Honouring Hotere

Ralph Hotere.
Ralph Hotere.
Dunedin has been the home for decades to a great New Zealand artist, Hone Papita Raukura ''Ralph'' Hotere. He was a towering figure, among the top of the ''A list'' of this nation's painters. His place in the pantheon was recognised last year when he was made a member of the Order of New Zealand (ONZ), an honour limited to just 20 living New Zealanders.

It is intriguing to ponder why someone from a tiny settlement near Hokianga, Northland, with his Maori and Catholic upbringing and from a family of 15, should find a place in Dunedin. But that is what he did. In fact, his first exhibition, shared with another aspiring artist, was at the Dunedin Public Library in 1952. Hotere was 21 at the time.

He had been lured south to the Dunedin School of Art, at what was then King Edward Technical College, famous also for another student - Colin McCahon. Then, after a stint as a Northland art adviser for the Department of Education, he returned to Dunedin for compulsory military service with the RNZAF on the Taieri. He returned to Northland before artist awards took him to study and travel in Europe. His appointment as a University of Otago Frances Hodgkins Fellow brought Hotere back to Dunedin again, in 1970. The impact of the Hodgkins (painting, sculptors, multimedia), Burns (writing) and Mozart (music) fellowships cannot be underestimated. When scholarships were less common, they brought the very best and brightest cultural talent to the city.

Hotere later said he had discovered a fine place to work. There was his home in Careys Bay, his studio in Port Chalmers and, most importantly, it was the people's attitude far from the busy and political Auckland art scene.

''In Dunedin,'' he said in an Otago Daily Times interview in 1985, ''they accept that I'm a painter and leave me to go about my work. In Auckland it is not like that.''

Dunedin, in the era when he returned (the late 1960s and early 1970s), brimmed with writers, painters, musicians, dancers and actors who mixed at parties and places like the Cook or the Careys' Globe Theatre. It was about this time he met poets such as Bill Manhire, Hone Tuwhare and Ian Wedde and composer Anthony Watson. Hotere was known in earlier years for his kindly hospitality while also being shy and restrained. It would seem that Dunedin, with its beauty and history, its quota of anti-establishment and ''alternative'' residents, its cheaper living and a sufficiently interesting and broad artistic substrate provided an environment for Hotere to flourish further.

He let his works do the talking, being a man of few words and being unwilling to explain. That they do with power. He used his creativity to protest, to make his art relevant, to make life and art inseparable. What was at hand - corrugated iron, number 8 wire, a fence, charred timbers - became his canvas; and paint brushes, power torches and grinders his tools.

Often, he collaborated with others, while the social, political and environmental issues of the day focused his energies and prompted creative outpourings, whether internationally, (the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Algerian Civil War, Martin Luther King's assassination) nationally (the Rainbow Warrior sinking, the 1981 Springbok tour) or locally (the Aramoana smelter plans, the destruction of Observation Point, Port Chalmers). Meanwhile, other works, across murals, book illustrations, stained-glass windows, banners and other media, as well as canvas, marked the land's spiritual value, religion, beauty and the force of life and art.

Much of Hotere's work is not literally or metaphorically black. But it is this blackness, the use of the ordinary and the often minimalist approach, that made Hotere unpopular with some outside the art world. So be it. On his terms, across the art world and by many outside of it, he is recognised as a great artist.

Many tributes since his death on Sunday stress his deep emotional honesty and integrity. As once was said: ''He peels off some of himself on to the canvas''.

We in the South, as well as wider New Zealand, are richer for his creativity, his provocative works and for his whole-hearted integrity.