28 Feb 2017

Beauty of taro showcased in Cook Islands exhibition

7:47 am on 28 February 2017

The beauty of taro is being showcased in an unusual form in a Cook Islands art exhibition aimed at celebrating women.

The opening performance of 'This Woman's Work'.

The opening performance of 'This Woman's Work'. Photo: Bergman Gallery

'This Woman's Work' is showing at the Bergman Gallery in Rarotonga and features colourful glass taro vases in a performance installation that includes contemporary dance and a taro-patch inside the gallery.

New Zealand based Cook-Islands artist Niaval Ngaro created the glass taro sculptures and collaborated with performance director Dione Joseph who created the dance work installation.

The exhibition's full title is 'This Woman's Work Is A Woman's Worth' and was inspired by Ms Ngaro's experience working alongside women from Pukapuka, an atoll in the northern group of the Cook Islands, around 13 years ago.

"For many of us, our knowledge of Taro is that it's a man's job. Men cultivate the plantation and undertake the harvest," Ms Joseph explained.

"But for Pukapukan women, and Niaval is of Pukapukan descent, it's actually the women who do this work and are also often selling the taro as well."

Nival took up the invitation to showcase the performance installation in the Bergman Gallery in Rarotonga after a successful opening in Artweek Auckland last year.

The performance took on new levels in Rarotonga with the involvement of locals who installed a taro patch inside as well as other materials needed for the installation.

Ms Joseph says both her and Ms Ngaro wanted to bring the culture into the Gallery's art space.

"We actually wanted it to be alive," she said.

'This Womans Work' exhibition.

'This Womans Work' exhibition. Photo: Bergman Gallery

"We talked to a number of different people, including the high-chiefs - The House of Ariki, and in particular, Makea Vakatini Joe who is one of the high chiefs who helped us by actually providing earth.

"And then the Ministry of Agriculture heard about our work and they offered us brand new varieties of taro as they had just been testing taro plants. We had the involvement of the entire island as well as my dancers who were all local 15-year-old girls."

Sitting inside the four-by-three metre taro patch were Ms Ngaro's fragile and colourful glass sculptures planted next to taro crops themselves and surrounded by palm fronds from the island.

It is the first time the staple food item of the pacific has been presented at the Bergman Gallery in a live exhibition involving glass and real crops. It also uniquely celebrated the key role of women in the planting and harvesting of taro.

"The beautiful thing was that we didn't begin the exhibition just by having a normal exhibition with a glass of wine and cheese," said Ms Joseph

"We were helped by a lot of whanau of Niaval's and also friends, and we began it by actually offering taro samples. So I and one of Niaval's cousins actually went around offering it to people...so we cooked it and served it to people with coconut cream.

"So people had a taste for it before it began."

Artist NiaVal Ngaro speaks at the opening of her solo exhibition.

Artist NiaVal Ngaro speaks at the opening of her solo exhibition. Photo: Bergman Gallery

Ms Joseph said the exhibition was well received and drew a lot of positive responses.

"The reactions were mostly one of surprise and delight and some were quite quizzical about this very different approach because you know, art galleries can often be seen as such an institution.

"To have a multi-ethnic Cook Island performance installation not just within the immediacy of the space itself, but also drawing people in from the outside, that was really important to us and we had the blessing of all the elders who turned up."

The exhibition will run at the Bergman Gallery until 25 March.