Yesterday I had the honour to say a few words of farewell to Ralph Hotere as he spent his last few hours in Otago before heading back to his birth home of Mitimiti.
OPINION: Many have already commented on the man, his life and his works and I have read reflections and tributes online that tell the story of a man who commanded enormous respect. But at the church service I learnt quite a bit more.
Although much of his work contains a religious element, I had no idea how deeply he held the Catholic faith.
His real name is Hone Papita, which is a translation of John Baptiste, and he was named after Jean Baptiste Pompallier. This is, of course, the Bishop Pompallier who was basically the first Catholic missionary to set foot in New Zealand and became the first Catholic Bishop of Auckland.
His presence in Northland from 1838 onwards meant that several of the Maori villages of the far north took on the Catholic faith. Mitimiti was one of those villages. I had intended to visit the village when we were on holiday in the Hokianga simply because I knew of it from Ralph's work but what I know now is that the village is also full of religious symbolism. The graveyard is called Hione or Zion and the church is Hato Hemi or St James. These stand alongside a traditional marae and perhaps give an insight into the way that Ralph perceived the world.
Certainly the Roman Catholic service conducted for Ralph was highly ritualised and full of symbolism itself. Most of us present were not Catholic but the religious proceedings were clearly requested by Ralph before he passed away.
During the eulogies he was described more than once as being his own man and being a man of integrity who used his talents to fight issues of racism, inequality and threats to the environment.
Quite possibly, the church has played its part in cementing his convictions about doing the right thing.
Only touched on briefly was the Aramoana protest period. It is one of the things that he is most remembered for, of course, and his involvement during that time is almost legendary among locals and the series of artworks inspired by the events are among his most iconic. For whatever reason, he also took on the task of revitalising many of the long- forgotten Maori placenames in the harbour. He wrote them into his artworks, giving them a life they had not enjoyed for well over a century. Some of them are now again a part of the modern nomenclature.
Another thing I learnt about the famous artist was that he was, at one time, a good friend of now Minister of Maori Affairs Pita Sharples.
The Minister told us about their younger days as a bunch of Maori beatniks strolling the Auckland streets and frequenting local taverns.
Perhaps the most interesting and incongruous thing we were told about Ralph was that he was also a pilot and used to fly Tiger Moths in an apparently wacky manner. A bit like one of the magnificent men in his flying machine.
All of these anecdotes and this new learning served to reinforce what a truly interesting man Ralph Hotere was. He was certainly much more complex than I realised while also being much more ordinary.
What was also remarkable about the Requiem Mass that took place was that, despite the Roman Catholic ceremony we were all a part of, the flexibility existed for important elements of Maori ritual to be included. Ralph and his family were welcomed in to the church with a karanga and proceedings were opened with the poroporoaki that I delivered on behalf of Ngai Tahu.
For whatever reason Ralph had made Otago his home and he lived alongside the harbour for many years. He had endeared himself to the people of Careys Bay, Port Chalmers and Dunedin and those who attended yesterday were representative of the cross-section of New Zealand society that Ralph had touched over the course of his life.
All who attended will be grateful the local Catholic church, his wife and daughter and his family from the north all agreed on a send-off that truly represented who he was and the community he was a part of.
We have seen too often the cultural collision that can occur when families that are grieving for a recently lost loved one are unable to reach agreement as to how best to honour their life. Just as his work was in life, in death Ralph's Dunedin service was symbolic, full of depth, engaging and reflective of the local New Zealand culture he has helped to shape.
- The Press