Great artist comes home to the hill

Acclaimed New Zealand artist Ralph Hotere's sister Charlotte Hotere.
Acclaimed New Zealand artist Ralph Hotere's sister Charlotte Hotere.

Dust billows up the valley as the black jeep grinds down the gravel road, stones flying and cattle scattering out of its way.

"I've told that boy already he needs to slow down," says the kuia sitting on the church steps, shaking her head. "He will feel the end of my tongue again if he needs to."

The jeep turns into a mown paddock and comes to an abrupt halt. Children crowd around, clambering for a look. Men in gumboots jump out, shake hands and hongi, noses pressed together, eyes shut, the greeting held for what seems to be an endless amount of time.

This is Mitimiti, on the edge of the remote Hokianga, where artist Ralph Hotere was born, and where he will be buried, in a cemetery on a perilous hillside, overlooking a swathe of ocean and a tiny speck of a village seen by most New Zealanders only in abstract through his work.

"He wanted to come back here. He wanted to come home. That's where his roots are," says grand-nephew Matthew Hotere.

"And looking out there," he gestures at the valley, the mountain, the sea, "what's not to come home to?"

Hotere was born into the settlement in 1931, one of 15 children. The family - mother Ana Maria, father Tangirau - had a farm, where they milked cows and rode horses and kept pigs and gardens. Hotere left the village as a young man, moving overseas, then settling in Dunedin. Although he hadn't visited for some time, it didn't matter, says Hotere's sister Charlotte Courtenay. The area was always close to his heart.

"And everyone loved Ralph," she says. Courtenay is anxiously anticipating the arrival of her brother's body by helicopter. He died on Sunday, aged 81. It is now Friday. Usually, when he was ill, she would make the long journey from Kaitaia to be with him, but this time she was unable to go and is feeling the loss keenly.

"It has been a long week waiting for him."

When the chopper arrives it is a surprise. The black "H" painted in the paddock to mark a landing spot is barely dry when it drones overhead, drowning out the crickets and drawing the children out of every corner, running in delight.

Hotere's sister Maraea Chung, wife Mary McFarlane, daughter Andrea Hotere-Naish and her two children climb out of the machine and into the arms of their whanau and begin to cry.

The black Hummer isn't speeding now. Polished and shining, it seems ostentatiously out of place until the six pallbearers place the coffin in it, ferns draped over the wood, and begin to walk slowly towards the meeting house, drawn by the conch shell and a karanga and a haka-powhiri performed by the children as the procession arrives.

"Uncle Ral would have loved that," says niece Christine Poa, watching the car move slowly away. "A Hummer. And it was black."

Hotere's body is taken to lie at Matihetihe Marae. Matihetihe, meaning "home of the tumbleweed", a name taken from an event at a certain time of year when the sea brings the baby toheroa onto the beach. When the wind picks up, tumbleweeds are blown through the foam, picking up the baby shellfish in their fronds, and onto the beach.

When the body is inside, visitors begin to arrive. Each new group is welcomed, fed, and given a bed should they need it. The kitchen is humming, with sandwiches and cake and endless cups of tea emerging through its doors. The money is provided by a family trust, but koha is accepted graciously.

The body will lie for at least two days. Hotere will be buried at a ceremony tomorrow at 10am. The gravediggers will get up at dawn. They will head to the hillside and strike their spades into the sandy earth, then climb into the hole to make it deep. They will be the last at the grave, after all the other visitors have returned to the house, perhaps staying for a quiet beer among the other uncles buried on the hill.

Matthew Hotere says to do that would be a huge honour. His uncle's tangi is likely the largest the marae will ever see. "It just shows the mana of the man," he says.

He admits, like many of the whanau, he doesn't understand Hotere's art but that doesn't matter to him.

"Uncle Ralph is Uncle Ralph. He's just one of us, a Hotere. It's just that he painted well."

Sunday Star Times