Wiremu and Manaia Livingstone and Pari Pairama all grew up in the North Island in Matawaia, about an hour’s drive from Whangarei.
Their first language is New Zealand Maori, and they are very passionate about both their language and their culture.
What draws them here is the story of the voyages of their ancestors from the Cook Islands to New Zealand many centuries ago, says Wiremu.
“Part our reason for coming here is to re-establish those connections. Especially with people like Mike, who are also passionate about culture and language.
“Mike” refers to Mike Tavioni, the legendary Rarotongan carver, sculptor and writer, who first met the brothers back in 2004.
“In 2004 Mike wanted us to stay and work on making a vaka with him, and I think (our friendship) has just been a flow-on.
“Last time we were here Mike was setting up his new studio and art gallery. His workshop was completely different.
“His dream for this place is to establish a working art gallery that will preserve the traditions for local art and carvings, and we support that 100 per cent.”
Wiremu said that one of the most important aspects of being under Tavioni’s tutelage was how he operates, which he describes as “much more forgiving” than back home.
“For example, if we make a mistake in (something we are carving), Mike always says “no, no, an artist says that they were meant to do that”. And then you change it into something else.
“You don’t get that at home, because the attitude is that you’ve made a mistake.”
Tavioni said that since he first met the three New Zealanders in 2004, he has seen their “incredible” desire to learn.
“They just want to learn more. They help me, but it’s a learning thing. Everything they do is so they can learn more,” Tavioni said.
“Rather than working as labourers, they came to learn more techniques, so they will have more confidence in what they want to do.”
Aside from working in the workshop, the three mens’ stay has been very busy, Wiremu joking that it’s “like a work holiday without any pay”.
“We’ve met a lot of people, we’ve walked up the Needle, snorkelled everywhere, and I think we’ve learnt a lot about culture here, the traditions, the history. Our reward is everything that we learn.
In New Zealand, Wiremu teaches at a school at a total immersion Maori school, and has previously visited Rarotonga with a group of his students.
“The Aotearoa Society has accommodated our school on a couple of occasions, and a goal of ours is that we are trying to do as much as we can to give back to them.
“We’ve done a bit of landscaping over there, fixed a few boards up inside, and that’s where we are staying. They don’t normally accommodate groups of less than 10, but because I’ve built relationships there they’ve allowed us to stay there.
“I’ve said that I want to help promote the centre back home, for travellers, because a lot of New Zealanders don’t know about it. A lot come over and go to accommodation, hotels, holiday homes.
“But just as all the outer islands have hostels, we have our own hostel here, and that piece of land was dedicated for New Zealand Maori from the ariki who lived next door.”
As their trip coincided with New Year celebrations, the brothers were invited to spend the New Year’s Eve at the Tuakata Café, who provided a buffet paid for by local people
On New Year’s Day, they were invited to the Manihiki hostel by Mama Jane Kora, and Wiremu said it marked the first time the hostel had ever hosted a New Year’s event for the Manihiki people.
“If we don’t stay at the Aotearoa Centre, we stay at the Manihiki hostel, because our waka from Northland (in New Zealand) came through there.”
All three say how much they enjoy the relaxed nature of the island. They say some locals have even remarked that they seem more Cook Islander than some Cook Islanders.
“We always say that we would always want to visit, but not move here. Because if we did move, we’d have to give up everything that we have at home,” Wiremu explained.
“We have our own farm. We are self-sufficient there, but this is the best home away from home.”
The three men, who left the island last Sunday, are already planning to return next year, most likely during the school holidays, and they hope to engage the young people who are the future of the Cook Islands in the work that Tavioni is so passionate about.
“Mike says is that it’s hard to engage the locals in this type of work.
“We were at the launching of LoKal magazine, and we had a little exhibition there. We took some paddles and the big kumete (traditional Rarotongan bowls), and some traditional axes that had heaps of kids interested
“All the kids just loved it, and were coming up and asking for a turn on the axe. So we’d give them a turn. And I told Mike that we need to invest in these children, they are the future of your art.” Wiremu now hopes to organise a cultural exchange with Apii Takitumu, as he knows the principal, and also hopes Tavioni will get involved with local schools to create a curriculum that would allow students to learn the art of the Rarotongan people.
“Because when he’s gone, there aren’t a lot of people who will preserve it.”