Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The House That Came Home

Every so often I come upon a story so wonderful, it gives me goose bumps. That's what I felt when I discovered a small news clipping about the return of the historic Mataatua Wharenui to the Ngati Awa people of the Whakatane area in New Zealand's North Island..
This is a Maori wharenui (meeting house) with a fascinating history. When it opened in 1875, it measured 79 feet (24 metres) in length, 41 feet (12.5 metres) in width and 24 feet (7.5 metres) high, which would have made it a colossal wharenui, even by today's standards. It was and still is, the only wharenui in existence with two sets of twins depicted in the two carved, upright supports (amo) on the front gable of the house.

In 1879 however, the wharenui was seized by Europeans for a Bristish Empire exhibition in Sydney. It was dismantled and sent across the Tasman on the steamship,  SS Staffa, where it was rebuilt inside-out (top image), exposing the precious carvings of iwi tupuna to the elements. Incidentally, the steamship it travelled on was of smaller dimension than the house itself and could have fitted inside the fully erect Mataatua.
From Sydney, the house travelled on to London in 1883. King George V and Queen Mary (second and thrid image from top) visited the wharenui during the 1924 British Empire Exhibition; and it was finally returned to New Zealand in 1925 - to the Otago Museum in Dunedin - but not before it had been 'repaired' by Auckland (European) carver, T Chappe Hall, who took it upon himself to add a sequence of carvings depicting Phar Lap's winning of the 1930 Melbourne Cup. The wharenui then spent 70 years in Otago Museum.
The 1996 Waitangi Tribunal Special Deed of Settlement finally saw Mataatua returned to the Ngati Awa people and over the last 15 years, a dedicated team of artists, originally led by the late Ngati Awa Master Carver, Te Hau O Te Rangi Tutua,  has been restoring it to its original magnificence.
And on September 17th, 2011, 130 years after it first left new Zealand shores, Ngati Awa and the Mataatua confederation of tribers will celebrate its return and reopen 'the house that came home.' It will stand once again as the icon of a united, strong and resilient Ngati Awa, who have waited a long time to share their wharenui with the pride it deserves.
Three above images - restored wharenui carvings
The September reopening of Mataatua Wharenui with provide a rare opportunity to see a contemporary application of ancient Maori traditions.  The rarely witnessed ceremony - known as Kawanga Whare, or Te Tai I Te Kawa - begins at dawn, before the rising of the sun and was traditionally undertaken to lift the tapu (sacredness, spiritual restriction), of a house so that it could be used socially in comfort and confidence. It is a long process that follows strict traditional protocols and customs.
I was lucky enough last year, to experience this traditional dawn ritual at the opening of the new Ngai Tahu wharenui at Rapaki Marae in Governor's Bay, near Christchurch.
The future for Mataatua looks bright.
Te Runanga o Ngati Awa have worked closely with a number of design and architectural partners to create a new tourism venture based around the Mataatua experience. The latest interactive digital technology has been employed to help tell the traditions and histories of Ngati Awa, beginning with the epic voyage of the Mataatua Waka, the ancestral canoe that brought the Eastern Bay of Plenty tribe's forebears to New Zealand more than a thousand years ago. Visitors will have the opportunity to visit the wharenui and to interact with the descendants of those early Ngati Awa chiefs.

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