Art and culture
islands is the hallmark of the culture of the Cook Islands and reflects their
varied sources of ancient migration as well as the vast distances between 15
tiny islands scattered over a section of the central South Pacific Ocean as
big as the Indian sub-continent.
However, there are some common threads. All the islands employed a chiefly system based on traditional legends of migration and settlement. These stories enshrined the power of the chiefs as inheritors of what might be termed an "heroic" culture.
From time to time theories have been advanced that Polynesian culture before European contact was similar to that of the heroic period of Greece, that is, pre-dating Homer around 1200 BC. Some of these parallels include the concept of 'mana', kinship, feasting and the giving of food, attitudes towards women and the lack of individualism.
The Polynesian hero, or free man, acquired 'mana', loosely translated as 'power' and 'prestige' by the deeds he accomplished. He was measured by his deeds achieved on a purely personal basis. His main attachment was to his own kin or clan. The obligations inside this framework far outweighed any notion of social conscience or nationalism. This was a close parallel to the archaic Greeks, termed by Homer 'Achaians'. Neither the Achaian nor the archetypal Polynesian free man or 'hero' had a word describing his immediate nuclear family. Also, neither had a word for 'love' as modern western civilisation understands it. Food and the giving of it features strongly in both cultures.
Western notions of the importance of the individual are completely alien to Polynesians as indeed they would have been to the Achaians. Polynesians see themselves as members of a race, a people, a party or some other general group in much the same way as many primitive societies do.
Allegiance to chiefs was a fundamental of Polynesian culture. The chiefs' titles and other authoritative positions were passed down primarily through the senior male line. However, land rights were inherited via the mother's line. Chiefs were responsible for war leadership, carrying out important discussions with other groups or clans, land allocation, disputes settlement and intercession with the gods.
One of the most significant functions of a chief was to organise and pay for feasts. A chief, or indeed, any man, was judged by his ability and willingness to bestow gifts and to throw big parties. Much of the detail of these cultural structures was lost when the missionaries began making inroads into the native religion in 1823 and afterwards.
To the despair of many educated Cook Islanders the expression "culture" in the popular mind equates to traditional festivals, singing and dancing. There is some justification for this since the art of dance is taken very seriously in the Cooks. Each island has its own special dances and these are practised assiduously from early childhood. There are numerous competitions throughout the year on each island Events and these are hotly contested. The highly rhythmic drumming on the paté and the wild and sensuous movements of both men and women virtually guarantee that Cook Islands teams win all the major Pacific dance festivals.The Hawaiian hula and the Tahitian tamuré are probably better known because those islands have had wider publicity for the last 100 years but the Cook Islands hura is far more sensual and fierce. Every major hotel prides itself on the performance it puts on at least once a week on Island Night when guests, selected by the dancers, are led onto the floor to show what they can do.
If there is one outstanding ability which appears to be shared by all Cook Islanders it is music and song. Close harmony singing is highly developed in church music and the power and emotional impact of chants and hymns at weddings and funerals is well known to visitors who attend. The range and talent of popular singing can be seen at the numerous festivals throughout the year. Each island also has its own songs and the various island groups compete fiercely. There are numerous Polynesian string bands who play at restaurants, hotels and concerts and they use combinations of modern electronics with traditional ukeleles fashioned from coconut shells.
In recent years there has been an increase in activity by local painters and artists have begun to develop original contemporary Polynesian styles. Woodcarving is a common art form in the Cook Islands. Sculpture in stone is much rarer although there are some excellent carvings in basalt by Mike Taveoni. The proximity of islands in the southern group helped produce a homogeneous style of carving but which had special developments in each island. Rarotonga is known for its fisherman's gods and staff-gods, Atiu for its wooden seats, Mitiaro, Mauke and Atiu for mace and slab gods and Mangaia for its ceremonial adzes. Most of the original wood carvings were either spirited away by early European collectors or were burned in large numbers by missionary zealots. Today, carving is no longer the major art form with the same spiritual and cultural emphasis given to it by the Maori in New Zealand. However, there are continual efforts to interest young people in their heritage and some good work is being turned out under the guidance of older carvers. Atiu, in particular, has a strong tradition of crafts both in carving and local fibre arts such as tapa. Mangaia is the source of many fine adzes carved in a distinctive, idiosyncratic style with the so-called double-k design. Mangaia also produces food pounders carved from the heavy calcite found in its extensive limestone caves.
The outer islands produce traditional weaving of mats, basketware and hats. Particularly fine examples of rito hats are worn by women to church on Sundays. They are made from the uncurled fibre of the coconut palm and are of very high quality. The Polynesian equivalent of Panama hats, they are highly valued and are keenly sought by Polynesian visitors from Tahiti. Often, they are decorated with hatbands made of minuscule pupu shells which are painted and stitched on by hand. Although pupu are found on other islands the collection and use of them in decorative work has become a speciality of Mangaia.
A major art form in the Cook Islands is tivaivai. This is, in essence, the art of making handmade patchwork quilts. Introduced by the wives of missionaries in the 19th century, the craft grew into a communal activity and is probably one of the main reasons for its popularity. The Fibre Arts Studio on Atiu has tivaevae for sale as does the Arasena Gallery next to the Blue Note on Rarotonga.
The Cook Islands
have produced many writers. One of the earliest was Stephen Savage, a New Zealander
who arrived in Rarotonga in 1894. A public servant, Savage compiled a dictionary
late in the 19th century. The first manuscript was destroyed by fire but he
began work again and the Maori to English dictionary was published long after
his death. The task of completing the full dictionary awaits some scholar.
Samoa had Robert Louis Stevenson and Tahiti had Paul Gauguin. The Cook Islands had Robert Dean Frisbie, a Californian writer who, in the late 1920s, sought refuge from the hectic world of post-war America and made his home on Pukapuka. Eventually, loneliness, alcohol and disease overcame Frisbie but not before he had written sensitively of the islands in numerous magazine articles and books. His grave is in the CICC churchyard in Avarua, Rarotonga. His eldest daughter, Johnny, now living on Rarotonga, is also a writer and has produced a biography of her family titled "The Frisbies of the South Seas".
Another fugitive from the metropolis of London was Ronald Syme, founder of the pineapple canning enterprise on Mangaia and author of "Isles of the Frigate Bird" and "The Lagoon is Lonely Now". In similar vein, an English ex-patriate who lived on Mauke, Julian Dashwood, wrote "South Seas Paradise" under the pseudonym, Julian Hillas.
Sir Tom Davis, an ex-Prime Minister and renowned ocean sailor, knows his island history and has an exhaustive knowledge of ancient Polynesian navigational techniques. His autobiography, "Island Boy", details his career. As well as being president of the Cook Islands Oceangoing Vaka Association, he has recently published an historical novel "Vaka" which is the story of a Polynesian ocean voyage.
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