Incomplete biography paints Hotere the man, not the myth

Vincent O’Sullivan
Penguin Random House

Ralph Hotere knew what he was doing when he asked Vincent O’Sullivan to write the story of his life. Understandably, O’Sullivan hesitated. He was, after all, a Pakeha and "an outsider to the art world". Hotere immediately brushed such hesitations aside.

Hotere’s confidence that O’Sullivan would do a good job was justified. The author is of Irish-Catholic heritage, enabling him to give due weight to the French Catholic inheritance that saturated Hotere’s childhood and frequently surfaced, in a wide variety of ways, in his work. O’Sullivan also proved to be acutely sensitive to Hotere’s Maori cultural life — to his hapu and iwi particularities, to the land of his upbringing, to the roots of his nature as a man and an artist. In addition, O’Sullivan repeatedly shows that he can write about Hotere’s art in the way the artist would have wished, explaining the how, the significant aspects of context, but without the jargons of art historians and theorists that Hotere himself found not only unnecessary, but even distracting from a more direct engagement with the images themselves.

Vincent O'Sullivan. Photo: Gregor Richardson
Vincent O'Sullivan. Photo: Gregor Richardson
O’Sullivan is careful to subtitle the book "a biographical portrait". It is an attempt to represent the man and artist free of the myth, not to add to it, to explain a life in all its complexity, the relationships with fellow artists, with the political issues of the time with which Hotere was passionately engaged in his work, with the language of poets he knew and admired, with the more mundane world in which he revelled when not concentrated on the work that currently pre-occupied his hands and mind.

This book is not what some might wish — a fuller monograph illustrated with quality reproductions of key works. There are no quality images and the reader is constantly reaching for other catalogues and commentaries to refer to the stages of Hotere’s development, to see what is being talked about so eloquently.

There are reasons for this absence. It seems a painful division developed between O’Sullivan, together with the Hotere family and others, and the Hotere Foundation Trust, which has copyright over the works and their reproduction. This is a tragedy for all involved. The truths behind the resentments are only available to the disputants, now perhaps distorted over time. As a consequence, the biography is incomplete, the final decade of Hotere’s creative life scarcely sketched.

Thanks to O’Sullivan we now have access to the pain as well as vaulting pleasures of Hotere’s creative and playful spirit. We are given material to deepen our approach to his work, without being distracted by talk of influences or political correctness. Instead, we are presented with an artist ever "reaching for new visual territory . . . a refusal to be confined by an obvious line of development . . . of how the term ‘Maori art’ might be expanded, or contained . . . or to explain the religious slant to his work, inseparable as it was from his equally direct commitment to where he was born and those he was born among". O’Sullivan’s work seeks not only to show us the lineaments but also the searching, generous, celebratory spirit that lies at the heart of all Hotere has gifted to us.

 - Peter Stupples, now living in Wellington, used to teach at the University of Otago.


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