Remembering tīvaevae designer Mama Maria Teokota’i Sila (1938 – 2017)

Remembering tīvaevae designer Mama Maria Teokota’i Sila (1938 – 2017)

Pacific Collection Manager Grace Hutton and the rest of the Pacific Cultures team acknowledge the recent passing of artist and maker of tīvaevae Mama Maria Teokota’I.

Kua ‘aere ki te po, Gone into the night

Mama Maria Teokota’I holds up a blue tīvaevae with yellow flowers
Mama Maria Teokota’I, June 2017. Photograph by Grace Hutton

In addition to being a very creative tīvaevae designer, Mama Maria was also a very religious and spiritual woman. She made her first tīvaevae, an embroidered orchid pattern, in 1962 when she was 24 and made her last one (pictured above) in 2013.

She is most celebrated for the tīvaevae ‘Ina and the Shark’ of world fame and the most published tivaevae in the Pacific Cultures collection at Te Papa.

Brightly stitched quilt with a girl riding a whale
Tīvaevae ’Ina and the shark’ (quilt), circa 1990, Cook Islands, by Group of Mamas: Maria Teokotai, Iva Cecil, Agnes Winchester, Noo Ngatuakana, Ake Mateariki, Mata Andrew, Nga Ponini, Aue Brown, Suzanne Moo, Iva Cecil, Agnes Winchester, No’o Ngatuakana, Ake Mateariki, Mata Andrew, Nga Ponini, Aue Brown, Suzanne Mo’o. Te Papa (FE010090)

The story stitched and embroidered into the tīvaevae illustrates the legend of Ina a young woman who decided she wanted to visit her betrothed Tinirau, the god of fishes who lived far away across the Pacific Ocean. To get there she asks the king of sharks to help her to see him so he carried her on his back.

On 25 June 2017 I visited Mama Maria at her house in Takuvaine, Rarotonga, to find out where she got her inspiration from. I asked how did she came up with the idea to design her most well known tīvaevae, in response she told me that “God gave her the talent”.

She didn’t know why she designed it but it just came into her mind and she cut the pieces to fit. A group of ladies from the Catholic Church, St Joseph’s, Avarua helped her to embroider the tīvaevae which was shown at the opening of the Auditorium and Cultural Centre in 1992.

She designed two other tīvaevae in a similar vein to ‘Ina and the Shark’. One was of a woman sitting on a horse holding a bunch of flowers, and the last one she designed pictured a mountain, butterflies, trees and flowers.

Mama Maria felt that embroidering tīvaevae was getting too time consuming for her, so as an alternative she bought paint and painted her tivaevae to sell instead. Still being creative until the end.

Mama Maria had 11 children of whom seven still survive, she was the grandmother of 37 grandchildren, 43 great grandchildren, and 4 great-great grandchildren.


  1. This article brings tears of proud and joy to my eyes. Reading about my Mama. I’m so glad that her talent has been recognised. I am also blessed with many of her paintings. Thank you Grace.

    1. I mean tears of pride*

    2. Author

      Kia orana, that’s wonderful you have a collection of Mama Maria’s painted tivaevae. I’m so glad I got to meet her! We had spoken by telephone last year I mentioned I would be coming to Rarotonga in June, and she invited me to go and visit her. kia manuia, Grace

  2. Okioki rā e kui, moe mai rā i ngā ringa o te Ariki. I remember when the tīvaevae exhibition was on in Ngā Toi (L5) @ Te Papa, people would go through the Gallipoli exhibition on L2. As amazing as it is, a lot of people feel a heaviness. But those who made it up to the Tīvaevae exhibition were rewarded with a whole other experience, they’d feel lighter. Mama’s like Maria Te Okotai gave us the gift of hope. Meitaki maata

    1. Meitaki ma’ata Paora for your comments. The tīvaevae exhibition was very popular and numerous Cook Islanders visited, many to see the tīvaevae made by their tupuna. kia manuia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *