Editorial: The consolation of the artist

WARRIOR ARTIST: A 2011 photograph of Ralph Hotere  taken by wife Mary McFarlane on his 80th birthday.
WARRIOR ARTIST: A 2011 photograph of Ralph Hotere taken by wife Mary McFarlane on his 80th birthday.

Ralph Hotere had been an All Black his name would be as familiar as those of George Nepia, Colin Meads and Richie McCaw. The artist who died on Sunday, aged 81, was a giant of the New Zealand art world.

As it is, Hotere's name is one most Kiwis connect with the arts, but many would probably struggle to identify his work. Such is the lot of the artist in a country which is more admiring of a pair of well-muscled thighs in rugby shorts than a finely-honed couplet or a painterly smear of pigment on a stretched canvas.

This lack of recognition bothers some, but not Hotere. In fact he embraced it. After returning from four years in Europe in the 1960s, the Northland-raised Hotere settled on a hill overlooking Dunedin's container terminal, far from the Auckland-based art crowd.

There he produced a stream of work, often in collaboration with writers and other artists, inspired by the things that mattered to him – his brother's death in Italy during World War II, the campaign against the Muldoon government's plans to build an aluminium smelter on the mudflats around Aramoana, the 1981 Springbok rugby tour, the Rainbow Warrior bombing and even a broadcaster's boorish attempt to provoke controversy by labelling the then-head of the United Nations a "cheeky darkie".

Quite what the lines, crosses and geometric shapes that were Hotere's stock in trade had to do with the issues of the day was not always immediately apparent, although White Drip to Mister Paul Holmes – a drop of paint falling down a sheet of corrugated iron – needed little interpretation.

Hotere himself offered no help to those puzzled by his work. Shape and colour and texture were his vocabulary, although his reticence to talk about his art did not mean he was poor company. Quite the contrary. He liked to cook, to play golf and to talk. He just did not like to talk about how he spent his working hours. "There are few things I can say about my work that are better than saying nothing," he once said.

However, that did not deter the curious. There was a power and assurance to his art that demanded of viewers a second, and then a third and a fourth look. They might not have known what he was saying but they wanted to know and their attempts to fathom his intention sparked conversations about who we are and what we are as a people.

A sculptor as well as a painter, Hotere deserves to be remembered as a great New Zealander alongside the likes of Sir Edmund Hillary, Nepia and Lord Rutherford. Like them he helped shape our notion of what being a New Zealander is.

It is a people forged from Maori and Pakeha tradition who borrow from the best of overseas culture, but are not afraid to put a distinctly New Zealand stamp on their endeavours.

That is what Hotere did with such success for more than 50 years. Long after the doings of today's minor sporting heroes and "celebrities" have been forgotten, Hotere's work will endure.

That is the consolation of the artist.

The Dominion Post