Ralph Hotere is one of New Zealand’s most important contemporary artists. Born in Northland and of Aupouri descent, he has lived and worked in Carey’s Bay, Otago since 1969. Standing at the very centre of New Zealand art, Hotere is one of this country’s leading painters. He is a drawer and printmaker of exceptional talent and a great artistic collaborator.
Hotere’s reactions to social and environmental issues - both local and global - are stated in several series of works he has produced. His ‘Sangro’ series is a memorial to his brother who fought in the Maori Battalion in World War II, and whose grave lies amongst those of hundreds of other young soldiers near the Sangro River in Italy; the ‘Polaris’ series was his response to the threat of devastation by the nuclear warheads of the Polaris missile in 1984; and the ‘Aromoana’ series was the result of his concerns about the adverse environmental impact of building an aluminium smelter at Aromoana in Otago. In these, and other groups of related works, Hotere uses strong, uncompromising images to convey powerful visual and emotional messages.
Hotere’s sensitivity to the surface on which he works is an integral part of his artistic approach and he uses a remarkably wide variety of grounds: from canvas, either traditionally stretched or loose, to fine lacquer surfaces on hardboard, to rugged roofing iron. Whether ‘drawing’ with a sanding disc or blow torch on stainless steel sheets or ‘baby’ corrugated iron, or combing gold leaf and glass, Hotere’s touch gives each image the required aesthetic to turn an everyday surface into an impressively powerful work of art. Given the charred remains of a trawler severely damaged by fire at Port Chalmers, Hotere created in 1985 his major installation Black Phoenix, which has attained legendary status.
Hotere is also well-known for his word paintings which he began in the early 1960s. These works document both artistic and personal dialogue between himself and his friends who have been some of New Zealand's pre-eminent literary figures. Paying homage to poets Bill Manhire, Hone Tuwhare, Ian Wedde and Cilla McQueen, these works offer visual equivalents to their poems, the words of which are often incorporated into Hotere's compositions.
Considering the length of his career, comparatively little has been written about Hotere. He seems reluctant to provide explanations about his art, leaving it to speak for itself. “There are few things I can say about my work that are better than saying nothing.” (Hotere, 1996). His work is represented in every major public and private collection in the country and in art museums throughout the world.