Ralph Hotere dies, age 81

LEGACY TO BE CELEBRATED: A portrait of Ralph Hotere in 1978.
LEGACY TO BE CELEBRATED: A portrait of Ralph Hotere in 1978.

Artist Ralph Hotere, who has died aged 81, was a “warrior artist” whose provocative work portrayed some of the country’s most divisive historical events.

Hotere died peacefully at midday yesterday in Dunedin, according to his lawyer, Judith Ablett-Kerr ONZM QC.

"It is with deep regret and profound sadness that I advise of the death of Ralph Hotere ONZ," she said in a statement.

He is survived by his wife, Mary McFarlane.

Hotere was a painter, sculptor and collaborative artist and was regarded as one of New Zealand's most important contemporary artists.

During the ceremony to confer his Order of New Zealand membership in February last year, Governor-General Jerry Mateparae said of Hotere that his "contribution has been to enrich the cultural and social fabric of Aotearoa-New Zealand".

Hotere was one of New Zealand’s greatest artists whose legacy will live in his work, said art commentator and curator Hamish Keith.

“We have lost one of our greatest artists there is no doubt about that, but we haven’t lost his work. Great people are great not because of who they are but what they do. And what Ralph has done we shall have,” Keith said.

He was one of the great New Zealanders, like Sir Edmund Hillary, James K Baxter and Colin McCahon, who helped build New Zealand’s cultural identity, said Keith.

“These people have given us our voice. We need to be reminded how much we owe those people who makes us what we are now.”

He was a “warrior artist” who fought for things he believed in, Keith said.

His work examined the historical events that shaped New Zealand such as the Springbok tour, the Rainbow Warrior sinking and the Aramoana massacre.

“He built bridges across the two main rivers that run through our society and our culture,” Keith said.

He was an artists who looked uniquely to New Zealand but his ideas were influenced by his deep understanding of international art, said Chris Saines, Director of Auckland Art Gallery.

“He was deeply interested in the human condition and the lives of ordinary and the effects of events on those lives,” said Saines.

He was an artists who was quick to make a work in response to a political event, Saines said.

“There were many issues that actively engaged him. This marks him out as a very significant figure in our history, not just art, but our social history,” Saines said.

One of Hotere's paintings, Vive Aramoana that recognised the victory in a fight to stop an aluminium smelter being built at Aramoana, north of Dunedin more than 30 years ago, sold for $183,000, in November last year.

“Hotere works have an allure to them that makes them very powerful,” International Art Centre Director, Richard Thomson, said at the time of sale.

“Ralph Hotere is a very fine painter of exceptional talent but has always been reluctant to talk about his work. He prefers people to make up their own mind without influence from him,” Mr Thomson said.

Hotere’s death should be a reason to celebrate his legacy, Keith said.

“We owe Ralph something and we can pay that back by making it a task this week to go and look at a Ralph Hotere. That is the marvellous thing about artists they leave things behind them.”

Christchurch artist Bill Hammond said Hotere was ‘‘great’’.

‘‘He was a fine artist. We hardly had anything to do with each other because we are both so shy. I have said ‘Hello Ralph’ many times and he has has ‘Hello Bill’ many times,’’ he said.

‘‘He was just Ralph. He was great.’’

Tame Iti sent a tweet from prison which read: ‘‘The word of Ralph's death has reached us all in here. I am sad I will not get to see my old friend again.’’

IRREPLACEABLE TALENT: Artist Ralph Hotere after receiving the country's highest honour, Member of the Order of New Zealand, in December, 2011.
Fairfax NZ
IRREPLACEABLE TALENT: Artist Ralph Hotere after receiving the country's highest honour, Member of the Order of New Zealand, in December, 2011.

Christchurch Art Gallery director Jenny Harper said Hotere was an "amazing'' artist.

"He was at the forefront of New Zealand art for a long time and quite willing to engage with political issues and make great art as well. We mourn his passing.''

"He will leave a great gap for us. He bridged the gap between Maori and Pakeha art and was equally revered in both cultures.''

Dunedin Public Art Gallery director Cam McCracken said staff at the gallery were reeling with the news of Hotere’s death.

‘‘It’s a very significant moment in art history when someone of that stature dies,’’ McCracken said.

The gallery houses many significant Hotere works and is a custodian for the Hotere Foundation Trust.

Curator Aaron Kreisler said Hotere’s death marked the end of an era in New Zealand art.

‘‘Ralph represents a whole generation of artists,’’ Kreisler said.

The gallery was currently in the process of organising a show for later this year exhibiting the collaboration work Ralph Hotere produced with Port Chalmers born artist Bill Culbert.

Prime Minister John Key was also among those who paid tribute to Hotere.

“I extend my sympathies and condolences to the family and friends of Mr Hotere, who was one of only a handful of New Zealanders to be granted the country’s highest honour, the Order of New Zealand,” says Mr Key.

“Mr Hotere had a career spanning more than five decades and was a painter, sculptor and collaborative artist.
“His passing will be deeply mourned by the New Zealand artistic community in particular,” said Key.

Former Coca Gallery director and chair of Arts Voice Christchurch Warren Feeney said Hotere was the first artist to bring European abstraction to New Zealand.

"When New Zealand art was focused on nationalism and regionalism, he was the first artist to engage internationally,'' he said.

"He was the artist that made an international connection. He returned from Britain in the 1960s and had an awareness of European abstraction and made people aware of it in New Zealand. The best of his work is really great. He is a key figure in New Zealand art. There is no doubt about that."

One of the last works by New Zealand artist Ralph Hotere was a message of support for earthquake-hit Christchurch.

Hotere completed two lithographs exhibited in Christchurch last year that carried a stark message of support for the city - ‘‘Hang in there mate’’.

His paintings, sculptures and collaborations were dominated by the colour black and often used text.

Black Union Jack in 1981 questioned the Springbok tour, Black Rainbow in 1987 responded to the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior and the two White Drip paintings were a response to broadcaster Paul Holmes' "cheeky darkie" comment about then United Nations secretary- general Kofi Annan in 2003. Holmes owned one of the two White Drip paintings.

Hotere continued to create new artworks despite suffering a debilitating stroke in 2001, although his output was limited.

He was born in Northland, but settled in Port Chalmers near Dunedin in 1969. Hotere was born in 1931 in Taikarawa in the Hokianga. He was of Te Aupouri descent and the ninth of 15 children.


Hone Papita Raukura "Ralph" Hotere

1931: Born in Mitimiti, Northland (Te Aupouri iwi)

1952: moved to Dunedin (studied at King Edward Technical College)

1961: gained a fellowship and travelled to England where he studied at London's Central School of Art 1962-4: Studied in France and travelled around Europe

1968: began the series of works with which he is perhaps best known, the Black Paintings. 1969: Became the University of Otago's Frances Hodgkins Fellow

1994: awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Otago.

2003: awarded an Icon Award from the Arts Foundation of New Zealand.

2011: made a member of the Order of NZ.