The eruption of Mt Tarawera on a cold winter's night in 1886 was a turning point in New Zealand's history – not only for what was lost, including some 120 lives, but also for what endured.
In the darkness and confusion, Tene Waitere and his wife Ruihi found their way to Hinemihi, the meeting house he had helped carved that stood in Te Wairoa at the gateway to the famed Pink and White Terraces. Under a rain of fire and rock, the wharenui's roof held firm, propped up by the wooden benches where tourists would sit to be welcomed by iwi before marvelling at the eighth wonder of the world.
"If it hadn't been for Hinemihi, we wouldn't exist," says Waitere's great-great-grandson, Jim Schuster, a Māori heritage adviser on traditional arts at Heritage New Zealand. "That's what makes her special to us. She saved our lives too."
The story of Hinemihi o Te Ao Tawhito (Hinemihi of the old world) is an extraordinary tale full of drama and intrigue, spanning three centuries and criss-crossing the globe.
To Ngāti Hinemihi, the descendants of Tūhourangi chief Āporo Wharekāniwha, she is a living entity – a revered kuia longing for home, after being taken to England 128 years ago to stand in the grounds of a country estate in Surrey.
To historians, she is a symbol of New Zealand's colonial past and the presumption of ownership rights still riding on the British Empire's long coat-tails. To the art world, she is one of the most important taonga held outside our shores.
Hinemihi was carved by Ngāti Tarāwhai master Wero Tāroi and his apprentice, Waitere. One of as many as 100 people who survived the eruption by sheltering under her wing, Waitere is now widely recognised as the most innovative Māori carver of his time.
Art historian Hamish Coney, whose new book, Hinemihi: Te Hokinga – The Return, has just been published, considers the wharenui to be one of New Zealand's greatest artworks. He describes Tāroi as a shrewd observer of a world that was changing around him – reflected, perhaps, in his decision to break with Māori tradition and name the meeting house after a woman, said to have been a great chieftainess. Tāroi was also known for his wry humour: the carved tekoteko figure atop Hinemihi wears a jaunty bowler hat.
"This is his Sistine Chapel," says Coney, an Auckland art consultant and former managing director of leading fine art auction house Art + Object. "The more I look at her, the more I'm blown away. One of the most powerful things about Māori art is its healing capability. For me, the return of Hinemihi to New Zealand could be one of the most restorative moments in our recent history."
Hinemihi: Te Hokinga traces the wharenui's journey from Te Wairoa to England, and the long, delicate negotiations with the UK's National Trust that has led to an agreement in principle to bring her back home.
Produced in collaboration with documentary photographer Mark Adams, the book has its own creation story, initially conceived as a catalogue for an exhibition by Adams at Auckland's Two Rooms gallery earlier this year. His striking large-format colour images of Hinemihi, taken on location in Surrey, were shot on a wooden Deardorff, the same type of camera used by the famous Burton brothers to photograph Hinemihi at Te Wairoa more than a century earlier.
Coney spent months scouring library and museum archives for the remarkable collection of historical photographs also featured in the book, including an 1866 picture of the Pink and White Terraces. Previously unpublished images include a 1927 photograph of Tene Waitere and his granddaughter Guide Rangi, Coney's most thrilling find, discovered in a private family album held by the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington.
As a child, Coney spent his summers at the family bach on the shore of Lake Rotoiti. But both academically and professionally, that remained a foreign world. Immersed in the European art canon, he was shocked at the "massive gap" in his knowledge when Art + Object was invited to value the Kingitanga collection at Tūrangawaewae, and he came under the spell of whakairo (Māori carving).
"I had a degree in art history and travelled the world looking at art, yet I knew nothing," he says. "There I'd been, on the doorstep of one of the great art traditions in the world, unbroken and living, passed from uncle to nephew, from father to son, yet when I looked at Māori carving, I couldn't see it. I didn't understand it. But I knew intuitively that I was in the presence of an incredible art form."
Coney devoured Roger Neich's Carved Histories, on Rotorua's Ngāti Tarāwhai woodcarving tradition, then came across Mark Adams' book, Rauru, on the work of Tene Waitere. One of the chapters was on Hinemihi. Immediately, Coney was captivated by her story and the incongruity of her fate.
"What the hell is that carved Māori meeting house doing in England, standing on that whenua?" he remembers thinking. "What is its story? And then you're drawn into one of the great dramatic events in New Zealand: the eruption of Mt Tarawera and the destruction of the Pink and White Terraces."
The eruption laid waste to the settlement at Te Wairoa, which was abandoned (now known as the Buried Village, it's one of New Zealand's most visited archaeological sites, a short drive from Rotorua). Hinemihi was one of only two structures left standing, deep in solidified volcanic mud.
A few years later, the retiring Governor of New Zealand, the 4th Earl of Onslow, was looking for something substantial to take back to England as a souvenir of his time here. In 1892, he bought the derelict meeting house for £50, removed the 23 original carvings, and shipped them off with his wife and four children. (A collector of artefacts, he had developed a genuine bond with his adopted country: when the couple's youngest child was born in Wellington, they named him Huia.)
The Onslow's ancestral seat, Clandon Park, was a Palladian-style 18th-century manor on an estate in Surrey, 60km south of London. In the years that followed Hinemihi's arrival, the reassembled wharenui was variously employed as a garden shed, a children's playhouse and a boathouse by the lake, before eventually being relocated under an oak tree, at the mercy of the English weather.
During World War I, the property was used as a hospital for foreign soldiers and members of the NZ (Māori) Pioneer Battalion did some restoration work on the carved house as part of their recuperation. Ngāti Rānana, a group that represents Māori in London, embraced her as their home marae. Pilgrimages were regularly made to Clandon Park, which was gifted to the National Trust in the 1950s. An annual hāngī was held at the wharenui, and a taiaha training school ran practice sessions on the lawn.
His interest piqued, Coney visited the estate in 2014 to write a magazine article on Hinemihi, an encounter he describes as one of the most transformative art experiences in his life.
"The first thing you see is this quite extraordinary stately mansion in this English country garden with lovely lawns and all the roses laid out," he recalls. "Then you come down the side of the building and see Hinemihi, there in the distance. It's slightly surreal. And as a New Zealander, it feels so charged. She really spoke to me at the time."
Through the decades, emissaries had tried and failed to negotiate Hinemihi's return to her iwi, including official approaches by the Māori King and the late Mat Rata, while Minister of Māori Affairs in the 1970s. All were turned down flat. As far as the National Trust was concerned, ownership of the house was clear – and they had the receipt to prove it.
Back in Aotearoa, the translocated matriarch had never been forgotten by her kin. Jim Schuster says he can't remember a time when he wasn't aware of Hinemihi's place in his ancestry.
The renowned Guide Rangi, Schuster's great-aunt, was born 10 years after the Mt Tarawera eruption. As a youngster, he'd listen transfixed to her stories. Also sheltering in Hinemihi that night, he says, was Ruihi Waitere's heavily pregnant sister and her young son; she emerged the next morning still clutching one of her most prized possessions, a tea kettle, which had to be pried out of her hand.
In 1986, Schuster's mother, Emily, a renowned weaver, travelled to Clandon Park as part of a delegation from the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute – a visit that's recounted by Alan Gallop in his book The House with the Golden Eyes. (The title refers to the gold sovereigns used in place of pāua in the eye sockets of a male figure carved into the centre pole.)
Many of the group were in tears as they came to a standstill about 4m away from Hinemihi and stood in silence. "Suddenly, and without warning, the door flew open," writes Gallop. It was a spine-tingling moment and the memory never left him. Emily told him she could feel the presence – and the pain – of her ancestors when she touched the carvings.
A few years later, Schuster followed in his mother's footsteps. Travelling in Europe with his wife and children, he'd been asked to measure up for some new carvings to replace missing pieces around Hinemihi's door and window, apparently removed and trimmed to fit for use as a fireplace surround.
"Hine had a strong wairua about her," he says. "You know, the spiritual side. When we walked towards her across the lawn for the first time, we couldn't stop the tears from flowing. She looked mokemoke [lonely] way out there in the English countryside."
Hinemihi was also taking a hammering. In one violent storm, a branch of the oak tree snapped off and cracked her spine. Aware the carvings were in poor condition, both from lack of proper care and exposure to the elements, Schuster offered his help to restore and preserve them. But then, calamity struck.
In 2015, a fire broke out at Clandon Park, leaving the mansion in ruins. Lost in the flames were the entire contents of Onslow's "New Zealand room", a collection of artefacts including hei tiki, pounamu, korowai, mounted native birds, and Hinemihi's framed bill of sale, which had been hung on the wall.
Schuster, alerted to the unfolding catastrophe, watched a livestream of the fire online. Across the lawn from the main house, he could see someone standing next to Hinemihi with a fire extinguisher, in case any stray sparks ignited her thatched roof. (During restoration work, based on a black and white photograph taken post-eruption, the thick layer of volcanic ash that coated the roof was mistaken for thatch.)
Back to Surrey went Schuster. The house was once again dismantled, and the carvings were cleaned of moss and lichen before being packed up and sent into storage, as Schuster farewelled her with a karakia. "I said to myself, 'Hinemihi, this could be the start of your long journey home.'"
The following year, Schuster shared Hinemihi's story with Andrew Coleman, the new chief executive of Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga. He took up the challenge as a personal crusade – struck by the depth of sadness felt by Schuster's mother, Emily, that she hadn't lived to see her ancestor returned.
After lengthy negotiations, a proposal to exchange Hinemihi in return for a new set of carvings was accepted in principle by the UK's National Trust late last year. Coleman says that's a significant step, challenging the institutional view on ownership rights to cultural artefacts held on foreign soil. "It flies in the face of a lot of advice museum curators are getting. But we're not giving up until Hinemihi is back in her rightful place."
Found to have deteriorated in storage, the carvings are now being cared for at the Knole Conservation Studio in Kent. Heritage New Zealand has agreed to cover the cost of their transportation back to New Zealand, and a long-term conservation plan is in development with the national carving school, Te Puia, in Rotorua. Tōtara is now being sourced for carvings to adorn a new wharenui at Clandon Park, where plans are afoot to have the manor house rebuilt.
While Covid-19 restrictions have slowed the approval process, with its complex regulatory requirements, Coleman expects "significant progress" to be made within the next six months. He says the protracted negotiations have been a lesson in Māoritanga for his British counterparts.
"Hinemihi has a deep and personal meaning to her people but had been poorly treated and not given what we would call respect. Now, the National Trust truly understands her significance. And she's like any New Zealander who has travelled the world. Eventually, we all want to come home."
Photographer Mark Adams shares Coney's view that the work of master carvers such as Tāroi and Waitere should be displayed in fine art galleries, not siloed in museums. He believes the story of Hinemihi – and many other taonga – holds meaning for all New Zealanders.
"In the UK, some see her as an ambassador," he says. "To many Kiwis in London, she's their home marae. That side of things is kind of none of my business. I'm a Pākehā boy. But the fact of her being there and how that came to be is a joint history. We all have a stake in it."
Where Hinemihi will stand on her return to Aotearoa will be for Ngāti Hinemihi to decide, says Schuster. She may go on temporary display at Te Papa or the Rotorua Museum. When her final resting place is chosen, the concept of a korowai shelter has been discussed to cloak her ageing bones from the weather. The original site at Te Wairoa has never been resettled, so that's not an option he would personally support "until there are people up there to keep her warm".
In the meantime, Hinemihi – metaphorically, at least – is packing her bags. "She stood at Te Wairoa and watched a mountain burn," Schuster says. "She stood at Clandon Park and watched a mansion burn. And she survived them both. It's been said that when Hinemihi is ready to come home, she will. I think that time is now."
Hinemihi: Te Hokinga – The Return (Rim Books, $60) will be released on December 8. Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art, a landmark exhibition featuring more than 300 works by 120 Māori artists, including carver Reweti Arapere, opens at Auckland Art Gallery on December 5.