Gloria Elers visits the Cook Islands quite often, and loves to take some unique treasures back home to New Zealand.
She’s purchased a Tangaroa statue that had to be fumigated on its way to New Zealand.
“I prefer to buy the real island stuff made by the local people and when I do buy something I always ask where it’s made,” said Elers.
When you see a carving she says, you can tell if it’s authentic or not just by the designs and the way it’s varnished.
It’s important to support local made products, Elers adds.
No surprises, local artists and artisans agree – but increasingly, they find themselves competing for the tourist dollar with imported tack like shell necklaces that have nothing to do with Cook Islands heritage, and even cheap rip-offs of traditional drums and other icons.
The Cook Islands’ traditionally carved Tangaroa statue is famed throughout the Pacific for its bold and intricate designs and has become a symbol of Cook Islands culture.
Tangaroa, the god of the sea is shown on the Cook Islands $1 coin – but now you rarely see authentic carved Tangaroas at the local markets and shops.
This follows other Cook Islands crafts like drums or pates that are being replaced by tacky and imported handicrafts made in Indonesia.
Local carver and artist Mike Tavioni says this is the sign of a culture losing its craft and traditional knowledge.
But he says the shops importing arts and crafts cannot be blamed: they are just responding to tourist market demand. It’s up to local people to find ways to meet the demand with authentic local crafts.
He says the increasing preponderance of imported crafts reflects an economy that it failing to invest in its people and culture.
And the root of the problem, he says, can be seen with the depopulation of the Cook Islands and the wealth of the tourism industry not being passed on to its workers.
Sculptor Brent Holly agrees. “What is it that makes the Cook Islands different from other countries that have beautiful beaches and resorts too? The point of difference is the people and the culture, which needs to celebrated and invested in.
The local markets have always been a reliable place to buy authentic local crafts.
Tangata Makita sells rito earrings and fans that are made in Penrhyn, Rakahanga and Manihiki.
Her stall sits close to the larger Mareko crafts store at Punanga Nui Markets, but she doesn’t let the competition stop her from promoting her rito products.
It’s a good way to make money, says Makita, but it’s not easy to make these rito accessories … there is a process and skill to it.
A lot of tourists come to her stall and a lot of locals too. She believes small scale local crafters need to be recognised to keep the culture alive.
Cook Islander Georgia Short is another who visited the markets yesterday, searching for a pair of rito earrings that she could gift to a friend. “It’s important to buy local crafts to support the makers behind them,” she insists.
But it’s the old question: how much will you pay for quality, for authenticity? Tourists are buying shark tooth necklaces, shell eis, and cheap overseas replicas of Cook Islands Tangaroa statuettes and drums.
Tavioni acknowledges the glut of small Tangaroa figurines, made in Bali and elsewhere in Indonesia from local hardwood, and selling in shops for a third of the usual price.
“A local carver costs more to pay than imported readymade wooden crafts,” he says, sadly. “You can get triple the number of carved Tangaroa, instead of paying for one local made one.”
Yet there are always visitors seeking authentic Cook Islands crafts, who will visit Tavioni at his workshop on the back road behind Avatiu. His crafts and designs don’t come cheap but they do come with the spirit of Cook Islands culture which brings visitors back to the island again and again.
Historically, crafts were made to be practical, he says. “The vaka was made so the people could go fish or collect food and the paddle helped push the vaka forward.”
The knowledge of knowing how to create these crafts are valued as traditional life skills. Tavioni remembers a couple stranded on an island who almost starved to death, even though there were coconuts, coconut crabs, birds and fish on that island.
In Japan, says Tavioni, they learned that the art of Japanese sword-making was fading so they made sure they paid their sword makers well enough for them to be able to pass on the knowledge of the art. These artisans were made national treasures.
When Tavioni was growing up in Atiu, the people carved canoes and after three or four years, they had to make new ones and that was their way of life.
“It is a fact that tourists come here because of the people and culture, but what is the culture? It’s the canoe, it’s the drum, it’s the fishing technique, planting and singing. But,” asks Tavioni, “how much is the tourism board investing in these?”