It's 'goodbye Ralph' as art world salutes a genius

21:00, Feb 24 2013
LEGACY TO BE CELEBRATED: A portrait of Ralph Hotere in 1978.
LEGACY TO BE CELEBRATED: A portrait of Ralph Hotere in 1978.

Ralph Hotere, ONZ, was one of New Zealand's most notable contemporary artists. Known for his protest art, he bridged the gap between Maori and Pakeha art and was equally revered in both cultures. A son of the Hokianga, he had lived in Dunedin for several decades.

Tributes have poured in for one of the most important contemporary artists in New Zealand, Ralph Hotere, who has died at the age of 81.

Hotere, who died peacefully in Dunedin Hospital yesterday, tackled divisive political issues and championed social causes in his stark and striking artworks.

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

Christchurch artist Bill Hammond said Hotere was "great". "He was a fine artist," he said.

"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 said ‘Hello Bill' many times.

"He was just Ralph. He was great."


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," Harper said.

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

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."

The Press arts editor Christopher Moore also praised Hotere.

"He was one of the greatest New Zealand artists of the twentieth century. His black paintings are utterly memorable.

"He was less known for his watercolours and drawings, but they were equally extraordinary," he said.

"We should be very proud of his work and cherish his memory."

Moore said Hotere rarely spoke publicly and "liked his work to speak for itself". One of Hotere's last works 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".

The works combined Hotere's distinctive mix of black and white with text responding to contemporary events.

His paintings, sculptures and collaborations frequently tackled political issues, are dominated by the colour black and often use 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.

Auckland Art Gallery director Chris Saines said Hotere's political engagement made him even more significant.

"He was deeply interested in the human condition and the lives of ordinary and the effects of events on those lives," he 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." 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 continued to create new artworks despite suffering a debilitating stroke in 2001, although his output was limited.

Hotere was born in 1931 in Mitimiti in the Hokianga. He was of Te Aupouri descent and the ninth of 15 children. He settled in Port Chalmers near Dunedin in 1969 after a trip to Europe.

Hotere said he was "deeply moved" in 2011 when he was made a member of the Order of New Zealand, the country's highest honour.

"I am very pleased to accept this honour, and I was particularly moved by the letter that I received from the Prime Minister, John Key. He spoke of ‘our nation . . . relying on citizens from all walks of life stepping forward, helping others, seeking new ways of doing things, and reaching for their dreams'. He also spoke of ‘enriching the lives' of others. I am deeply moved," he said. During the ceremony to confer his honour 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".


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.

The Press