Ralph Hotere, Black Phoenix, 1984–88, burnt wood, metal. Installation view.

Ralph Hotere, Black Phoenix, 1984–88, burnt wood, metal. Installation view.

Ralph Hotere

“Ātete (to resist),” the first posthumous retrospective of one of New Zealand’s most significant modern artists, Ralph Hotere (1931–2013)—which after closing in Dunedin is now on view at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu¯—attempts to track the shimmering line of Hotere’s practice, not through a strictly chronological presentation but by loosely clumping together works with similar concerns. The show traces a subtle journey from pure forms of abstraction toward more overtly political pieces.

Hotere’s breakthrough work was the celebrated Black Paintings, 1968. In each of the seven panels, a dark-lacquer pool is disturbed only by a cross, finely etched in a different color of the rainbow. Despite the suite’s title, in the flesh these paintings barely seem black. Spectral forms like pale stretch marks or auras float across and beneath their unruffled surfaces. When squinting into the silky dark, you can barely decipher what is a smudge, what is a beam of light, and what is a reflection. Made up of hard lines and edges though they are, these are soft paintings, ghostly, like photo negatives. The works proffer a new understanding of black, of why Hotere and so many other painters (Goya, Malevich, Reinhardt) were so bewitched by its glow. Seeing the Black Paintings alongside other black pieces such as the chalky, light-absorbing Malady Panels, 1971, and the hypnotic looping chant of Requiem, 1973–74, the viewer grasped that this black is not a reduction. It can be absence, or it can be te pō (the night or the underworld in Māoritanga) or te kore (the void). It is both that which reflects and animates light, as well as that which absorbs it—birth and death, celebration and mourning.

Hotere remained fascinated with black throughout his career, and it stimulated the inventive material choices for which he is well known. The color is invoked, for instance, in Black Phoenix, 1984–88, through burnt wood scavenged from a local fishing boat that had caught on fire. The boat’s blackened bow was installed centrally, with its planks placed around it in rows on the floor and against the walls in an arrangement reminiscent of a , or palisade. This composition evokes the ancestral legend of the artist’s iwi (Māori tribe, usually associated with a common ancestor and distinct territory), Te Aupōuri, who lit their possessions on fire when their was besieged and escaped under the cover of smoke to be reborn, phoenixlike, from the ashes. As if to reinforce once again the regenerative potential of black, a whakataukī (proverb) was crudely carved into the charcoal of the floor components, reading: KA HINGA ATU HE TETEKURA, ARA MAI HE TETEKURA (When one fern frond dies, another takes its place).

Hotere said little about his works, adamant that they should speak for themselves. He used the subjective language of modernism to take positions on specific issues, such as his opposition to a proposed aluminum smelter at Aramoana and to the 1881 invasion of the pacifist Māori settlement of Parihaka by colonial troops. Writer and artist Gregory O’Brien states that Hotere “manages to produce work that is ardent and committed without closing down other, nonpolitical readings.” Indeed, inky works on paper such as Comet over Mt Taranaki and Parihaka, ca. 1972, are among his most beautiful. But the two versions of This is a Black Union Jack—both the 1979 canvas scroll and the acrylic on paper from the following year—foreground politics. In each, Hotere places the geometric form of the letters nz atop a mirror image of itself, the arrangement recalling the form of a swastika. These works were made in response to a proposed 1981 tour of Aotearoa (New Zealand) by a South African rugby ream. With Black Lives Matter helping to fuel conversations about racism in Aotearoa, Hotere’s reimagining of imperial symbols and the country’s English name feels as relevant today as it did two decades ago.