Northland born artist Ralph Hotere died yesterday surrounded by family in Dunedin. The 81-year-old sculptor, painter and collaborative artist, with a career spanning 50 years, had been suffering pneumonia.

Hotere rose to prominence with sparse, abstract paintings framed by words or poetry. Black was a signature and his Black Paintings completed in the 1960s are among his most famous works. He produced work protesting against apartheid South Africa, a proposed aluminium smelter in Aramoana and the Rainbow Warrior sinking.

But such was his dislike of speaking about his work that family sometimes spoke for him, his sister Charlotte Courtenay said yesterday. Crowds would gather behind some of his sisters - there are 15 siblings - as the artist looked on.

"Ralph didn't like too much of a fuss. When he had exhibitions he'd let us talk about the paintings and we'd turn around and he used to stand there nodding his head because he said abstract is really what you make of it."


He loved his Te Rarawa and Te Aupouri family. They were hugely proud of him, but in the beginning weren't sure about his talent.

Mrs Courtenay, 75, recalled when her brother came home from France in the 1960s after studying there.

" ... He showed a film of his paintings and Mum laughed. He was only young then and he said: 'It's all right, Mum, you can laugh. One day I'll be well known.' He didn't take it badly. Even my aunty, she said, 'Oh, I can only see blackboards.'

"I had a painting and my daughter, she was about 7 and goes, 'Oh, Uncle Ralph, that looks like an outside toilet.' He said: 'Children have the best imaginations'."

Before a stroke in 2001 the artist, holder of the country's highest royal honour, the Order of NZ, regularly stayed with Mrs Courtenay in Auckland. Numerous Hoteres would gather, a feed of fish-heads, a favourite dish, nearly always on the table.

He was the patron of the family's annual golf tournament, held in school holidays so Australian-based relatives could get home. One year, he even flew home from Europe to make sure he made tee-off.

In 2000, he paid for siblings to travel to Italy where their eldest brother Jack, died fighting for the Maori Battalion. Mrs Courtenay had wanted to return his remains home to Mitimiti, the north Hokianga settlement the Hoteres hail from. Ralph had visited the grave many years before and didn't support the move.

"Once I got there and saw him buried next to his best friend, I knew it wasn't right to bring him back. I think Ralph knew that. But I was so grateful to him for letting us go."

Arts commentator Hamish Keith said he'd known the artist since 1958.

"Ralph is one of those people like Colin McCahon who built really solid bridges between two of the main rivers in our cultures. Ralph was always about us, not him, he was a fighter for great causes, he was what you expect an artist to be - he changed our lives."

Prime Minister John Key said the artist would be deeply mourned by the New Zealand artistic community.

Last night, actor Sam Neill wrote on Twitter: "Our greatest living artist #ralphHotere died today. Very saddened, he was a marvellous friend. Haere ra, Ralph."

Mrs Courtenay said her brother's body would be flown to Mitimiti.

He is survived by his wife, Mary McFarlane, and daughter Andrea Hotere from his marriage to writer Cilla McQueen.

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