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A pioneering new book on the traditions, art and architecture of the Cook Islands

Woods Creative, in collaboration with the University of the South Pacific, just published what is likely to be the first detailed book on Cook Islands traditions, art and architecture written from a local perspective.

In Cook Islands Art & Architecture, local residents, artists, choreographers, performers and scholars come together to write about the vibrancy of local dance, drumming, fashion, painting, quilting, carving, weaving, tapa making, theatre, and other creative endeavours of the Cook Islands.

The task of recording an entire people’s traditions and culture in 468 pages and doing it justice was a heavy weight to bear says creative director, Reuben Woods. “And probably why it took 18 months to get printed,” he says. “Just like New Zealand Maori, Cook Islanders pass on their stories verbally through generations meaning there was little existing documentation to work from.”

“Adding to the challenge is that 15 islands make up the Cooks and each one has a slightly different dialect, culture, and art form in terms of the way they portray symbolism in their tattoos and carvings – and we had to bring it all together.”

For Reuben, the story began in 2011 when he taught Graphic Design at the University of the South Pacific while Woods Creative was contracted to design a rebrand of the country’s largest publication, the Cook Island News. “In the Cooks, the daily Cook Islands newspaper is the definitive news media,” he says. “Working closely with them we got to learn a lot about the culture and get an appreciation for what they have over there. At the paper they’re staunchly traditional, believing in respecting the culture and history, so we had to learn local protocols.”

“We wanted to bring cultural motifs into the daily newspaper’s design but information was scarce, so we started by talking to a master carver in Rarotonga, Mike Tavioni, who told us that there are seven main designs that are used. Each of the seven represents something of value such as one for family, one for ocean, one for people. He had to draw them for me on a napkin – that was the level of documentation.”

Rod Dixon, Co-editor of Art & Architecture and Director of USP Cook Islands, sought to change this and over the course of a decade has assisted in the collation of information from many different artists who wrote about their specific craft for the project.

“Rod asked us for a design for the book that visually and simply communicated their story and art forms in a way that reflected on the traditional style while bringing in a modern current day feel,” says Reuben. “It was a real balancing act between minimal simple typography and bringing through historical drawings, etchings, photography and keeping it colourful. Colour is really important to the Cook Islands – it represents the vibrancy of their land and culture.”

Contributing author and local artist Joan Gragg says the significance of the book is that it helps the Cook Islands to hold on to their culture in an ever globalising world.

“This book is important because it delivers tradition and culture into a contemporary context,” she says. “A high proportion of Cook Islanders immigrate to Australia and New Zealand and as a result the new generation does not learn as much of the old ways and skills such as carving, medicine, planting, or navigation. Art & Architecture highlights our culture and brings it into the now. Modern interpretations of old ideas are important. This book will start a conversation about interpretation of our culture, past and present.”

Cook Islands Art & Architecture is available here.

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