This review was first published in the print edition of Landfall 241.
Ralph Hotere: The dark is light enough by Vincent O’Sullivan (Penguin, 2020), 368pp, $45
The artistic achievement of Ralph Hotere (Te Aupōuri) towers like a great lighthouse above the pure harbour. It’s as if he illuminates, with a delicate precision and a sweeping blade of light, New Zealand’s brooding darkness, spiritual as well as topographical. Born near Mitimiti, Northland, in 1931 and baptised into the Roman Catholic church as Hone Papita Raukua Hotere, he was an art prodigy almost from the beginning and drew at every opportunity—even with a stick in the sand on the beach near his childhood home, content to watch the waves wash away his efforts. His most remarkable and significant period of artistic production, though, lasted for around forty years between about 1962 and 2002. He died in Dunedin in 2013. His was a busy, restless, crowded existence, as Vincent O’Sullivan tells it in his fascinating ‘biographical portrait’, which succeeds in synthesising a colourful, gossipy, anecdotal narrative out of the many paradoxes, mysteries and obsessions of this energetic and prolific New Zealand artist’s life.
A raft of commentaries and books exists about Hotere’s oeuvre and he remains a vital and influential force in the New Zealand cultural matrix, but O’Sullivan’s book, with its dextrous assemblage of reminiscences and information, positions Hotere clearly as the pre-eminent artist of the late twentieth century in Aotearoa New Zealand. O’Sullivan does this not so much by emphasising the art historical saga of the heroic artist—the Picasso-like toreador challenging the conventions of art materials, methods and meanings with a cape-twirling flourish—as by telling the story through the various communities that nurtured, nourished and supported Hotere as a person.
Ralph Hotere in this account was first and foremost a Māori, brought up in a whānau and iwi with traditional obligations and relationships. Second, he was steeped in a distinctively French-style Roman Catholicism, instilled among Māori in the Far North by Bishop Jean Baptiste Pompallier (after whom he was named) with the support of what Hotere referred to disparagingly as ‘his henchmen’—his priests. So from a young age he was exposed to a spectacle of specific religious rituals and liturgical codes. Third, he was able and self-confident enough to benefit from a benign, if paternalistic, government education policy that sought to promote Māori educators and role models in an era of assimilation. Throughout all this, he was lucky in his timing and fortunate to have benefactors when it counted: Gordon Tovey, the Pākehā arts and crafts visionary who nurtured Hotere’s potential; Robert Ellis, the migrant English art lecturer who vouched for Hotere at the crucial 1961 panel meeting to decide who would receive the Association of New Zealand Art Societies travelling scholarship to Britain; and the friendship and inspiration of Colin McCahon at Auckland Art Gallery, whom Hotere first met in 1953 as a primary school arts advisor already intent on becoming a full-time artist.
As a student at the Dunedin School of Art in the early 1950s, Hotere took part in compulsory military training, but having excellent vision, mechanical aptitude and exceptional mathematical ability, he was one of a select few accepted into the RNZAF. He trained as a pilot at the Taieri aerodrome under World War Two flying ace Wing Commander Checketts. Hotere himself already had a reputation for bravura and a daredevil recklessness, along with anti-authoritarian instincts smouldering beneath a pleasant and well-groomed demeanour. He later said that if he had not been an artist he would have become a pilot: his artworks reveal a fascination with landscapes abstractly seen from above—and with landing strip markings.
But besides this, Hotere remained a good keen bloke, interested for example in sports of all kinds, and a regular pub-goer with an aptitude for fixing cars and DIY repairs. He painted at night after the pub closed, until the small hours, before getting up and going off to work teaching arts and crafts in schools.
Brought up in the blacked-out backblocks of pre-electrification rural New Zealand, Hotere travelled to London in 1961 with his first wife Bet Rameka to study at the Central School of Art. He was exhilarated by his experience of the metropolis. In 1962 he was awarded an artist residency at the Michael Karolyi Memorial arts centre in Vence in the south of France. The Hoteres ended up staying there for three years and used it as a base to visit galleries all over Western Europe. As O’Sullivan establishes, these years exposed Hotere to the significant international art movements of the time and allowed him to grasp the tenets of modernist abstraction from first-hand examples. It was a time of political unrest, too, with many former colonies in Africa and elsewhere—Vietnam for example—seeking independence from European nations: France, Britain and Belgium. Hotere met numerous artists and dissidents and took part in Ban the Bomb marches. It was at this time that he zeroed in on the colour black with all its resonances: blackness was a quality, a value, an emotion.
In 1965 the Hoteres decided to return to Auckland. In 1969 he won the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship and moved to Dunedin with his new partner Maree Morehau—his personal relationships with women were becoming intricate, as O’Sullivan chronicles. The same year, Hotere also produced in a letter to the younger artist, Jeffrey Harris, a kind of personal manifesto: ‘I should hate to have other people impose their cruddy bourgeois attitudes on you … It might be some small consolation to you to learn that after painting for 20 years I’ve sold maybe a dozen paintings … I work to please me and I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks about it.’
This lack of commercial success was about to change. A 1969 exhibition of black paintings in the Otago Museum foyer was described by the Otago Daily Times art critic as ‘a tomb of silence, a dignified, profound, heavy silence that reduces the voice to a whisper’. Hotere sold about thirty works at the opening.
By the late 1970s, now married to Cilla McQueen and step-father to her daughter Andrea, Hotere was acknowledged as a leading painter of national significance whose work was beginning to sell well. Many in the arts community shared printmaker Barry Cleavin’s estimation that Hotere had ‘a divine mark-making facility’: whatever he crafted had a distinctive power and beauty as well as an inner conviction. He had also moved from deracinated internationalist abstraction to art-making that emphasised Māoritanga and New Zealand’s bicultural identity—while maintaining a commitment to protesting about political oppression, racism and pollution of the environment.
Living at Careys Bay near Port Chalmers, Hotere led the charge against the construction of an aluminium smelter at Aramoana on significant wetlands, with a series of works painted on corrugated iron. In 1981, in response to the National government allowing the Springbok Tour to go ahead, he produced Black Union Jacks: dark, angry flags of anti-apartheid protest. By then he was situated as a committed idealist, always metaphorically at the barricades. He was unmistakeably a reflex contrarian, energised by oppressive antagonisms: French nuclear testing in the Pacific, the Gulf War, the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Hotere had the knack of deploying any given nuance of colour to evoke shades of feeling, quivers of attentiveness, with an elegant economy of means: the splash, the drip, the speckling—a mass of dark blotted colours that might suggest both autumn sunlight and an act of remembrance.
Hotere was an artist who had the courage of his convictions, as O’Sullivan’s interviewees testify over and over. He conducted himself with a both an indefatigable authenticity and a stylish flair, in all his dealings: in the way he might bargain on the Port Chalmers waterfront for a burnt-out fishing boat hull in order to turn it into an immense work of art; in the way he could drive hell-for-leather through the night on his way back to Dunedin after a late arrival at Christchurch International Airport.
The great Puritan gloom in which Colin McCahon drank and painted with furrowed brow was not Hotere’s way. For him life was sensuous, lyrical, passionate. Hotere had a pub dart-thrower’s eye, a harbour fisher’s perceptiveness, a keen golfer’s sense of air and space. If McCahon thumped the table with his big black Bible, Hotere preferred to gently riffle the holy book’s gilt-edged pages. Taking a line for a walk as recommended by Paul Klee, he shaped that line of acrylic paint into exquisite arabesques, scrawled on hardboard or canvas, using lines of poetry by Hone Tuwhare, Bill Manhire or Cilla McQueen.
O’Sullivan documents the important women in Hotere’s life, from his mother Ana Maria Hotere, to his second wife Cilla McQueen, to his partner Judy Gallie with whom he purchased the Bank of New Zealand building in Port Chalmers, and makes passing mention of his third wife Mary McFarlane in a single sentence, though there he manages to get the date of their wedding wildly wrong.
Besides poets, Hotere worked with a wide circle of artistic collaborators— among them Marian Maguire, Bill Culbert, Russell Moses, Roger Hickin and John Reynolds. In 1998 he collaborated with Mary McFarlane in creating the street sculpture ‘Ruaumoko’ in central Wellington out of broken Greek columns and bronze lettering, which was commissioned by architect Ian Athfield. By the millennium Hotere was generally acknowledged as New Zealand’s most significant artist. The corporate art collector Alan Gibbs flew him to Cuba to see ‘failed socialism’ close-up; Hotere accepted the trip but not Gibbs’ point of view. Hotere was also invited to contribute art for Westpac’s national rebranding, and to provide New Zealand cultural ambassador artworks for international art fairs. Yet there was also a public impression of him as untamed: wily and determined, down a foxhole engaged in his own private war with the Establishment, lobbing artworks like fragmentation grenades amid black explosions of paint in order to save his studio, built on an ancient pā site, from container port redevelopment—or else resisting imperialist aggression somewhere in the world.
In August 2001, just before he turned seventy, Hotere suffered a major stroke that caused him serious physical impairment. Thereafter he relied on helpers and carers to produce a much-diminished number of artworks. O’Sullivan’s narrative becomes somewhat rushed and a bit garbled as it recounts Hotere’s final years. This is the result, perhaps, of O’Sullivan only recently returning to complete the last part of the manuscript ahead of publication, having abandoned it around 2010 in frustration at perceived stonewalling from members of the Hotere Foundation Trust, set up between 2003 and 2005 to administer Hotere’s legacy. This was about the same time that Ralph Hotere invited Vincent O’Sullivan to write the biography.
Hotere, the swashbuckling cavalier in a Che Guevara beret with his boozing and smoking and fast-lane excesses, always painting like a man in a hurry, painting against the dying of the light: that is the man captured in Vincent O’Sullivan’s book. But there’s also a sense of him, the art-world superstar, as boxed in at the end, operating at a manic pitch, until suddenly disabled by the stroke that left him more or less in a twilight zone for the remaining decade of his life.
DAVID EGGLETON is a poet and writer based in Ōtepoti/Dunedin.