Earlier this week, a message circulated on Facebook, sent from a small coastal community called Mitimiti in the northern tip of New Zealand—the birthplace of the late Raukura ‘Ralph’ Hotere who died on Sunday, February 24, at the age of 81. In anticipation of the large numbers of mourners arriving to attend Hotere’s tangi (traditional funeral), the message warned that visitors would only have cell phone reception at low tide, find no local stores, have to travel an hour-and-a-half for petrol and, finally, should bring water.
The notice attests to Hotere’s humble origins and upbringing, before he studied in Europe in the 1960s and eventually returned to New Zealand to settle in Port Chalmers near Dunedin, where he had a view across the harbour towards the Aramoana Spit that inspired much of his artwork.
Hotere was one of New Zealand’s leading abstract artists, well known for his enigmatic, black painted surfaces stripped with luminous lines of color. He was not a strict formalist or wary of content. When an aluminium smelter was proposed for the Aramoana wetland, he famously nailed protest works on local telephone poles, painted on corrugated iron. And although his message was never explicit, his black paintings emerged at the height of the Civil Rights movement and suggested themes of historical crisis: war, nuclear testing, the Cuban Missile Crisis and Apartheid. With an understated gravitas unusual in protest art, Hotere demanded that his work speak for itself.
Although Hotere did not want to be pigeonholed as a “Māori artist,” his works were steeped in the spiritual world of his ancestors. He was one of the first generation of Māori artists in New Zealand who, with quiet perseverance, forged a path for subsequent generations of artists by establishing a distinctive visual vocabulary that would be influential to both Māori and Pakeha (European) artists alike.
Hotere was shy, but many who knew him recall his generosity and wicked humor, a convivial spirit borne out in his many friendships and collaborations that spanned the worlds of music, literature and even sport (he was an avid golfer and fisherman). Artist Lisa Reihana recalls Hotere and regular collaborator Bill Culbert at the Museum Fridericianum chuckling as they flicked beans over their shoulders to determine the placement of neon tubes within a rippling sea of lacquered metal for the work Black Iron (1998).
As well as numerous surveys and touring shows, Hotere exhibited in the Eleventh São Paulo Biennial in 1971, the Fifth Biennal of Sydney in 1984 and the the Fourth Asia Pacific Triennial in 2002. He received Honorary Doctorates from the University of Otago in Dunedin in 1994 and from The University of Auckland in 2005. He was one of ten inaugural recipients of the New Zealand Arts Foundation Icon Awards in 2003 and was bestowed New Zealand’s highest honour—membership of the Order of New Zealand in the 2012 New Year Honors.
His funeral was held in Dunedin, prior to his body being flown to Auckland, and then on to Mitimiti by helicopter for a final tangi. There was a certain poetry in this last journey given Hoetere’s extraordinary mural, Godwit/Kuaka (1977), which greeted arrivals at Auckland airport with its evocation of birds hovering over the sand, like spirits returned to their homeland.