City Gallery City Gallery Wellington

Past exhibition

Ralph Hotere: Out the Black Window

6 July–14 September 1997

CURATOR Gregory O'Brien OTHER VENUES Dunedin Public Art Gallery, 6 December 1997–25 January 1998; Robert McDougall Art Gallery, Christchurch, 5 February–19 April 1998; Auckland Art Gallery, 30 May–16 August 1998; Rotorua Museum of Art and History, 22 October–17 January 1999 SPONSORS Ernst and Young, Wellington Newspapers, Saatchi & Saatchi, Newstalk ZB, Chartwell Trust PUBLICATION publisher Godwit Publishing and City Gallery Wellington; essays Gregory O'Brien, Cilla McQueen, Bill Manhire, Hone Tuwhare, Ian Wedde

Out the Black Window offers a literary take on the use of words and poetry in Ralph Hotere's painting. It's a show of paintings inspired by poems inspired by paintings. It includes a hundred works, from the late 1960s to the 1990s, on which Hotere has written, using pencil and paintbrush, stencil and blowtorch. Curator Gregory O'Brien calls Hotere’s work ‘the most consummate merging of literature and art’.

Ralph Hotere (Te Aupōuri and Te Rarawa) was born in Mitimiti, Northland, in 1931. After early art training at Auckland Teachers' Training College, he moved to Dunedin in 1952, where he studied at Dunedin School of Art, part of King Edward Technical College. In the late 1950s, he worked as an arts advisor for the Education Department in the Bay of Islands. In 1961, he gained a New Zealand Art Societies Fellowship and travelled to England where he studied at the Central School of Art and Design, London. From 1962, he studied in France and travelled through Europe, returning to New Zealand in 1965. 

Hotere began incorporating words into his work when living in England and France, but it was after moving to Dunedin to take up the Frances Hodgkins fellowship in 1969 that he began working with poetry. In Dunedin, he met poets Cilla McQueen, Bill Manhire, Hone Tūwhare, and Ian Wedde, plus the composer Anthony Watson, Otago University's Mozart Fellow in 1970–1, to whom his Requiem series is dedicated. The show foregrounds the importance the University of Otago’s Burns, Mozart, and Hodgkins Fellowships both to Dunedin's artistic culture and Hotere's development. 

Bill Manhire was a key influence and collaborator. In 1969–71, Hotere produces paintings, drawings, and a book incorporating Manhire's concrete poem 'Malady'. The show features Hotere's seven-panel Malady painting from the Robert McDougall Art Gallery. Hotere returns to Manhire's poetry in his Pine canvasses, watercolours, and prints (1972 onwards), his Dawn/Water Poem paintings (1986), and his Song Cycle banners (1975), produced for a John Casserley dance.

Hone Tūwhare's poetry is also influential. Hotere designed the cover for Tūwhare's book Come Rain Hail (1970) and the cover and illustrations for his Sap-Wood & Milk (1972). Hotere has quoted from Tuwhare’s poems 'Rain', 'No Ordinary Sun’, and 'O Africa’ in his work. (The show includes Tūwhare's poem 'Hotere', a witty analysis of the artist and his work.)

In 1975, Hotere produced cover art for lan Wedde's poetry book, Pathway to the Sea, which led to a series of Hotere works, including his Aramoana: Pathway to the Sea works on corrugated iron. These protest the construction of an aluminium smelter in Aramoana.

From 1974 to 1986, Hotere was married to poet Cilla McQueen. She is the source of some of the most political texts he uses in his works, including his pacifist Return to Sangro series (1978), which refers to the death of Hotere's brother, Jack, at age 22, during World War II. (He’s buried in Sangro River War Cemetery in Italy.) Hotere's Black Window series (1981) is titled after a McQueen poem. Hotere and McQueen also collaborate on the large-scale 1991 work, Song of Solomon, a protest against the Gulf War.

A highlight of the show is Hotere’s stunning fifteen-panel Godwit/Kuaka mural (1977), commissioned for the Customs Hall of Auckland International Airport. Originally titled The Flight of the Godwit, it incorporates a tauparapara used on Northland marae. The words ‘Tahia Tahia, Ruia Ruia, Opea Opea’ run across the three central panels, invoking a flock of godwits, sweeping, scattering, regathering—implying birth and death, grief and joy, past and future. Another phrase, 'tau mai', means welcome. The mural is a journey through darkness and a spectrum of colour, linking living and dead to their turangawaewae. It forms a bridge between Aotearoa and other places, the destinations of migrating birds and international travellers. The mural remained in the Airport until 1996. When the building was remodelled, the mural was acquired by the Chartwell Trust.

A range of materials is presented in vitrines, including Hotere’s work for books and magazines (like his 1969 line drawing on the cover of James K. Baxter's Jerusalem Sonnets), his set-and-costume designs for the Globe Theatre production of James K. Baxter’s play The Temptations of Oedipus (1970), and some Māori-language works incorporating poems transcribed by his father, Tangirau Hotere.

O'Brien tells the Dominion Post, 'this show is an extremely big deal for Māori culture. This is the apex of Māori achievement in the visual arts.’ In National Business Review, critic John Daly-Peoples says, 'Hotere uses words and poetry like jumper leads.’ Justin Paton says, 'McCahon is the bass, Hotere is the strings.'

Hotere: Out the Black Window is a hit. 1,200 see the show on day one and first-week attendance is bigger than for the recent Annie Leibovitz show. 'It is certainly bigger than any other show by a New Zealand artist’, writes Director Paula Savage. In the Listener, critic Justin Paton jibes, ‘The City Gallery this week opens a 100-work show exploring this artist's silent duets with some of the culture's foremost wordspinners, as if in apology for foisting a brain-draining Annie Leibovitz blockbuster on a public too starstruck to know they were being condescended to.’ The show garners over 34,500 visitors.

The public programme includes a Jonathan Mane-Wheoki lecture and a Sunday poetry reading by Manhire, Tūwhare, McQueen, and Wedde. The show also features a documentary on Hotere. The accompanying catalogue, published by Godwit, sells out and is reprinted. Critic Iain Sharp says, 'Every New Zealand home ought to have a copy.’

Creative New Zealand draws flak when it becomes public that they turned down an application for $30,000 from City Gallery in order to tour the show to Auckland and Christchurch. Commentator Keith Stewart labels this ‘bureaucratic sabotage’. Of the controversy, Bill Manhire says, 'It's like a tangi where everybody behaves badly, and because of this you realise how important the person is.’ Despite no grant, the show travels to Rotorua, Dunedin, and Auckland. Auckland Art Gallery holds a Hotere seminar, featuring Dr Ngahiua Te Awekotuku, Greg O'Brien, Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, Rangihiroa Panoho, and Keith Stewart. In Auckland, several eateries paint their windows black to promote the show, including SPQR on Ponsonby Road.