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An engraving of Te Haahi Ringatū founder Te Kooti from 1870. Photo/Alamy

The religious writings of Te Kooti unearthed from history

The Ringatū church's founding documents feature in an exhibition of photographer Joyce Campbell’s artistic career.

The original manuscripts of the Ringatū faith, concluded Judith Binney in her 1995 biography of Te Kooti, Redemption Songs, “probably do exist”. But they await “another time, and other writers”.

That time is now. In the public gaze for the first time in 150 years, a small bound volume on display in Wellington’s Adam Art Gallery, its pages tattered, the handwriting faint, tells the story of Te Kooti and the founding of Te Haahi Ringatū, the Ringatū faith. Within its pages are the original order of service as well as 19 pages of whakapapa and the inscribed instruction urging followers to return home and “establish the faith amongst our families”.

The manuscript of Te Kooti Ārikirangi Te Turuki was written in 1866 when Te Kooti was exiled to the Chatham Islands. In 1869, as the prophet and his followers waited for permission from Tūhoe to seek shelter in Te Urewera, it was passed on to Paratene Waata Kūnaiti.

By then, Te Kooti was a wanted man. In 1868, he and nearly 300 men, women and children, known collectively as the whakarau, had escaped the Chatham Islands on board the Rifleman, arriving near Gisborne in July that year. Three times, colonial forces tried to arrest him, but he eluded them. In the early hours of November 10, he and his men descended on Matawhero, killing 33 Europeans and 37 friendly Māori, partly as utu for his exile, partly to show he was not to be trifled with. In what became the final chapter of the New Zealand Wars, the party fled inland up through the Ruakituri Valley towards Te Urewera, then beyond the writ of British Law. It was here he gave the manuscript to Waata Kūnaiti in recognition of the help given by Ngāi Kōhatu in guiding them to that point.

Richard Niania. Photo/Richard Cross/Supplied

In 1931, the manuscript was passed on to Pare Īhaka Ranapia-Niania, leader of the Te Reinga parish of Te Haahi Ringatū. After her death in 1988, it was handed on again, this time to her grandson, Waata Kūnaiti’s great-great-grandson Richard Niania, along with a small Ringatū prayer book, an unfinished kotiate or whalebone club and the 1968 White Book, the first published text of the Ringatū church.

“She gave the manuscripts to my uncle with the instruction to give them to me because I would know what to do with them,” says Niania, on the phone from his home in the Ruakituri Valley within earshot of the rushing waters of Te Reinga Falls, where his grandparents lived.

“I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about.”

Since then, as tribal historian, kaumātua of his Ngāi Kōhatu hapū and kaitiaki of these taonga, Niania has devoted himself to learning and preserving the history, culture and landscape of the hapū and whānau in the vicinity of Whakapūnake Maunga.

In 2003, he invited Binney to view the manuscript. She confirmed it to be Te Kooti’s handwriting and the earliest example of Ringatū writings she had seen.

“That was the inspiration for getting the manuscripts prepared for a return to the public space,” says Niania. “The key date for me was 1869, when the manuscript changed hands between Te Kooti and Paratene as a gesture of thanks to the 14 people from my hapū who had assisted him and the whakarau to move from the coast to the interior.”

Pages from the Te Kooti Ārikirangi Te Turuki manuscript. Photo/Supplied by the artist

The Manuscript of Ārikirangi is exhibited within a series of large photographs of each page, painstakingly taken by interdisciplinary artist Joyce Campbell, now an associate professor at Auckland University’s Elam School of Fine Arts.

On the dark walls the pages glow, as if soaked in shellac or embalmed in amber.

“I shot them in a way close to candlelight; in a way they might have originally been read,” says Campbell. “I felt they had to feel warm, not blasted out with light. They are amazingly lived-with documents – they have been handled and thought about for generations and that is evident when you encounter them as objects. I was going to bring all these art ideas but realised that was totally irrelevant. The manuscripts are in themselves a mystery, they don’t need me in the mix.”

The presentation of the manuscript is the latest iteration of Te Taniwha, a collaborative project by Niania and Campbell using photographs, text, film, video and audio recordings to give life to the people, mythology, history and ecology of Te Reinga and the Ruakituri Valley. Some of these works are seen here as part of the wider On the Last Afternoon: Disrupted Ecologies and the Work of Joyce Campbell, a survey exhibition of photography, film and video from Campbell’s near three-decade career, curated by University of California art historian John C Welchman.

In a series of large photographs, te tororauiri, a silver-belly eel, regarded by Ngāi Kōhatu as the custodian of the waterfall, slithers huge and sinuous across the wall. Nine gelatin silver photographs retrace the path of Te Kooti along the cloud-shrouded valleys, steep cliffs and still waters of Ruakituri Valley. In Ghost Scrub, a three-channel digital film, bleached groves of kānuka and mānuka, stripped and largely silent, record the effect of sprayed herbicides.

The chest received by Niania containing the manuscript. Photo/Supplied by the artist

In other works, in other landscapes, she traces the results of industrialisation and colonisation, social desolation and environmental degradation, catching at the threads of ecological disruption evident through the microscopic detail of crystal growths, microbial colonies and the startling detail of leaf and stem, then widening out into the vast sweep of the Californian desert where, not far from the freeway, Campbell found a previously flooded landscape, trees “like gnarled old ladies. It has this brooding, frightening quality – everything was dying. We know what is going on – temperatures that little bit higher, rainfall a little bit lower – but nobody is seeing it. There is this underlying sense that something was changing very dramatically just beyond the time frame of observation.”

Campbell frequently uses anachronistic techniques such as photograms, gelatin silver photographs and daguerreotypes to endow her work with a sense of mystery and inexplicable import. As Adam Art Gallery director Christina Barton writes in the forthcoming book of the exhibition, “Campbell’s preference for 19th-century analogue processes gives rise to images of extraordinary detail, depth, richness and texture; but it also fulfils her ambition to depict subtle or ‘mysterious’ things and events that modern cameras and standardised equipment do not allow.”

A series of daguerreotypes from a 2006 trip she made to Antarctica record vertical cliffs of ice, windswept expanses of snowy pressure ridges and a sculpted glacier appearing as in a ghoulish scream of environmental degradation.

“I’m really interested in emergent forms, emergent structure, emergent logic,” says Campbell. “I don’t go out there and think, ‘I’ll make this kind of image’. I work with techniques that I can’t fully predict and can’t fully control.

Joyce Campbell’s 2015 gelatin silver print At Papuni (Where the Infant Taniwha Suckled on Kohuwai). Photo/Joyce Campbell/Supplied

“A lot of my aesthetic approach is to try to get to the historic moment when change occurred – so using ambrotypes to think about the emergence of the city of Los Angeles or what was going on in Te Reinga at a similar time or using the feeling of candlelight for the manuscript. I want people to understand that at a particular historic moment, particular ways of seeing were dominant, and you can draw people back into that moment through the technologies of the time.”

Campbell and Niania will continue to draw the people of Te Reinga, many now scattered throughout the world, back to the Ruakituri Valley. As part of the Te Taniwha project, they are planning a new publication to bring together the many stories associated with the area, including the flight of Te Kooti and his followers.

“It is land I really love, but Richard tells the stories – they are not mine to tell. My task is to be guided by him, to go in there like an antenna and be sensitive and open to the situation and bring all my technical skill and aesthetic sensibility to that task. His task is much more long term. Every place has that richness but there are not many places where people have maintained that level of relationship.”

On The Last Afternoon: Disrupted Ecologies and the Work of Joyce Campbell; Te Taniwha: The Manuscript of Ārikirangi, Adam Art Gallery, Wellington, until October 20.

This article was first published in the September 28, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.