the Aitutaki Goddess. Tangaroa says “the decision to focus on Cook Islands traditional gods was prompted by a combination of reasons. It was firstly observing the mass production of the Tangaroa / Tiki on the local tourist market (in its conventional rigid like form) and having viewed photographic documentation of overseas collections that revealed quite a different sculptural approach. The Gods have undergone a series of interpretive changes, from objects of cultural worship to tourist memorabilia, the Tangaroa religious figure now transformed into a contemporary cultural icon.”
The stylistic presentation of Tangaroa’s art from 2005 -08 underwent notable change. Family relationships, immediate and extended, have become a significant focal point within the work. Family relationships have always played a defining role within Cook Islands society but as a new generation of Rarotongan’s come of age, new priorities emerge and the stringent belief systems of generations past come into question.
Tangaroa astutely observes the evolution of customary family relationships within a defined Island environment very much at odds with its history and introduced Christian values. At the same time the observation (usually in text) becomes slightly rhetorical, this scrutiny is being offered from an ‘outsiders’ perspective, the artist herself born and raised in New Zealand seemingly steps outside the canvas to stand alongside the viewer.
Tangaroa says that “This came after experiencing the grand cathedrals of France and the overwhelming impact of the magnificent brightly lit stained glass windows. It was an awe inspiring experience – the light, colour, form and the narrative that played throughout the series of windows”. However, the Gods continue to play a central role, their visual presence taking on human context, an idea that originally derived from the writings of Alfonse Kloosterman. In the book ‘Discoverers of the Cook Islands and the Names They Gave’ Kloosterman notes that ‘Polynesian Gods had been human ancestors before they were made divine…certain natural phenomena and evolutionary concepts were added to the pantheon in the personification of Atea, Papa and Te Tumu. At one stage of their theological development, priests recreated stories to provide the divine family with supernatural parents.’
On a visit to New York it was by sheer coincidence that Tangaroa and entourage encountered the exhibition ‘Notes on Cultural Preservation’. The exhibition highlighted cultural distinctions between Idols and Icons and the transformation of the former to the latter. In the provided statement it explained how the ‘artists aim to signify reparations within the collective cultural imaginary and reveal how Icons retain relevance through transmutation.’
The surreal transformation of realities from Avarua town to New York City & (perhaps) the resulting universal affirmation of her work inspired Tangaroa to once again return to the photographic medium. During the two week visit, the artist captured a stunning sequence of images that were exhibited in March 2009 at BCA Gallery, Rarotonga. Of special significance, it marked the tenth anniversary since Tangaroa had last exhibited photographs.
The photographs presented an energizing examination of a foreign city seen through the eyes of a visitor unburdened by expectation.The almost mischievous but non the less astute presentation once again allowed the artist to emerge from her work to take her audience hand in hand on a playful sojourn with the icons, moods and people of the city that never sleeps. Ben Bergman.
Mahiriki Tangaroa b.1973, Christchurch, NZ.
- 2014: Atua – Sacred Gods from Polynesia (co-curated with Dr. Michael Gunn), National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Australia.
- 2010: 50 Years of Painting in the Cook Islands, Cook Islands National Museum, Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
- 2010: MANUIA, (co-curated with Ben Bergman) American Indian Community House, New York, USA.
- 2010: Captive Images, (co-curated with USP) Photographs by Donald Stanley Marshall, BCA, Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
- 2003: Te Ata Ou, Gallery O, co-curated with Ian George and Ben Bergman, Christchurch, New Zealand
- 2013: Cook Islands Art – Origins, Eras and New Prospects, Festscrift for Ron Crocombe.
- 2010: Escape Issue13, Art in the Public Arena, Sculptural Installation by Eruera Nia.
- 2004: Escape Issue 3, Art, Repatriation and Reaffirming Identities, The Art of Ian George.
- 2003: Escape Issue 2, An Artist Reborn, The Art of Loretta Reynolds.
- 2002: Escape Issue 1, Contemporary Visual Art in the Cook Islands.
- 2020: In a Perfect World, Bergman Gallery.
- 2019: Earth, Wind & Fire, Irrespective of Place, Bergman Gallery Rarotonga.
- 2016: Blessed again by the Gods, Bergman Gallery, Rarotonga.
- 2009: M101, BCA Gallery, Photographic Exhibition, Rarotonga,
- 2008: Mangoes in the Morning, Gallery De Novo, Dunedin, New Zealand.
- 2008: Exit of Itoro, Reef Gallery, Auckland, New Zealand.
- 2007: In Due Course, BCA Gallery, Rarotonga.
- 2005: Vataroa, Reef Gallery, Auckland, New Zealand.
- 2004: Kaveinga Au, Reef Gallery, Auckland, New Zealand
- 2003: Avatea, Letham Gallery, Auckland, New Zealand.
- 2002: Passing Through Paradise, BCA Gallery, Rarotonga.
- 2002: Te Ara Kura, Letham Gallery, Auckland, New Zealand
SELECTED GROUP EXHIBITIONS:
- 2021: Auckland Art Fair Bergman Gallery.
- 2020: Tempest, Bergman Gallery; Tatou 2, The Story of Us, Bergman Gallery.
- 2019: Kia Maeva Tatou, Bergman Gallery, Rarotonga.
- 2019: Auckland Art Fair, Bergman Gallery, Auckland, NZ.
- 2018: MPA#1, Bergman Gallery, Rarotonga; The Big Blue, Bergman Gallery, Rarotonga.
- 2016: The Auckland Art Fair, Bergman Gallery, Rarotonga.
- 2010: MANUIA, BCA Gallery @ the American Indian Community House, New York, USA.
- 2007: Scriptures from the West, BCA Gallery, Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
- 2005: All Abroad, Gallery De Novo, Dunedin, New Zealand.
- 2005: (Re)settled / (Re)viewed, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, USA.
- 2005: Pacific Rhythms, Letham Gallery, Auckland, New Zealand.
- 2004: Tatou Tatou, Bondi Pavillion Gallery, Sydney, Australia.
- 2004: Close to Home” Inanui Gallery, Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
- 2004: Turama, Salamander Gallery, Christchurch, New Zealand.
- 2003: Exiles in Paradise, BCA Gallery, Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
- 2003: O’ora Te Moenga, BCA Gallery, Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
- 2003: Te Ata Ou, BCA Gallery, Rarotonga, Gallery O, Christchurch,New Zealand.
- 2002: Return Descendant, BCA Gallery, Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
- 2002: Aroa Rarotonga, BCA Gallery, Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
- 2002: Tatou, BCA Gallery, Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
- 2001: Journey in Time, Tahiono Gallery, Niue, Chevrell Gallery, Stockholm.
- 2001: No Taku Ipukarea, BCA Gallery, Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
- 2000: Te Paroe, Whangarei Arts Museum, New Zealand.
- 1999: Tu Fa’atasi, Aotea Centre, Auckland, New Zealand.
- 1998: Paringa Ou, Cook Islands National Museum, Cook Islands, Fiji Museum, Fiji, Fisher Gallery, Auckland New Zealand
- 2010: Art Monthly Australia, Issue 232, “Cook Islands Art Now”.
- 2009: Artlink, Volume 29 No.2, “Old Gods New Lives”, Exhibiting Traditional Cook Islands Art.
- 2009: Escape, Issue 10, “From Avarua to New York City” , Mahiriki Tangaroa and the Art of the Iconic Image.
- 2009: Essentials Australia, Issue 12.5, “Waiting for the Clouds to Clear” , The Art of Mahiriki Tangaroa.
- 2003: Spasifik, July / August, “Art Across the Waves”
- 2008: Frangipani is Dead, Contemporary Pacific Art in New Zealand, Dr Karen Stevenson.
- 2011: The Role of Traditional Art Objects in Contemporary Cook Islands Society, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Australia.
- 2011: Art and Creativity in Polynesia, 5th World Art Summit, Melbourne, Australia.
- 2011: Traditional Art and Religion in the Cook Islands, PAA Seminar, Auckland, New Zealand.
- 2010: Art and Craft in the Cook Islands, UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Workshop, Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
- 2010: Contemporary Art in the Cook Islands, MANUIA Exhibition Opening, New York, USA.
- 2009: Carving out a Future in Cook Islands Art, Cook Islands Research Association Conference, Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
- 2003: Art Objects of the Cook Islands, VII Pacific Arts Association Conference, Christchurch, New Zealand.
- Cook Islands National Museum, Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
- Cook Islands Government.
- University of the South Pacific, Cook Islands Campus, Takamoa, Rarotonga.
- Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade, New Zealand.
- James Wallace Arts Trust, New Zealand.