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On the passing of Ralph Hotere

Ralph Hotere – photograph by Ross Coombes – courtesy of the Artist and Eastern Southland Gallery
Detail – ‘Song Cycle – The Prayer Part II,’ 1975 - courtesy of the Hotere Foundation Trust and Eastern Southland Gallery
Ralph Hotere Gallery at Eastern Southland Gallery, Gore (featuring Song Cycle and Round Midnight) - courtesy of the Hotere Foundation Trust and Eastern Southland Gallery
There's electricity, a spirit, a ghost in the machine that exists in the way Ralph Hotere's work continues to burn in my mind's eye.


By Mark Amery

There's electricity, a spirit, a ghost in the machine that exists in the way Ralph Hotere's work continues to burn in my mind's eye. They flicker there, a reverberant crackling image on the retina. Never quite seeming to leave, they’re here for the long haul.

Much is made of Hotere's blackness, yet it's the alchemical sparkle within the dark in his best work, the life that exists in a large quiet room that stays with you. Hotere Black they call it. They can’t make it up for you at Resenes.

There's a world of mystery there, a magic in his hand that you can never quite put your finger on. It is fire, it is water, it is whenua, all charged by a lightning rod that may be a mark of paint or molten metal. The spirit that moves through human action is galvanised. Is that what we call genius? Yes, probably. And like any so-called genius you see brilliance studded throughout Hotere’s career, with plenty of less inspired work in-between. Genius comes out of constant work.  

In the reverence and mystery there’s the clear influence of a Maori Catholic upbringing, in Mitimiti, Northland, and the high church of his international modernist artistic contemporaries, but Hotere opens it up for us all. There is the sense of a bigger cosmic vision grounded in Aotearoa New Zealand driving such bold artworks; singularity yet universality. I think of the Maori notion of Ahi Kaa - keeping the home fires burning, firing within us all our creative potential. 

Hotere was a master of providing openings between things. Dramatic pauses where others might write new scripts. I think of one of his last big public works with Bill Culbert – Te Papa’s Void – a black circle ringed by neon that anchors a tumultuous space. The generosity in his work was to allow us to savour their meaning, to find ourselves in them. They were for us. That often meant that when he wore his political and environmental convictions emblazoned as a badge (his heart on his black sleeve) the work behind remained busy seducing you into its depths, leaving the questions for you to answer. It was Hotere's silence - his understanding of its rhythms, its nuances, its music -that were arguably his great gift. He was a great visual dramatist.

By being himself, steadfastly, resolutely, stubbornly even, Hotere ended up being a bridge builder. Between cultures, worlds and disciplines. Hotere was the example to the raft of contemporary artists of Maori descent that have come in recent decades who refuse to be pigeonholed under the label ‘Maori artist’ and entered the wider professionalised contemporary art industry. Hotere was the example again for those now who see their work as much part of the world and the international scene as New Zealand. Now it is hard to comprehend the strength keeping such a strong quiet position required. The legacy however is enormous, and it took actions rather than words.

Hotere is the example period for artists to follow a singular yet generous vision: embedded in place but of everywhere, rigorously professional yet keeping calm amongst the chatter and huff and puff of the art business.

Keeping close to the things that matter, Hotere is also the great example for other artists of the collaborator - with artists, with poets, and with businesses and industry. Hotere's most seen work is arguably a commissioned work he did for Westpac in 1996, which they used in their designs. Be it golf or politics, Hotere set the example for many an artist as both part and apart of the world. I didn’t know Hotere (and the more an artist’s work lives in me the less I want to meet them), but I can't drive the road between Dunedin and Aramoana without him being present in a passenger seat. His work and actions imbue the area.

Audacity is another word that matches Hotere's practice. Be it the charred remains of a fishing boat in Black Phoenix from the 1980s or the startling minimalism of his Black Paintings of the 1960s. It is as if Hotere got to fly above his childhood home in Mitimiti from an early age; gained the wings to see things from an in-between abstract space above and beyond. Now his remains fly home to Mitimiti and his spirit on north to Cape Reinga and the ancestral homeland.

So here on earth Ralph, I will join others in pouring a glass of fine and deep red wine in honour of you. Savour its taste and its aromas, drop by drop. Think about how the fine things in life, like your artwork can stay with us. How they give us strength for the time to come.

Ralph Hotere 1931-2013

Written by

Mark Amery

27 Feb 2013

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.