In 1886, a volcano named Mount Tarawera erupted and devastated a part of the north island of New Zealand.
The Maori people who lived in the area took refuge inside a ceremonial community building that they believed was an incarnation of the spirit of an important female ancestor named Hinemihi who had lived some 600 years before.
The building was surrounded by destruction but it survived intact. It was powerful and it was also beautiful and it attracted the attention of William Hillier, the fourth Earl of Onslow and the governor of New Zealand at the time. When he was leaving for home he wanted a souvenir of his time and so he bought the building for about 50 pounds. He packed it up and took it home to England where it was a decorative addition to his large estate called Clandon Park where over the years it has been used for many purposes including as a disco hall.
The building, however, was more than just a folly for a British lord. It was a meaningful cultural and spiritual place for the Maori people and more than 100 years later, the descendants of Hinemihi want their ancestor back.
That is the focus of Australian-born Maori dance artist Victoria Hunt’s piece Copper Promises which will be part of the Face 2 Face series of performances this weekend in Ottawa.
Like other works in the Face 2 Face series, Copper Promises is a cross-disciplinary performance which integrates dance, lighting, sound and visual effects.
The point is the tell Hinemihi’s story, Hunt said in an interview with ARTSFILE and help keep her before the public so that one day, perhaps soon, the building will return to New Zealand.
“Hinamehi is the name of a female ancestress. She lived between 500 and 600 years ago,” Hunt said. “She must have been a very significant person to be given guardianship of an ancestral meeting house. The house represents the tribe and the spirit of the people.”
The building itself is steeped in ceremony and important ritual. It is, Hunt said, an architectural representation of a body.
Hunt has taken more than a decade getting this work right and in tune with the story of her ancestor Hinemihi.
“I can’t rush that at all.”
Hunt has a visual arts background and that influences her performance.
Along with that “the honesty of what we are trying to do requires us to be live.” That means Hunt, the sound composer, the lighting designer and the video person all adapt to the space they are performing in.
“We tune into that space,” she said.
Copper Promises deals with a reclamation and honouring of Hinemihi, she said, “and my responsibility as a descendant along with the cultural obligations that I and others have around being caretakers of her. While she is in England (a carved door lintel is in Paris) she is fragmented. Until she is returned and she is whole, there will be need for this continual evocation of trying to bring her home.
“The way Hinemihi was removed was very dubious. After the volcano erupted and destroyed the area around the building, there was this calculated decision that this was the right time to swoop in and take the building away.
“It’s my on-going purpose to continue to understand and shift the consciousness around this. Her descendants carry intergenerational shame about how she was taken. People blame themselves. The older people feel there is no way anything can change because we are this tiny village on the north island of New Zealand. There is a sense of hopelessness.
“Our generation is saying we understand better now the colonial forces that created this kind of pressure and we believe things can change.”
Hunt has visited Hinemihi in England.
“Every time I have gone there it’s not because I made a plan to go. For example, in 2007 I was one of the performers in a very large tour from New Zealand to the U.K. After the show I was pulled aside.” Her ticket had been changed and she was now staying in England three extra days. That was enough time to visit Hinemihi.
Hunt believes: “We have relationship with Hinemihi. We speak to her and she speaks to us.”
When a fire destroyed most of the Onslow mansion, the Maori took it as a sign that Hinemihi was ready to come home, Hunt said.
The tribe is now in discussion with the National Trust in the U.K. which manages historic properties. There are conversations happening that indicate the building may be headed back to New Zealand. But even these are a bit patronizing. Hunt says the Trust wants to know if the Maori can maintain the building if it comes home.
Hunt’s Copper Promises “is an honouring of Hinemihi and the people. As a dance, it is quite abstract. It is demanding on me as a performer because of the type of dance that I do which is about entering the beings and bodies and states and transforming myself from one thing to the next.
“The audience identifies the intensities and the shifts without noticing what it is that is happening,” she said. But, for example, she dances the volcanic eruption and the disillusionment and devastation it caused.
“It ends in hope, when it brings together Hinemihi’s spirit and my spirit. They are interchangeable.”
As for the tribe, “we continue to remember and honour and work towards a reunion with Hinemihi.
Face 2 Face: Copper Promises: Hinemihi Haka by Victoria Hunt
Where: La Nouvelle Scene
When: Feb 22 & 23 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca