Tāura ki te Atua - The role of 'akairo in Cook Islands Art
This exegesis examines the role of traditional art in Cook Islands society as the temporary instantiation of the divine and the role and function of ‘akairo (artistic motifs) in generating the aesthetic standards required to capture and contain mana. ‘Instantiation’ here refers to the aesthetic realisation of an other-worldly abstraction in a concrete form in this world – in Kaeppler’s terms “making the invisible visible” (Kaeppler, 1980:120). An art work that achieves such status is regarded in Cook Islands society as a tāura atua (a medium of rapport with the gods). While a great number of Cook Islands ‘akairo used to decorate artworks are derived from the human form (tikitiki tangata), others represent elements of nature or cosmology ruled over by atua in Te Pō (the darkness, the unknown) and include those derived from the land, sea and shore, from flora and fauna, and from the stars and skies.
Such ‘akairo are regarded as (1) statements of relatedness or akapapa’anga (genealogy) between human and natural elements in Te Ao (this world) and their divine ancestors in Te Pō (for the purposes of this study, such relations between atua and Te Ao are treated as ‘held within life stories’ (Eakin, 1999; Bishop 1996); (2) as mnemonics for meditations or karakia (incantations) to divine ancestors, or in Kaeppler’s terms, “objectified prayers” (Kaeppler 2007; 122) and (3) as a form of ‘wrapping in images’ similar to tattoo (Gell, 1993: 3-5), where the act of wrapping is seen as containing mana and ‘sanctifying’ gods, chiefs and priests. This echoes Hooper’s view that “surface carving can be understood as a kind of binding [ritual wrapping] with carved patterns” (2006: 229).
Finally, these themes are themselves instantiated in an art work which affirms human relatedness to the divine, and the ability of art to glimpse divinity while, at the same time, acknowledging the ultimate unknowableness of the life essence, I’o.