Ralph Hotere – a journey of protest through art


This article of mine appeared in the magazine, Tui Motu – InterIslands in June 2013, an issue dedicated to the artist Ralph Hotere who died in February of that year.

Tui_Motu_2013 Hotere

Tui Motu



Tui Motu is an exciting and challenging journal. We invite readers to question, debate and reflect on spiritual and social issues in the light of gospel values with the aim of creating a more just and peaceful society.

A Journey of Protest Through Art

Wingatui, a small settlement on the Taieri Plains just south of Dunedin, has been a home of thoroughbred racing for over 100 years. I must admit, it has been my ‘spiritual home’ at times — I have enjoyed on a few occasions a part-owner’s thrill of cheering home my winning horse. Which explains why I was intrigued to come across the word ‘WINGATUI’ floating in a sea of text in one of Ralph Hotere’s many lithographs produced in 1992.

Curious to find out the significance to Ralph of this particular word association, I popped the question to him on one of my many visits to his Carey’s Bay home. (My own sleuthing in later years found it was a reference to a Bill Manhire poem of the same name). Noted for his reluctance to explain his work, Ralph’s silent gaze to some fixed point beyond me indicated that no explanation would be forthcoming. But as soon as I shared my own Wingatui association with ‘the horses’ his eyes lit up and immediately there was a connection, an articulation, a fond recollection of days at the races, a hot tip from the horse’s mouth or a romantic recall of an unfashionably bred champion that became a household name.

It was this celebration of the ordinary that made Ralph Hotere so special to his friends whether they were the collaborating artist, the Carey’s Bay fisherman, the watersider from Port Chalmers, tradesmen like his old mate, Cor Oranje or members of his local golf club.

I first met Ralph Hotere in the 1990s when he approached me to be his accountant. This professional relationship and personal friendship would extend close to twenty years but my awareness of the work of this lionised artist began in the 1970s when his images graced the covers of poetry collections by James K. Baxter and Hone Tuwhare and short stories by O.E. Middleton.

Over the years I would visit Ralph at his Carey’s Bay home and his various studios. Our paths would also cross at the social gatherings of artist friends. As accountant to numerous Dunedin artists, I gradually became familiar with the large network of creative people enjoying Hotere’s friendship, hospitality and generosity.

While I appreciate the sublime beauty of Ralph Hotere’s abstract work, it’s his large body of protest art — his outrage against environmental degradation, racism, militarism and the futility of war — that has had the deepest resonance for me. For him this was no fashionable dabble into art of the politics — rather it became a journey of artistic expression over more than 50 years.

The 1960-70s

His Polaris Series of the early 1960s was a reference to the development of US Polaris nuclear warheads deployed on submarines in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. That same year he had a residency in Vence, France which inspired other major protest work of that decade —  his Algérie and Human Rights Series, in response to French colonialism and the war for independence in Algeria.

Whilst in France in 1962, he visited Italy and the Sangro River War Cemetery where his brother Jack is buried, killed in action in 1943, aged 22, when serving with the 28th (Maori) Battalion. In response he began his Sangro Paintings, a moving personal statement on his own grief and the futility and stupidity of war. A feature of these and his 1978 works on the same theme are the staccato stencilling of the word ‘Sangro’ and floating double numerals denoting the ages of soldiers killed in the battle to advance across the Sangro River. Once, on a visit to his Carey’s Bay villa, I shared with Ralph how his Sangro works were my favourite and his response was the silent welling up of tears.

The 1980s

For me, as for many others, the 1981 Springbok Tour of New Zealand was a defining period in my life. On the wall of my office hangs one of Ralph Hotere’s lithographs. It depicts a Union Jack with a circled ‘1981’ hovering above it and underneath, the rhetorical question — ‘A Black Union Jack?’ Often, in the busyness of my day, I pause and gaze at that framed Hotere image and muse on the unprecedented conflict that split our nation down the middle — an ideological clash between the racism of apartheid and the right to play a game of rugby.

Ralph’s opposition to the Springbok Tour expressed itself in his Black Union Jack works produced before and after the tour. Other works like What’s in a Game and O Africa incorporated poems by his good friend Hone Tuwhare.

French nuclear testing in the Pacific in the mid 1980s became a target for Hotere’s protest in his extraordinary Mururoa canvas paintings, many featuring the perfectly inscribed circle — the No Ordinary Sun of Hone Tuwhare’s poem of that title and phrases from Bill Manhire’s ubiquitous Pine poem.

The French bombing of the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior in 1985 and its eventual scuttling at Matauri Bay in the Bay of Islands led Hotere to produce canvas works and a suite of lithographs to commemorate this disgraceful episode in New Zealand’s long-time opposition to nuclear testing.

In the 1980s and 1990s his artworks reacted to events that were to threaten his own back yard. A proposed aluminium smelter on the fragile salt marshes near his beloved Aramoana is met by staunch resistance by the local community through the Save Aramoana Campaign. Ralph plays his part with subversive acts of public graffiti and an exhibition of corrugated iron works expressing his opposition to the smelter — Viva Aramoana! 

The 1990s

In the early 1990s I attended a party at Ralph’s Observation Point studio overlooking Port Chalmers. Looking very much like a gang headquarters from the outside, the interior of these former dilapidated stables had been restored by Ralph from a mishmash of sturdy timber, bricks, old church windows and carvings — like the inside of a Middle-earth Hobbiton dwelling. But a shadow hung over its future with Port Otago’s plans to amputate part of the headland to provide space for storage of logs for export.

Oputae, the Maori name for Observation Point, featured in Ralph’s works depicting the ‘cut’ that was to desecrate permanently this former Pa site and burial ground. Despite strong community opposition and legal challenges the go-ahead was granted to Port Otago to remove part of the historic headland and on the casualty list was the Hotere studio, demolished in 1993.

Even after his debilitating stroke in 2001, Ralph Hotere still wrung out images of protest. A 2003 lithograph is stamped with the red repetitive stencilling ‘Keep NZ Out of Iraq’ that emerges out of the threatening darkness — a challenge to the New Zealand Government not to commit troops to the American invasion of Iraq.

And possibly his last act of public defiance — was a series of lithographs – AORAKI is the Mountain WAITAKI the RIVER — highlighting the environmental damage that would result from a proposal by Meridian Energy to channel the flow of the South Island’s Waitaki River for a hydro electricity scheme.

As to be expected after a serious stroke, Ralph’s physical world immediately shrank. Months of recuperation and rehabilitation, ongoing homecare and, in later years, residency at the Little Sisters of the Poor were factors in his wider circle of friends no longer having the same access to him. I know this led to much hurt and sadness, particularly with some of his lifetime friends. In fact, in the intervening years between Ralph’s stroke and his recent death, the ‘ownership’ of the Hotere persona became a topic of private debate.

On a more public front, the ownership of Hotere artworks became the subject of public scrutiny with court action in 2010 over the disputed title of a large private collection of his artworks up for auction. Also grabbing the headlines has been the stealing of one or two ‘Hoteres’ — a rather brutal form of ownership transfer. And with any significant artist, the exercise of copyright over artwork is always going to be a point of tension between competing interests.

When Hotere died in February 2013, aged 81, the country witnessed a huge outpouring of tributes, personal stories and anecdotes from his friends and associates who just knew him as ‘Ralph’. In a sense, this was all of us claiming a bit of the man that we came to love so fondly.

And now Ralph has gone home. His own Tangi at Mitimiti in the Hokianga of the Far North has brought him back to his birth place to be claimed at last by Papatuanuku, his earth mother.

Haere ra ki te moenga roa o nga tupuna. 

Go to your long bed of sleep, of those who have gone before you.

5 thoughts on “Ralph Hotere – a journey of protest through art

  1. Tess

    I enjoyed this then, and wonderful to see it again now – you have done well with alot of your pieces here now – Ka pai!


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