Carving in the Cook Islands

The Past

Carved items were mainly utilitarian in function, ranging from fishing and agricultural implements, to food preparation utensils and religious deities and ceremonial objects. These were carved from wood of indigenous trees such as nu (coconut), toa (iron wood), tamanu (island mahogany), tou (cordia) and miro (Pacific rosewood). Carving and cutting tools, pounders and digging implements were generally made from stone, calcite and shell.

Functional wooden objects included kumete (bowls) in round or oval shapes of varying sizes, which were used for making and serving poi (fermented taro or plaintain mash) at large communal feasts; headrests with the characteristic Cook Islands form of four curved legs on heart-shaped feet; tumunu, large cylindrical vessels to contain home-brewed beer; and wooden penu (pounders) and circular wooden pounding tables. Tumunu are still in use today at Atiu.

Some religious and ceremonial carvings appear to be so highly stylized as to be considered abstract. Some appear to relate to human form while in others this is less clear. Staff-gods from Rarotonga, carved from ironwood, some of which measured up to 18 feet, are also believed to be genealogical tools.

A number of slab- and mace-god carvings from Mitiaro, Mauke, Mangaia and Aitutaki, held in overseas museum collections, show evidence of further degrees of abstraction, with their tiny arched forms and delicate open-work shafts.

Present Day

Cook Islands carving today is mainly replica of artifacts depicted in historical journals and Cook Islands artifacts held in collections of overseas museums. Contemporary carving tends to be a fusion of Cook Islands and New Zealand maori.

Wood commonly used by carvers today is imported, or is obtained from the fast growing exotic albizia, which grows easily in these islands. Indigenous trees tend to be slower growing and are becoming increasingly scarce.

Carvers Today

Contemporary artist Ted Nia's work is infused with his New Zealand maori and Cook Islands heritage. His works are superbly finished and often incorporates other art techniques of ka'a (sennit) lashing and rito weaving (processed immature leaves of the coconut tree). Nia takes commissions and exhibits regularly at his gallery, Inanui, at Avarua, Rarotonga.

  • Uaongo William, now based in Australia, often uses traditional motifs and is largely influenced by his Mangaian heritage.
  • Mike Tavioni is a traditionalist, carving mainly vaka (canoes), tiki, atamira (thrones), paddles and kumete (bowls) from his workshop at Atupa on Rarotonga.
  • Henry Tavioni, brother of Mike Tavioni, is also a carver and has an outlet at Punanga Nui Market (ph: 28908), Rarotonga. Henry pursues all Cook Islands carving styles.
  • Ian George, of Atiuan descent, works in stone, wood and bronze, carving totemic deities with pan-Pacific influences. He sells his work through the Art Studio at Arorangi.
  • The Tomokino brothers, Kiki (ph: 72543) and Wallis (ph: 20023), are well-known carvers from Atiu, carving both traditional and contemporary styles. They are based in Rarotonga.
  • Robert Wichman of Arorangi, Rarotonga, carves mainly for the tourist souvenir market. Tangianau Tuaputa, of Betela, Rarotonga, specialises in Cook Islands pate, pa'u and tokere (log-drum) sets.
  • Outer islands carvers, particularly from Aitutaki, are the main producers of drum sets. These can be ordered through Raro Records.

Article by Jean Tekura Mason, Images by Cook Islands Libary