Art from the heart


Tivaevae (also spelled "tivaivai) means to stitch or sew and in essence, it's the art of making magnificent patchwork quilting. Islanders apply their unique skills to producing stunning blankets, cushion covers and bedspreads. Cook Islands women often describe the work as "something from the heart".
Now this is definitely not a field in which I'm expert, unlike the women of Atiu to whom I am grateful for this description of their amazing art.

"It is a pieced or appliqu├ęd, sometimes heavily embroidered unquilted coverlet, the colourful post-missionary substitute for the tapa cloth of ancient times.
Even today, on the home island or abroad, a Cook Islander's life is wrapped in tivaivais. Whether for a haircutting ceremony, an important birthday (21st in particular), a wedding or the grave, tivaivais decorate the hall where the celebration takes place, are given to or cover the floor, chair, bed, body or coffin of the revered. They are not normally for sale, but specially made for family members as a sign of affection.

Photo: David Kirkland

Once a year, usually at the end of November, Atiu's village or church women's groups (vaine tini) exhibit their tivaivais and related textile works. Participating in those shows is an honour. Atiu tivaivais are also exhibited annually at the National Museum on Rarotonga and have been shown in museums and galleries abroad


There's no written record of how or when the sewing of tivaevae was introduced to the Islands. Some say the wives of the London Missionary Society missionaries, who arrived in 1821, might have taught it. Others hold that it was learned from the Tahitian missionaries who helped introduce Christianity

Source: The Art of Tivaevae by Lynnsay Rongokea, University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, published by Random House New Zealand, 2001


Any Sunday on any of the Cook Islands, you can expect to see some of the finest hats in the world, adorning the heads of women on their way to church. Rito (pronounced ree-toe) hats are justly prized and come out also for special occasions such as baptisms and weddings. The home of rito hat making is the Northern group island of Penrhyn

Hats and church go together throughout the Islands. I found a fine example on a pew in the Ziona Church (The Divided Church") on Mauke


Australian, Noema Mahitarkiki - a former Penrhyn islander was just 14 when her grandmother taught her how to make the hats. She said the tradition started when men from the Cook Islands visited the Gilbert Islands in the 1800s and brought back wives who had been taught the art of plaiting coconut palm fronds into unique purses, fans and hats. The hats are usually adorned with mother of pearl shell which the men grind and polish. 

Part of the custom involves the women gathering in each others homes to weave, sing and share stories while plaiting the fibres around a solid wooden mahogany hat mould to achieve the perfect shape. The fibres themselves are cut, boiled, dyed and then scraped and it takes about three days to complete the hat.

None of the patterns is written down...islanders just think of them intheir heads and then put their hearts into the work. Some of the hats can sell for hundreds of New Zealand dollars. But they're also often given as gifts to honoured guests and family.

Source: Arts Nexus, Magazine for Arts and Cultural Development in Far North Queensland, Issue 51, July-Sept 2003