Mahiriki Tangaroa

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 Arts School, 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 recent 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 Beachcomber Galleries, Rarotonga.  Of special significance, it marked the tenth anniversary since Tangaroa had last exhibited photographs.

The new 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.



  • 2014     Atua – Sacred Gods from Polynesia (Co-curating 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.


  • 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


  • 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.