A Northland man's unusual gift for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has inspired an art exhibition 1400km away in Ashburton.

In February, Ardern visited Kerikeri Mission Station to see a pair of 19th century school slates which had been added to the United Nations register of world documentary heritage.

The slates, a surprise discovery under the floorboards at Kemp House, are the oldest known examples of writing by Māori women.

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One of the slates was signed by Rongo, the then 16-year-old daughter of renowned Ngāpuhi chief Hongi Hika and his wife Turikatuku.

Helpers prepare Owen Kingi's gift for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Helpers prepare Owen Kingi's gift for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Among those present during Ardern's visit was one of Hika's descendants, Owen Kingi of Whangaroa, who said he'd grown "10 inches taller" when the slates were discovered.

Ardern gave Kingi a certificate recording the slates' inclusion in the Unesco register, but the flamboyant Kingi also had a surprise gift for the Prime Minister.

As Ardern was preparing to leave, Kingi and a team of helpers laid out a blanket, ice, fern fronds and enough food for a feast. The gift included six sheep carcasses, corn, watermelons and sacks of potatoes from Kingi's own farm, a well as more exotic fare such as pineapples.

Ardern appeared flummoxed at first — it wasn't even clear if all the food would fit in the Prime Ministerial van along with baby Neve's pram — but solved her dilemma by gifting the kai to the hundreds of paddlers taking part in a waka training camp at Haruru Falls.

"And all this, Prime Minister, is for you!" Owen Kingi surprises Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern with an unusual gift at Kerikeri Mission Station. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Meanwhile, the Advocate story about Kingi's gift caught the eye of Natalie Smith, an art history lecturer at the University of Otago, and Victoria Bell, from Dunedin School of Art and Otago Polytechnic. The women were inspired to organise an exhibition around the theme of unusual gift giving and have put out a nationwide call for artist proposals.

"We were talking about the way gifts are kind of plastic and heavily packaged now," Smith said.

"We were reminiscing about our favourite gifts, which were home-made and home-grown. The Owen Kingi story appeared around that time and we loved the sense of joy and playfulness, with an underlying serious message, and the way Jacinda Ardern regifted it to another group," she said.

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"That's what people used to do, they would gift produce from their own land. This was a pure gift with no fancy packaging to go into a landfill."

The show will be held at Ashburton Art Gallery in 2021. Its working title, The Most Unusual Gift?, was taken from the newspaper's headline, 'Is this Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's most unusual gift?'.

Kingi said his gift was intended to "open the front door to a meaningful discussion" about land his family wanted returned.

"Instead of yelling and shouting, it's better to show good intentions and to be fair and kind, regardless of what has happened to us as Māori people. We're here to share now."

He loved the idea of the exhibition and was fully in support.

• Artists keen to submit a work for the exhibition are urged to send in a proposal. Email victoria.bell@op.ac.nz for more information.