Ralph Hotere (Te Aupōuri and Te Rarawa) is a key figure in the emergence of Maori modernism—one of the ‘trailblazers’. In the 1970s, he becomes known for his hard-edged lacquer paintings. These symbolic op-art abstractions feature lines, crosses, and circles drawn on black backgrounds. In 1977, he creates one of his greatest works in this style, an eighteen-metre-long mural for Auckland International Airport. The Flight of the Godwit honours the bar-tailed godwit (or kuaka), a migratory bird admired by Māori for its long-haul flights. Displayed in the Arrivals Hall, it welcomed returning New Zealanders and visitors alike. In 1996, the Airport deinstalled the mural and gifted it to the Chartwell Trust. The artist restored the work in 1997, retitling it Godwit/Kuaka.
Godwit/Kuaka exemplifies many of Hotere’s key themes: the relationship between the ancient Māori worldview and the contemporary world, and abstract art’s ability to evoke cosmological, ecological, ethical, and political concerns. When Hotere died in 2013, art historian Kriselle Baker wrote: ‘The one painting that is for me closest to the essence of the person I knew is the Godwit/Kuaka mural. The thin chords of colour hum and vibrate with a keening sound that falls away into the liquid darkness of the black and the recitation of the tauparapara that speaks of death and the afterlife. Now that he has gone, that work seems more full of sorrow.’