The Contemporary Pacific 15.2 (2003) 511-512
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The Art of Tivaevae: Traditional Cook Islands Quilting, by Lynnsay Rongokea, with photographs by John Daley. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2001.ISBN 0-8248-2502-0; 132 pages, figures, photographs. US$29.95.
The Art of Tivaevae is a popular work for the nonspecialist. Its subject is the quilts (sometimes spelled tivaivai) found in the Cook Islands and the women artists who create them. In the introduction, Lynnsay Rongokea (a Cook Islander and daughter of a quiltmaker) discusses the importation of tivaevae techniques to the Cook Islands by Christian missionaries. She describes the range of visual styles and design patterns, particularly floral motifs, and how tivaevae are used as gifts to friends and as formal presentations at special occasions, such as funerals, weddings, and other rites of passage. A significant part of the introduction is made up of an explanation of the techniques used in the creation of these colorful artworks. The words of the Cook Island artists themselves, with pictures of the women and examples of their quilts, constitute the remainder of the book.
The Art of Tivaevae is a beautiful volume with numerous, excellent color photographs of various quilts and the Cook Islands landscape taken by John Daley. These images are complemented by black-and-white portraits of the artists. Beyond this visual introduction to tivaevae, perhaps the most important aspect of the book is the first-person narratives of the Cook Islands women in which they discuss their lives as artists, daughters, mothers, and members of their communities. Too often, in both popular works and scholarly tomes, the living voices of real people are lost in the writing process. It is a rare author who lets her subjects speak for themselves.
In spite of the wonderful photography and the effective voices of the women, The Art of Tivaevae does have some weaknesses. The occasional error in the text can be quite distracting. For example, in the first paragraph on page 18, a discussion of quilt designs utilizing both appliqué and embroidery incorrectly labels such works as tivaevae tuitui tataura instead of the correct term, tivaevae tataura. In addition, the description of various assembly methods gives a number of details for parts of the process, but few for other stages. The gaps can make it hard for nonquilters to follow, and leaves those readers who are interested or knowledgeable in needlework techniques a bit frustrated. In addition, the family links between some of the quilters are initially unclear. Although grandmother Mareta Matamua's statement is immediately followed by that of her daughter, Esther Katu, and granddaughter, Ani Katu, the heading in the left-hand top corner of the pages gives the impression that the second and third entries are somehow misplaced. It was only with a second reading that the relationships between thethreewomen became clear. Of course, these are minor problems. Perhaps the major drawback with The Art of Tivaevae is in its failure to provide a greater context to the narratives of the artists.
No history of textiles in the Cook Islands prior to tivaevae is presented in the book's introduction.We are told that "tivaevae slipped easily and permanently into the daily and ceremonial life of Cook Islands society" (9). [End Page 511] Yet there is no sense of why this might have been so. Textiles like tapa (bark cloth) and handwoven mats were both socially and ritually important throughout Polynesia before the arrival of Europeans. In many groups (including the Cooks) these older forms have been augmented or replaced by western cloth, which is manipulated and used with island priorities. Are the uses of tivaevae today in the Cook Islands postcontact phenomena, or have the quilts become modern substitutes within ancient practices? Quilting techniques similar to those found in the Cook Islands also exist in other parts of Polynesia. Hawai'i, the Society Islands, and Tonga come to mind. The existence of quilting in Tahiti is touched on in the artists' statements, yet it is not acknowledged in the discussion at the...