"I didn't want to use guns or any of that carry-on, I just wanted to keep it real."

Internationally renowned Pacific artist Michel Tuffery (MNZM) is explaining his latest project: creating a formal entrance or gateway to Rarotonga's Returned and Services' Association cemetery to commemorate the Kia Maumahara Maori Pioneers, or the Forgotten 43.

So the images of the two Cook Islands soldiers standing point guard at either side of this carved gate show that one man will be carrying an artillery shell and another a pick and shovel, representing the back-breaking work carried out by many of the 500 men who left these 15 islands of the Pacific during World War I.

No guns in these soldiers' hands — which is appropriate because it was their strength digging tunnels, carrying and moving arms and rowing boats which Tuffery explains was so prized in their significant war contributions.

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Right now, it is a rock gradually being carved into the shape of a shell to be placed within Rarotonga's cemetery, which is taking all of his time. It will become a memorial boulder stone.

Beneath towering coconut palms, with two dogs asleep in the shade, Tuffery is two weeks into working with "Uncle" Mike Tavioni, a local master carver whom Cook Islands New Zealand High Commissioner Nick Hurley describes as "a taonga, or living treasure".

It is in a green clearing on Tavioni's land off Ara Metua, near Avarua, some way from the ocean, where Tuffery is working in dusty conditions, busy with drills and chisels at the huge rock where an electric fan blows fine basalt dust away.

Tuffery says the Cook Islands' soldiers took a ceremonial conch shell from the Pacific with them to France, where they were stationed during the war.

He has since looked for that shell in the tunnels beneath the French town of Arras and although he couldn't find it, it is in its memory that he and Tavioni now shape the grey basalt rock — so hard that it splinters — almost the size of a car.

Holding a shell to his ear for the sound of the ocean, the artist says that is probably what the island soldiers in France did: "This is like going back to paradise when hell was breaking forth above."

The two carvers joke about one being the master, while the other is the labourer, but one thing they do agree about is the shell: the rock, from the village of Aorangi on the main island, dictates.

The carved shell will stand proudly beneath a distinctive line of palms in the Nikao cemetery, its pointed end partly buried in the ground.

And the alternative definitions of the word "shell" are of course just part of the layers of meaning behind this project.

Hurley says it is extremely appropriate that Tuffery, who has Cook Islands' heritage, works on the project, supported by the New Zealand Government.

The art works, Rima Anere Vae'au Kuki Airani Tangaroa, were commissioned by the NZ High Commission in Rarotonga.

Tavioni tells of the island soldiers' strength, how they continually won competitions to row boats loaded with arms in Europe, how their flag prevailed while they beat all other countries in their race to be fastest, strongest.

"Here, they were used to rowing boats to get out over the reefs," Tavioni explains, as the Pacific roars in the background "so they went to Europe with those skills and experience."

Carver Mike Tavioni. Photo / Ronnie Si'ulepa
Carver Mike Tavioni. Photo / Ronnie Si'ulepa

The new project follows the exhibition WWI Sound Shells for the Kuki Airani Soldiers, which ran from July to August, a series of painted and carved artworks offering a fresh lens on the soldiers' contribution.

As a small auburn rooster pecks at the edge of the jungle off to one side of the site, Tuffery opens his laptop and shows an image of how the new gates will look, pointing out how they will be topped with the Maori Pioneer Battalion insignia under which the island soldiers served: two silver ferns, the letters "NZ" engraved beneath it and a tattooed Maori warrior above, his tongue out, making pukana.

Tuffery said it was research at the Auckland War Memorial Museum which resulted in a badge being found, that emblem being such a meaningful part of the gate design.

"A lot of soldiers were buried with that [insignia] so it was largely lost, I was told at Aitutaki," Tuffery recalls, referring to the Cook island 250km away, often called the most magical of the 15 islands.

A laurel-like plant, maire, decorates each of the arms of the new gate and a well-recognised design from the island of Mangaia — one of the Cook Islands from where many of the soldiers came — adds another layer of meaning, symbolism and decoration.

Tuffery has already worked on the WWI Sound Shells for the Kiki Ariana Soldiers project and the larger body of work is part of Pacific markers for the war centenary.

Hurley says the RSA project will formally recognise and create a lasting legacy to acknowledge the contribution made by the Cook Island soldiers, many of whom trained at Auckland's Fort Takapuna, Narrow Neck. People will see the gates and shell and learn more about and understand the history of the Cooks in the war, he said.

"The project is also an opportunity to work with local carvers to develop their skills and gain experience," Hurley said from the work site, adding that Tuffery and Tavioni had a huge skill set and this project was a chance for them to share their knowledge.

The New Zealand Government is contributing $60,000 to the project, using money from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade set aside to mark World War I's centenary, Hurley said.

He is moved by the 500's contribution and sacrifice.

"It's mind-boggling to think of the men coming from the outer Cook Islands, to Rarotonga — which they would have never been to — then to Auckland and then France," Hurley said.

The project would be installed in the next few months, although what ceremonial event would mark that was yet to be decided, he said.

Hurley said $100,000 was also being put into erecting a boulder wall around the RSA cemetery to stop the sea eroding graves.

That has come equally from a Rainbow Warrior fund — the Pacific Development and Conservation Trust — and the Cook Islands Government.

The cemetery is directly opposite Rarotonga International Airport where more than 135,000 visitors arrive each year. So Hurley says the new art works will be extremely prominent and at last a physically significant and culturally appropriate marker as a reminder of the sacrifice of those 500 Cooks' soldiers.

Tuffery is delighted to be working on the project and in late October was looking forward to the next step.

"We're still waiting for the rain-tree wood, coming from the other side of the island," he finishes, picking up his drill and returning to work on the rock shell.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies non-stop to Rarotonga from Auckland.

Anne Gibson visited Rarotonga and Atutaki courtesy of the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation.