The article below was originally published on January 18, 2012, following the appointment of Ralph Hotere, who has died aged 81, to the Order of New Zealand.
Considering the role the visual arts have played in shaping our and the world’s view of these skinny islands since someone handy with a pen bumped into them in 1642, we have been remarkably stingy in recognising its practitioners.
In all that time, we have honoured them with three knighthoods, one Dame Companion and two Orders of New Zealand. A pretty meagre tally for 370 years of extraordinary achievement.
Since the first, Sir William Fox, also rose to be Prime Minister and got his gong for that, it doesn’t really count as one for the arts. (One of his contemporary artists, Charles Heaphy, also became New Zealand’s first VC winner.)
Dame Louise Henderson got hers at the age of 90 – two years before she died – and carver Clifford Whiting got his ONZ as much for his services to Te Papa as to carving, which leaves only three – Sir Toss Woollaston, Sir Peter Siddell and now Ralph Hotere ONZ – who achieved elevation unambiguously for their art.
No living New Zealand artist deserves the recognition of the Order of New Zealand more than Hotere – not only for half a century of beautifully crafted and challenging mature work, but also for his unfailing recognition of the relevance of art.
The Cuban Missile Crisis, the Algerian Civil War, Polaris missiles, the Rainbow Warrior, the Springbok Tour, destructive developments at Port Chalmers and the outrageous proposal to destroy the wetlands of Aramoana by building an aluminium smelter there – all were targets of the sharp and brilliantly contrived blows of his art.
That commitment to issues, along with the use of words as images, was something he shared with Colin McCahon. The two artists had a great deal in common; friends, exchanging words and peeling back obstructing layers of their two cultures, they provided a continuing critical influence on each other’s work and on New Zealand art.
Hotere’s Aramoana paintings, begun in 1980, are among his finest and most beautiful works, and they also played a pivotal role in defeating the smelter plans of the powerful Australian and New Zealand consortium lobbying to build it.
It is an irony – and a comment on the cultural ignorance still running deep in New Zealand’s media – that the fledging news source APNZ, in its syndicated report of Hotere’s ONZ, attributed the Aramoana paintings to the tragic 1990 Aramoana massacre. Given the dates, that would have been truly prescient of Hotere.
But beyond all that – the relevance and the beauty and the maturity of his art – there is another reason Hotere richly deserves this honour. Along with a handful of other 20th-century New Zealand painters, McCahon and Robert Ellis most prominent among them, he built a powerful and enduring bridge between two cultures.
A bridge of shared experience that all New Zealanders can now cross with ease and joy – despite the occasional mendicant stridently demanding an unjustified toll. That bridge might turn out to be the greatest achievement of 20th-century New Zealand art.
Originally published January 18, 2012.