Bergman Gallery at the Auckland Art Fair February 24-27, 2021 – featuring works by Sylvia Marsters, Mahiriki Tangaroa and Raymond Sagapolutele.
Wednesday 17 February, exactly a week before the opening of the Auckland Art Fair, and all eyes were on the latest COVID news in New Zealand. There was talk that the art fair was on, that the art fair was probably off. And then that evening the official decision was made – the live event was on, subject to COVID Alert Level 1 being announced the day prior to opening.
“Given the proximity to the event, we are very aware of how much work the artists have put in for this Fair, and the commitment of participating galleries, especially after the cancellation of the 2020 event.
We would be devastated not to have taken the opportunity on behalf of the visual arts and events sectors,” announced Stephanie Post and Hayley White, Auckland Art Fair co-directors.
“They took a big risk,” says Ben Bergman, Director of Bergman Gallery, who arrived in Auckland from Rarotonga and headed straight into three days of lockdown.
It was a risk that paid off, the 2021 Auckland Art Fair opening as planned at The Cloud on Auckland’s waterfront. For Bergman, the art fair has been two years in the making; works that were intended for last years’ fair held over for 2021, and artists Mahiriki Tangaroa, Sylvia Marsters and Raymond Sagapolutele creating new pieces during 2020. Of the 40 galleries at the art fair Bergman Gallery was again the only Pacific based gallery.
Tuesday morning and it all comes together as the Bergman Gallery booth is set up. This year the booth is double the size of previous, Bergman snapping up extra space early on. The art works arrive from the framers throughout the morning, each piece carefully unwrapped and laid out as the puzzle of what goes where comes together.
Marsters’ gardenia works fill one part of the booth, four large canvases and a more recent series of smaller paintings. She arrives just as the hanging is completed. It is the first time in over a year that she has seen some of them, an emotional experience to be with them again.
“They have been wrapped up for a long time. I finished them right before lockdown last year,” Marsters says of the larger works. “The two series are quite well defined when I see them all together. All the years I’ve painted gardenias and they keep changing all the time. I’m often surprised by the colours that I see. Recently, decayed flowers come to the fore; elements of light come into play and exploring the reality of life, death and renewal.”
“For me, the flowers transport me back to the islands, the Cook Islands, where my father’s from, and painting the white flowers has brought out all these different colours and emotions. And that’s what I’m trying to project when you see my work – a space to contemplate, to be present, and a respite from all the stuff that’s going on around us.”
Come the VIP opening on Wednesday morning, all the galleries are in a state of readiness as guests are welcomed into The Cloud with a mihi. This year Ben Chan works alongside Bergman at the gallery booth, seconded from Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki where he works as Gallery Assistant and Duty Operations Manager. Chan has the experience of participating in art fairs on a large scale, having twice worked at the New Zealand pavillion at Venice Biennale.
He met with Auckland based artists Marsters and Sagapolutele prior to the art fair, for conversations about their work and practice which he in turn shares with those visiting the Bergman Gallery booth.
“For me, if people don’t understand the work then they won’t appreciate it,” he says.
Day one starts well with sales of work from all three artists. There is audible and visual relief that the gallery’s own risk to go ahead is paying off. Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy visits the booth and returns later in the morning to purchase one of Tangaroa’s works. By the end of the second day all of Tangaroa’s paintings have been sold, news which is quickly relayed back to Tangaroa, a Cook Islands based artist who is not in attendance at the art fair this year. Like Marsters, her work was created either side of the global pandemic.
“COVID had a significant impact on my work. For a period of a month I self-isolated, so it was self-isolation on what is pretty much an isolated island,” says Tangaroa. “The idea that I had planned for an upcoming solo show (In a Perfect World shown at Bergman Gallery in 2020) became redundant and for a week I wandered around the house thinking, OK – now what? It was by chance that I came upon a small self-portrait painting that I did back in 2007; that triggered the change in my work.”
Her new work, a triptych created over the Christmas/New Year period, was in turn inspired by this 2020 solo show. “The idea behind the series was to reflect and summarise on what was an ill-fated year – one that passed where we barely distinguished one ‘season’ to the other,” explains Tangaroa.
Over the next few days, thousands of people pass through the art fair. There are organised tours from across the country, school groups, and families, all viewing and discussing the art works. Sagapolutele and Marsters are at the booth every day, to talk about their work and their process.
Friday afternoon and Sagapolutele is wearing his mother’s lavalava as he gives his artist talk, the same lavalava as in his work Change. His triptych of photographic images represents his mother, himself, and his father, and investigates aspects of knowledge, love, sacrifice, climate change and colourism, and all
include his ancestor skull motif.
“My work navigates this idea around cultural identity – it connects me to my heritage as a Samoan,” he explains. “The bones are about honouring my heritage. In Samoa, bones do not represent mortality; a skeleton is a connection and not to be feared, it is part of who we are.”
The black background of all Sagapolutele’s works is a specifically chosen active space, the vā, a relational space that exists between all things. Vā unites his works, this series of three images that are part of a larger series.
“Vā is the space that exists between people, the physical place you are in now and where you have been, and the future,” says Sagapolutele. “This is my vā. It connects me to my people, to place and time.
They (this series of work) become one – this is my life.”
He talks openly about the challenges of photography which is not a traditional Samoan art form. “I’m an orator and photography is the form I use – it’s about what is inside you, not what form you are using.
The camera is not the practice, the person is.” It is these conversations, the opportunity to hear Raymond put words to his photographic narrative, that bring extra layers of understanding and connection. There is an exchange of responses – the artist a witness to a viewers reaction to their work, and the viewer, learning more about the intention and processes behind each piece.
“It’s so rewarding,” Marsters says. “There is a lot of subconscious things that go on in our lives. As an artist your challenge is to uncover that.”
For Bergman, the art fair has been a success in many ways, not in the least of being able to physically make it there. “It was a big question for us as to how to raise the money to attend the fair, given Cook Islands borders were closed to tourists in March 2020, but, between our generous long-term supporters, Palm Grove, Bank South Pacific (BSP), Turama Photography and CITC Liquor, a great fundraiser and some good clients, we were able to meet our targets,” he says.
As it goes in these times, the last day of the art fair does not happen as Auckland moves back into lockdown. There is gratitude that this window opened, that artists and galleries and the art appreciative could be together, that the art fair could happen at all.
The logistics of taking part in an international art fair when you are an art gallery based on a small island in the Pacific is challenging at the best of times. When you add the year that has been into the mix, it all gets very interesting.
The 2021 Auckland Art Fair opens at The Cloud on Auckland’s waterfront on Wednesday 24 February, showcasing galleries from the Pacific Rim over five days. Bergman Gallery will be there, the only Pacific Island based gallery participating, showing work from artists Mahiriki Tangaroa, Sylvia Marsters and Raymond Sagapolutele.
“As we all know 2020 in general was a difficult year. Because of the pandemic, the 2020 edition of the Auckland Art Fair was cancelled,” said Ben Bergman, Director of Bergman Gallery. “It forced a rethink to our art fair presentation and I ultimately decided to produce a bigger show given that we had missed a year. Some of the works were held over from 2020 and some new works were prepared for 2021. It was a moment of faith as I had no idea if the 2021 art fair would proceed or be compromised by the pandemic.”
“Bergman Gallery has relied heavily on sponsorship to deliver its domestic exhibition program and international projects like the Auckland Art Fair. It’s not easy to source sponsorship for the arts but four companies have become long term supporters of Bergman Gallery and its stable of artists. Palm Grove, Bank South Pacific (BSP), Turama Photography and CITC Liquor all recognise the intrinsic cultural value of contemporary art development in the Cook Islands. Their support underpins our annual calendar of domestic exhibitions and contributes to our attendance at the Auckland Art Fair.”
Taking part in the Auckland Art Fair is a big deal for any gallery. Entry is by application only; Bergman Gallery’s first application, back in the 90’s when the gallery was known as BCA, was turned down. The gallery was successful in 2016 and has been a part of every fair since, with the exception of 2020 when the physical event was cancelled six weeks out and instead went ahead in an online format. With a four-week turnaround and New Zealand in lockdown, Bergman Gallery was unable to take part. The fair was a success for those who did, Auckland Art Fair reporting that 35 galleries sold over $1.6 million of art, and more than 13 000 unique visitors made up almost 800 000 page views. This year the art fair includes 40 galleries showcasing the work of over 150 of the region’s most exciting artists.
“This is a moment for New Zealanders – and now hopefully a few visitors from the Cook Islands – to engage with the incredible talent of the artists of our region, who are highly regarded overseas but, until now, not always so widely known at home,” said co- directors, Stephanie Post and Hayley White.
Up until mid-January, when the borders opened for travel from the Cook Islands to New Zealand without mandatory quarantine, Bergman was not even sure he would be able to attend the art fair. He hoped desperately that he would be able to make it and had the necessary plans in place if he could not.
“The Auckland Art Fair is an important annual showcase of regional contemporary art, attracting galleries from New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Rim. It is vital that Cook Islands and Pacific artists are represented at this level. As a Cook Islands based gallery, it is an honour to be included and participate in the ongoing development and showcase of Modern Pacific Art,” said Bergman.
“I like to think that our experience and presentations grow with each edition of the art fair and feel strongly that this years booth will be our best yet. I am particularly impressed with the works we have ready for the show – I think that they show each artist at a very strong moment in their practice and I am excited to get the art fair booth installed.”
Cook Islands artist, Mahiriki Tangaroa, will be showing her work for the third time at the art fair with Bergman Gallery. “The thrill and excitement has remained the same; to be selected as a gallery and as an artist is a prestigious honour, as only the top galleries in New Zealand are chosen to showcase their artists and work,” she said. “Delivering to an overseas audience is a special event and I’m thankful to Bergman Gallery for maintaining our presence in New Zealand…Ben has a progressive outward vision
which keeps contemporary Cook Islands art alive in the international arena.”
This year Tangaroa is showing two series of work, each of which were painted either side of the global pandemic. The first, Custodians and Kinship, was created as an extension of her 2019 solo show Earth, Wind & Fire….Irrespective of Place. When 2020 arrived, Tangaroa’s plans changed as the world changed around her. Her new series, inspired by her 2020 solo show, In a Perfect World, is reflective of this.
From one suburb of Auckland to the next, the physical journey of the work of Aotearoa based artist Sylvia Marsters is much simpler. Her paintings are filled with the essence of the Cook Islands, her father’s home, and the gardenias she has been painting for the past 23 years. In Marsters new series, Introspective, gardenias are represented in hyper detail as the grand cycles of life play out.
When Marsters last showed her gardenia works at the art fair in 2018, the paintings proved so popular that they were being bought as they were hung on the wall. And while the ultimate goal for any gallery and artist is sales, the experience of the art fair provides those who are able to attend with much more.
“Art fairs make it possible to interact with, respond to, and develop an audience. Oftentimes, the only interaction an artist has with viewers is a brief encounter on opening night of an exhibition,” said Marsters. “Andy Leleisi’uao (fellow artist) and I discussed the importance of being onsite at the 2018 Auckland Art Fair, of being available to respond directly to questions and feedback. We were also acutely aware of representing the gallery, ourselves and Pacific art with integrity and respect.”
Debuting at this year’s art fair is Raymond Sagapolutele, an Aotearoa-born Sāmoan artist, who first showed his work with Bergman Gallery at the group show MPA#1 in 2018. Sagapolutele’s photographic triptych for the 2021 Auckland Art Fair, O Lono Uiga, is a powerful narrative delivered within his ancestor skull motif.
“Raymond was introduced to me some years ago by artist Andy Leleisi’uao. I was drawn to the conceptual premise of Raymond’s photography. As a self described diasporic artist of Samoan descent, Raymond’s photographs delivered a powerful, personal experience I found impossible to ignore,” said Bergman. “Over the past year, Raymond has created a captivating series of photographs based on ‘ancestor skulls’ and woven his narrative within the composition. I have become a big fan of these images and this years edition of the Auckland Art Fair proved an ideal moment to deliver his work on the Bergman Gallery platform.”
A practicing artist for close to 20 years, the art fair builds on the momentum of Sagapolutele’s work to date. He says the art fair allows a connection with other artists, to view their work and in doing so provide “a mirror to hold up to your own work,” as well as the opportunity to interact with viewers.
Both Sagapolutele and Marsters will feature in the Artists Talks at the art fair, discussing their work and creative process in detail at the Bergman Gallery booth (B8), Marsters at 2pm on Thursday and Sagapolutele at 2pm on Friday. The Artists Talks make up part of the extended programme at the art fair, which also includes ‘The Project’ – a collection of commissioned art works by emerging artists, a new outdoor sculpture space overlooking the Waitematā harbour and an art bookshop.
All going to plan, Bergman will be there to hear Marsters and Sagatolupele speak, arriving early to set up the gallery booth before the fair opens; that nerve wracking and exciting moment when work of the past two years comes together.
“As they say, where there is a will…and despite some darker moments in 2020, it was that stubborn adherence that I relied on,” he said. “I also have a strong belief in the artists that I represent and the works that they have produced, so I was driven to create the best showcase I could for the fair.”
Artist Mahiriki Tangaroa introduces her exhibition “In a Perfect World’, Bergman Gallery, October 2020.
Mahiriki Tangaroa – Deforms Our Senses And Informs Our Mind.
“ If we look at the myths, legends and oral traditions and at the cosmologies of the people of Oceania, it becomes evident that they did not conceive of their world in microscopic proportions. Their universe comprised not only land surfaces, but the surrounding ocean as far as they could traverse and exploit it, the underworld with its fire-controlling and earth-shaking denizens, and the heavens above with their hierarchies of powerful gods, named stars and constellations that people could count on to guide their way across the seas. ”
Close your eyes and let the text written by the Samoan philosopher Epeli Hau’ofa resonate. This fragment demonstrates the unifying principles connecting, explicitly or implicitly , modern pacific artists like Mahiriki Tangaroa in subject matter and stylistic influences. However today these scattered island states are confronted with changes and challenges brought by commodification, modernization and globalization. The God of the Sea Tangaroa, caricaturally burnt on the retina of locals and tourists as Tiki memorabilia, is culturally revived as a vulgarized commercial commodity.
In her latest exhibition Earth, Wind & Fire, Irrespective of Place, shown at Bergman Gallery in 2019, Christchurch-born artist Mahiriki Tangaroa indicates her concern for the way in which the Cooks Islands are handling the threat of globalisation, cultural heritage and climate change. Her artistic response captures the most subtle shifts in her mood towards the fragile changes in the state of the sky, wind, sea and trees. In short, the mixture of telescoped color schemes, conceptually layered geometry and subtle floral images function as commentary on the unresolved complexities of cultural identity, beliefs, social changes, religious colonialism and people’s fading relationship with nature’s four elements. So let her oeuvre’s prismatic magic take you on a spiritual journey back in time right through the issues of the present.
The evocative visual legacy of the Pacific is being cannibalised to souvenir status by the standardised proliferation of Tapa, Tiki’s and trademarks of the God Tangaroa. Selling mass-produced relics without transferring any spiritual power or epistemological connection reveals the irony of the idea of cultural authenticity. For the locals, those Tiki’s are part of their uncertain “surrendered” identity, while for tourists they are an exotic decorative trophy. Fortunately, Mahiriki Tangaroa’s concern for the disappearance of her cultural heritage has strengthened her urge to visually build on the remaining points of reference. In fact; the God Tangaroa is the catalyst for Mahiriki’s artistic and personal journey. Although Tangaroa force is hard to objectify, the artist studies the Gods little known oral history, cuts the figures structurally and conceptually up into pieces, to later re-assemble them from different points of view into her visual statements.
The visual artist makes from cultural artifacts, forever primitivised or ethnographed, an avant-garde gesture, a provocative rather than appreciative act with stylistic consequences. To depict Gods in their entirety or truthfully would take away the faith in them, take away the veil of mysticity. Therefore, as a paternal guardian of reviving Cooks Island culture, she lets figurative remains of Tangaroa float in the echelons of the painting. Then the artist gradually breaks them down in geometric planes. These architectonic planes are in turn supported by (old) motifs, designs and symbols dedicated to customary arts such as Tattoo, Tapa and Pareu. It is as if Tangaroa is trying to save his/her own heritage from fading away into oblivion. As the Polynesian identity echoes in the metaphor of the “Ocean in us”, Mahiriki points out that “Tangaroa is in all of us”. Mahiriki gives Gods a vital presence, brings them into a human context, reconceptualising Cook Islanders identity in ways that transcend their heritage. Juxtaposing tourist cliches with intriguing cross-cultural constructions, the artist not only fills a cultural void but also challenges the stereotyped and romantic images of Cook Islands culture perpetuated by religious and western strategies of the colonial past. 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 journey, a voyage of the Cook Islands as a constructed nation and her own personal voyage as a driving force in modern Pacific art. Tangaroa’s voyage, the mythologies surrounding the God, the visual fantasies it generates and the threat it still poses to the idea of Christian civilization have made from Tangaroa a superstar. A figure that is located at the heart of culture and ritual and yet seems to appear to us only in its perceptual nature. Therefore Mahiriki’s ongoing dialogue connects and disconnects Tangaroa from the past and transfers the perceptual in the conceptual.
When looking at her paintings, the viewer fuses multiple views into a single image, reconstructing objects from dislocated facets, bringing to bear their conceptual understanding of those objects. Encountering her bold oeuvre transcends our sense of civilized experience, giving live to an all-encompassing presence which reconciles primordial feelings with the modern condition, the ominous with the monstrous. To give Tangaroa life through the painting from different viewpoints, the artist wants his/her representation, built up by metamorphosed objects of reference, to be in excess of the visual conventions inherited. This excess is marked by the lack of distinction between the foreground and background, the rupture of Tangaroa in various proportions and by the radical conversion of the Tiki-faces into different masks. A new language of facially shaped patterns are elongated towards motifs of flowers, Tatoo and Pareu.
Masochistic power symbols combined with symbols evoking the softening beauty of femininity question human beings my(s)thical origins of existence. Her art of cutting and pasting Pacific motifs of colors and shapes extend beyond the depiction of the face of Tangaroa. She accentuates his unknown visual identity into the rest of the canvas, where it creates a boundless meditation of spiritual presence. Additionally the sensuously created “natural” lighting has the effect of altering the forms in which the different points of view of Tangaroa are discriminated from its surroundings, by tone, value, contrast, proportion, repetition, or direction of movement to all other structures, but nonetheless related. The painting functions as an organic whole, it breaths, moves and sketches Tangaroa as intercessor between man, woman and unconscious forces. The structural fragmentation and formal complexity of her work reinforces the conceptual ambivalence of the God figure and affirms an inherent conflict of interest.
Her triangularised Tangaroa dangles between materialization and dematerialization, between figuration and defiguration, between masculine and feminine. The mixture of confluences disguise the negotiation between cultural pride and disgust while the liminality is the artist’s reflection of a deep ambiguity of history and tradition. Continuity of inherited conventions and alien aesthetic correlations permits her to rediscover pictorial authenticity for herself. The God thus acts not only as a model but also as an instrument for confronting herself with the complexity of heritage and the audience with their stereotypical assumptions about the South-Pacific.
Just like in other countries, and more specifically the Pacific islands, there are problems specific to our zeitgeist that requires our attention. Education levels are decreasing and there is a continuous depopulation accompanied by an increasing level of foreign labour. Technological progress is generating a cultural revolution and countless tourists are easily finding their way to the paradisiacal islands, leaving indelible marks on the demand for culture, the environment and its infrastructure.
The artist draws inspirations from the region’s socio-cultural question marks and critically sets our priorities in order. Expectations about the reality of the Cook Islands are subtly tackled through the artworks visual structure and its corresponding narrative purpose. The constructive brushstrokes create a pictorial space in which opposing planes pull against each other, each containing the other, paradoxically, within the flat surface of the canvas. The small plane pulls up or down, away from or towards the lower edge of the overall rectangle. Other planes decide the direction of its force as they are added. Since each plane has a distinct, tangible location in depth, Mahiriki is pushing the spectator into the presence of a sculpture. This moving presence, accompanied by specific symbols and motifs, shows that her paintings talk about a specific place and identity. As a critical agent in the evolving nature of Cook Islands identity, her structural and narrative self-consistency is further indicated by her use of color. Each area of color, like each form, is integrated by balance and feeling. The colors are trying to comprehend the richness and depth of the Cook Islands generally endowed of land and sea. Her use of dialectic colour schemes are aggressive, sensuous and fragile but remain hopeful for the future. Romantic earthy tones guide you through nature’s sublime powers while the deep, dark colors become lighter in tone towards the edge. This strategy deepens a viewer’s understanding of the three-dimensionality (place & space) in her paintings. Colors depict form and volume in her work and take the spectator on a historical trip, prophetically heralding the future.
There is in her visual work, a vitality of form, unnerving emphasis on the structural planes in architectonic sequences, the uncompromising truth to color, structure and symbols with a seemingly thoughtful adaptation of it. Her artistic evolution can be sketched through her relationship with analytical cubism, partly inspired by female abstract art pioneer Louise Henderson and Mr. Art New Zealand , Colin McCahon, and modern Pacific avant-gardism. Over the years, the artist has further dismantled the representational structure and shows an even stronger urge to dissolute composition and boundary perceptions. Her idiosyncratic use of colors, motifs, structural lines and spatial relationships offer sparse yet sufficient visual information. Instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts subjects from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subjects in a greater context. Topics related to the tensions between modernity, cultural heritage and the place of the spiritual in our contemporary world are deciphered by studying the symbolism, context, juxtaposition and (textual) interpretation.
In this sense, her trajectory is one of pushing the boundaries of the canon of Modern Pacific Art into unknown descriptive categories. In this pursuit, namely in a culturally cohesive way – the artist reflects a common sense of identity, place and time, Mahiriki is supported by the progressive art gallery, Bergman. Her journey as one of the leading and innovative figures within this elastic “movement” can be summed up briefly as an attempt to transcend the tension between the idea to be expressed through spiritual, natural and customary representation and the abstract principles of painting, photography and sculpture. As an artist, she embraces a modernist creed imbued with Pacific spiritualism, daring intellectuallism and European aesthetics. She challenges both Western and Pacific notions of art.
What is the connection between the way people relate to one another, their natural environment and cultural heritage? I have made it clear that English is a limited language when trying to understand and assess artworks arising from other parts than my own. Maybe it is because Mahiriki Tangaroa enhances ideas of semiotic reading, metaphor and significance through a restricted display of content. However, this is exactly where the excitement lies, the Cook Islands based artist delivers a challenging visual engagement that dwells less on the notion of representational space than on formal construction and concept. Purely preoccupied with the invention and arrangement of spaces, surfaces, shapes and colors, Mahiriki reminds us to focus on what we see instead of what we know. Her paintings offer a check on our perspective and asks the viewer to draw the line between the myths and realities that make up the Pacific. But essentially one keeps wondering what lies behind those masks and motifs. Arthur Buerms.
Contemporary Art In The South Pacific, Bergman Gallery & The New Frontier…by Rachel Smith.
For two centuries, European anthropological mischaracterizations have dominated perceptions of the broader Pacific region. Of more recent times, there has been new Pacific cultural awakening, a re-evaluation of what it means to be Pacific, and it is being championed by a new generation of Pacific Islanders with expanding technology at their fingertips. A rather apt irony considering that for a brief time within the Pacific region, European technology was akin to god like status.
What was invalidated 200 years ago by the arrival of European missionaries and their willing island converts, is being revalued and reclaimed. Old language is being revived and recorded, the art of Tattoo has re-emerged, Tapa traditions are being re-made, exhibited, winning art awards and touring major institutions. Carving practice’s are back, with new tools generating faster production times and furthering investigation into motif and meaning. In Rarotonga, a symbiotic art industry has emerged, Modern Pacific Art.
Set against this backdrop is Rarotonga based, Bergman Gallery a commercial gallery “dedicated to the exhibition of modern Pacific art – evolving modern Pacific art to a global level, and the establishment of a gallery of modern Pacific art “ says Director Ben Bergman. It is talk that Bergman puts into practice. Since 2001 Bergman has delivered 115 projects including appearances at New York’s VOLTA Art Fair and Auckland Art Fair, effectively promoting and sharing the work of Cook Islands & Pacific contemporary artists with the world.
Where and how contemporary art began in the Cook Islands is to acknowledge its traditional predecessors, and to acknowledge the role of contemporary artists, Rick Welland (United States) and Edwin Shorter (United Kingdom) whose arrival in Rarotonga in the early 1960’s marked them as the first modern commercial artists to live and work in the Cook Islands. Leap forward a few decades and a number of artists of Cook Islands heritage, including those who returned from New Zealand, notably Tim Buchanan (painter), the late Eruera Te Whiti Nia (film maker and sculptor), Mahiriki Tangaroa (painting) & the late Ian George (educator, carver and painter).
In 1998, George curated Paringa Ou, a travelling group show of contemporary works by New Zealand based artists of Cook Islands descent. For some of the artists, such as photographer and painter Mahiriki Tangaroa, it marked her first visit home to the Cook Islands. The show was accompanied by workshops, facilitated by George and Richard Shortland Cooper, which “focused on exploring local legends, stories, traditional motifs and imagery and using these elements as a basis in the creative process,” says Tangaroa. “This exhibition introduced local arts audience to a wider concept of contemporary art. Presented in the Cook Islands National Museum, Paringa Ou challenged local perceptions of art as simply pretty objects, admired only for their obvious representational value,” says Bergman.
2001 saw the launch of the Creative New Zealand Pacific Artist in Residence programme, with Cook Islands residencies supported by the Cook Islands Ministry of Cultural Development. The programme allowed for a New Zealand based Pacific artist to reside in the Cook Islands for three months, and included presentation of a lecture, artist workshops and an exhibition. The residency programme was ongoing, and featured artists Veronica Vaevae (new media), Fatu Feu’u (painting, printmaking and sculpture), Sylvia Marsters (painting), Filipe Tohi (sculptural installation) Johnny Penisula (sculpture) and Nanette Lela’ulu (painting).
In the same year Bergman became Director of Bergman Gallery’s predecessor, Beachcomber Gallery (BAC). Beachcomber had an established base of Cook Islands community artists and Bergman was excited to become an active participant in what was “a time of enormous art activity.”
This began with the Beachcomber Gallery commercial group show No Taku Ipukarea in 2001, featuring works by Tangaroa, George and Richard Shortland Cooper. The show introduced a professional format for domestic exhibitions and in doing so, set new standards and expectations. A year later the Bank of Cook Islands (BCI) ‘Patronage Programme’ was launched alongside Beachcomber Gallery’s own artist in residence series. Beginning with Tangaroa in 2002, Beachcomber hosted artists Andy Leleisi’uao, Reuben Paterson, Sylvia Marsters, and Rick Welland, from 2009 to 2012.
In 2003 the first international exhibition of contemporary Cook Islands art, Te Ata Ou, traveled to Christchurch, New Zealand. “Not only was it a ground-breaking initiative but a testimony that celebrated confidence and maturity achieved in the local art sector,” says Tangaroa, co-curator of Te Ata Ou with Bergman & Ian George. “Through the support and sponsorship of Beachcomber Gallery, Air New Zealand and the Development Investment Board, the exhibition secured representation in New Zealand for a number of the artists involved.”
Momentum continued, Beachcomber Gallery taking two further shows of Cook Islands artists to Auckland followed by sponsorship of Tangaroa’s first solo show in Dunedin. In 2009, Beachcomber Gallery, became Beachcomber Contemporary Art (BCA) with the opening of new purpose built gallery space.
For Bergman it was now time to take modern Pacific art to a truly international setting – to New York City. The group show Manuia opened in downtown NYC in 2010, and included artists Kay George, Michel Tuffery, Jerome Shedden, Michael Tavioni, Leleisi’uao and Tangaroa (co-curator). Manuia proved to be a success in terms of setting Cook Islands contemporary art on a global stage, the international show allowing BCA to broaden their reach and show their capability in producing conceptual art statements. BCA returned to NYC again and again, individually taking artists Andy Leleisi’uao, Tuffery, and Marsters to the VOLTA art fairs in 2011, 2012 and 2014.
In 2016 Bergman Gallery was launched to replace BCA, a new name to recognize the evolution in the gallery’s direction and of Cook Islands contemporary art. In the same year Bergman Gallery became the first Pacific island based gallery to attend the Auckland Art Fair, attending every year since.
There has been no time for rest for Bergman Gallery as the contemporary art scene in the Pacific continues to grow; in 2018, Leleisi’uao’s solo show, Mangere Aroha, was opened by New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, and Pūtahi Ono Kūki Airani, an exhibition of 30 artists from across Polynesia, was hosted at the gallery; 2019, and Bergman curated Kamoan Mine, Leleisi’uao’s major survey exhibition in New Zealand, and international New York pop art icon Billy Apple made his first trip to Rarotonga for a solo show.
What then lies ahead? Bergman Gallery will further its program of Modern Pacific Art development and exhibition in Rarotonga, New Zealand and look at a return to the United States Market. ‘This is an exciting time for all things Pacific’ says Bergman, ‘and the potential is unlimited’.
Curator Francis McWhannell discusses Andy Leleisi’uao’s exhibition, A Diasporic Pulse of Faith & Patience, Bergman Gallery, November 2019.
Curator Arthur Buerms spent a month on residency with Bergman Gallery in November 2019. Here he discusses Andy Leleisi’uao’s painting installation – A Diasporic Pulse of Faith & Patience.
Starkwhite Gallery Director John McCormack travelled to Rarotonga in 2019 to present the exhibition ‘Billy Apple in Rarotonga’ with Bergman Gallery. Hosting the global contemporary art legend Billy Apple was a massive highlight for the year.
Bergman Gallery exhibiting at the Auckland Art Fair, New Zealand, 2019 – with Andy Leleisi’uao, Mark Cross, Mahiriki Tangaroa and Benjamin Work. Video by Turama Photography.