Chief ‘Atay’ portrait welcomed home

A young Ngai Tahu man who set off on his OE 183 years ago has finally returned home to Otago.

Who Atay, chief of Otargo [sic] New Zealand was or how he got to be in Sydney in 1835, no-one knows.

But while there he met German artist Charles Rodius, who drew his portrait with charcoal, graphite and watercolour and pencil, on parchment.

The portrait of Atay — how Rodius rendered his name phonetically — was a treasured heirloom of  a Melbourne family over the intervening years, but last  December  the picture was bought by the Hocken Library.

After being sent to Auckland for conservation work, Atay returned to his rohe yesterday, to be welcomed by his iwi and

a ceremony to mark the occasion at the Hocken.

Atay was a rangatira, and it was quite possible Ngai Tahu representatives at the event were related to him, University of Otago Maori development director  Tuari Potiki said.

Hocken librarian Sharon Dell with the institution’s latest acquisition, Atay, chief of Otargo ...
Hocken librarian Sharon Dell with the institution’s latest acquisition, Atay, chief of Otargo [sic] New Zealand, by Charles Rodius. Photo: Peter McIntosh
"He has been away for a very, very long time, and we welcome him back — to the Hocken and, more importantly, to the land," Mr Potiki said.

"It is both a joyous and a sad day. It is sad because he is someone who was lost to us, but it is joyous that he returns to where he should be."

Hocken librarian Sharon Dell said the work was too delicate to go on permanent display.

"Like other items in the collection, it will be brought out for short periods from time to time, but it will be available for research ... We try not to have works this fragile on show permanently."

The portrait cost the Hocken $150,000, and was bought  with funds from its endowment trust.

Ngai Tahu had been asked their opinion of the portrait pre-auction and their strong support was a great encouragement, Ms Dell said.

"They said it was really important to us and we really would like to see him back, and without that we wouldn’t have gone ahead," she said.

"It is rare to see a work this detailed, and I don’t think we’ve got anything quite like this."

It was hoped a  descendant might recognise their ancestor to  give a name and a history to Atay.

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