Ralph Hotere was one of New Zealand’s most important late twentieth-century artists. He began as a painter with a strong drawing practice, later moving into sculpture and installation. His work reflected an abstract aesthetic, often characterised by an emphasis on the colour black, the use of crosses, circles and lines, and the incorporation of the stencilled and handwritten words of poets. Many of his later works were collaborations with the artist Bill Culbert, who worked with light. Hotere was well-known for using power tools, applying industrial techniques to his artworks, for his innovative use of materials and his ability, as poet Ian Wedde put it, to show ‘the intelligence in ordinary things’.1 His Catholic upbringing and Māori heritage underpinned much of his work, which frequently protested against injustice, war, human rights violations, colonisation, and industrial and environmental catastrophe. Art historian Jonathan Mane-Wheoki placed him ‘at the forefront of mainstream New Zealand art history. But in a sense he also stands outside of it, both as a Māori and as one of the most cosmopolitan, sophisticated, international artists New Zealand has yet produced.’2
Hotere was born in Taikarawa, a small Māori settlement between the entrances to the Hokianga and Whāngāpē Harbours, on 11 August 1931. He was one of 11 children born to Ana Maria Daniels and her husband Tangirau Kirimete Hotere. Of Te Aupōuri descent, he was named Hone Papita Raukura after Jean Baptiste François Pompallier, the French bishop who established the first New Zealand Catholic mission in the Hokianga in 1838. Hotere was raised in a close Māori Catholic family in his home community of Mitimiti.
At 15, he left Mitimiti to attend St Peter’s Māori College (Hato Petera) on Auckland’s North Shore for three years, followed by two years at Auckland Teachers’ College (1950–51). He spent a further year in Dunedin at the Teachers’ College and King Edward Technical College, specialising in art. He started painting, and his first exhibition was a two-person show with fellow art specialist John Kim at Dunedin Public Library in 1952.
In 1953 Hotere was recruited as an itinerant Māori arts and crafts adviser based in the Bay of Islands by Gordon Tovey, the national supervisor of arts and crafts in the Department of Education. He served in Tovey’s progressive Northern Maori Project (1954–59), an experiment in arts education involving a group of predominately Māori primary schools in the Far North. Tovey, a visionary educator credited with developing the country’s first bicultural arts education, encouraged the advisers he recruited to cultivate their own research and art practice as part of their work. Recognising Hotere’s exceptional artistic gifts, Tovey is said to have given him time away from his job to paint. In 1958, 1959 and 1960, Hotere held solo exhibitions at the Northland Art Society, and his drawings were featured in the Department of Maori Affairs’ journal Te Ao Hou.
Hotere was one of a small group of pioneering Māori artists who developed the modernist Māori art movement of the 1960s, exploring the styles and techniques of international modern art. Avant-garde in their approach, the Māori modernists combined Māori ideas, cultural philosophies and sometimes forms with European modernism, drawing inspiration from artists such as Jean Arp, Constantin Brâncuşi, Barbara Hepworth, Paul Klee, Henry Moore and Pablo Picasso.
The Māori modernists, who also included Cath Brown, Fred Graham, Mere Harrison (née Lodge), Katarina Mataira, Paratene Matchitt, Buck Nin, Freda Rankin, Muru Walters, Marilynn Webb, Selwyn Wilson and Arnold Manaaki Wilson, shared many of the same concerns as their non-Māori contemporaries. As artists they focused on creating contemporary art for the art gallery rather than the wharenui (Māori meeting house). Modernism provided a means to escape the conventionality of customary culture. Hotere was one of the most forward thinking of the group. His influence extended both to his contemporaries and to the generations that followed.
In 1961 Hotere was awarded a New Zealand Art Societies Fellowship that allowed him to travel to Europe to study painting and graphic design at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London. That year his work, ‘Sand dunes, Hokianga’, was selected for a contemporary group show at Auckland City Art Gallery, making him the first modernist Māori painter to be recognised by New Zealand’s art mainstream; for many years after he was the sole Māori modernist artist fully embraced by the art establishment. In 1961 he also showed work in a group show at Ikon Gallery, Auckland, alongside Colin McCahon.
The following year Hotere gained a Karolyi International Fellowship to work in France, and from there spent the next two and a half years travelling and exhibiting in Europe. His travels included visits to the Sangro River War Cemetery on the Adriatic coast of Italy, where his brother Jack, who had been killed in action in 1943, was buried. These visits prompted his first anti-war paintings, his significant ‘Sangro’ series. He began to produce overtly political works, a practice he followed fearlessly through the remainder of his career. In 1962 he created his ‘Polaris’ series which referenced the deployment of US missiles with nuclear warheads during the 1962 Cuban crisis, and his ‘Algerie’ series which responded to French colonialism and the war for independence in Algeria.
During his time in England, Hotere exhibited in London at the Redfern Gallery, the Royal Society of British Artists, the Royal College of Art, the Whitechapel Gallery and the Qantas Gallery, and had an important solo show, Ralph Hotere: Recent Work, in Middlesborough. His work brought him international acclaim. Hotere was one of the first Māori artists to earn an artistic reputation outside New Zealand.
Hotere returned to New Zealand in 1965. His time overseas had been a formative and productive period, during which he established his mature style. He rejoined the Education Department in Auckland as a schools arts adviser, and exhibited in Auckland, Sydney, Christchurch and Dunedin. In 1968 he created and exhibited his first ‘black paintings’, reductive works in which he had ‘cleared away all that is superfluous to requirements’.3 His ‘black paintings’ became his signature and best known artworks, and he produced many series throughout his career. Awarded the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship at the University of Otago in 1969, he moved to Otago permanently. Living in Port Chalmers, especially, he could work more easily away from the distractions of big-city life. As Hotere put it, ‘in Dunedin they accept I am a painter and leave me to go about my work.’4
In 1969 he had work included in shows in New Zealand and internationally in Tokyo (Japan), Ljubljana (Yugoslavia), USA and Canada. In the 1970s Hotere expanded his repertoire to include stage sets and costumes for theatre, and cover illustrations for poetry books by James K. Baxter, Hone Tuwhare and Bob Orr. Many of his works of this era incorporated stencilled and handwritten words in English, te reo Māori and other languages, including French. Some featured the words of New Zealand poets, including Tuwhare, Bill Manhire, Ian Wedde and Cilla McQueen.
Significant exhibitions in the 1970s included his ‘Malady’ works, which were selected for the XI Sao Paulo Biennale in Brazil; his ‘Te Whiti’ series about the sacking of Parihaka in 1881; the Founders Theatre Mural for the Hamilton City Council; and his ‘Song cycle’ banners for Sound Movement Theatre’s performance involving composer and ethnomusicologist Jack Body.
Hotere’s commission to create a major mural at Auckland International Airport in 1977 marked a significant moment in his artistic development. The 18-metre ‘The flight of the godwit’ is said to be one of his greatest works, featuring vertical bands of colour, circles and stencilled text on matt and shiny black backgrounds, and with ‘every detail resonant with past experience’, as art historian Kriselle Baker puts it.5 Godwit/Kuaka was restored and retitled by Hotere in 1997 after it was deinstalled by the airport. It was gifted to the Chartwell Collection housed in Auckland Art Gallery.
A Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council grant in 1978 allowed him to live in Avignon in France and travel to Spain and Italy. A return visit to his brother’s grave inspired a new series entitled ‘Return to Sangro’.
Although notoriously silent about his art, preferring it to ‘exist independently’, the 1980s saw Hotere become more politically vocal through his work. These included his first corrugated-iron works, made in reaction to the proposal to build an aluminium smelter at Aramoana, near Dunedin, that would damage ecologically fragile salt marshes. Other paintings and drawings expressed opposition to the 1981 Springbok tour and to the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior in 1985. His work also protested against international human rights violations, as well as paying tribute to black civil rights activists Martin Luther King and Steve Biko.
Career highlights in the 1980s included being selected with Colin McCahon for the Fifth Biennale of Sydney Private symbol: social metaphor exhibition, and the creation of ‘Black phoenix’, a magnificent installation made from the charred remains of a fishing boat. Taking three years to complete, ‘Black phoenix’ has been described as a testament to resilience, a ‘memorial to regeneration’6 and ‘an antipodean rephrasing of the European myth of the phoenix’.7 It was significant not only because of its scale and innovative use of materials, but also for its allusions to Te Aupōuri history.
Ralph Hotere married three times, first to office assistant Betty Rameka in Whāngārei on 1 September 1959. They were divorced in 1972, and Hotere married poet Priscilla Muriel Smith (Cilla McQueen) at Port Chalmers on 8 June 1973. He legally adopted Cilla’s daughter Andrea. Hotere and McQueen divorced in 1987, and on 20 February 2002 he married artist Mary Jane McFarlane in Dunedin.
The 1990s saw Hotere create major collaborative installations with artist Bill Culbert, including ‘P.R.O.P.’, ‘Pathway to the sea – Aramoana’, ‘Fault’, and ‘Blackwater’. These works combined Culbert’s work with light and Hotere’s austere use of black, and innovative use of materials such as pāua shells, glass and corrugated iron
In 1994 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Otago, and in 1996 he spent time in Cuba. His first major solo show, Hotere: Out the Black Window, opened at Wellington’s City Gallery in 1997; this focused on his work with New Zealand poets. His second, Black Light, opened in 2000.
Hotere received an inaugural Icon Award from the Arts Foundation in 2003, and a Taumata Award recognising outstanding leadership and service to Māori arts from Te Waka Toi in 2006. He was made a member of the Order of New Zealand, New Zealand’s highest honour, in the New Year honours in 2012. Hotere’s work is represented throughout New Zealand’s major public and private art collections and in art collections internationally.
Ralph Hotere had been in poor health since a stroke in 2001; he died in Dunedin on 24 February 2013, aged 81, survived by his wife Mary and daughter Andrea. He was buried at the Hione Urupa at Mitimiti. In 2017 his work was selected for documenta 14 in Germany, one of the world’s most important contemporary art exhibitions. His work was credited with having led and shaped New Zealand art, and with having been influential within the discourse of contemporary art internationally.