Artist Ralph Hotere always preferred to let his art speak for itself.

"There are few things I can say about my work that are better than saying nothing," he once said.

With his death yesterday, art commentators and New Zealanders from all walks of life have had something to say about the man and his work.

'He was our greatest living contemporary artist. I don't think there's much doubt about that," Dunedin arts curator Peter Entwisle said yesterday.


"Frances Hodgkins was the first New Zealand artist to really break through international boundaries and Colin McCahon came a generation later. Ralph was the next in line."

"Ralph Hotere. A truly great artist one of our greatest and, like Colin McCahon, a bridge across two powerful rivers haere ra," Auckland art historian Hamish Keith said.

"And it should be said of Ralph Hotere that he was a great warrior artist and he fought with his art for great causes. When a great person dies we are left with the changes they made to our world - time to reflect on that."

Art blogger Cheryl Bernstein described Hotere as : "A great artist, a friend to poets, a painter of requiems".

Hotere was born Hone Papita Raukura Hotere in 1931, in Mitimiti, just north of Hokianga Harbour.

One of 15 siblings, he attended St Peter's Maori College (Hato Petera College) and Auckland Teachers College before moving to Dunedin in 1952 to study art at the former King Edward Technical College.

During that time, he also qualified as a Tiger Moth pilot at the Taieri Aerodrome Training School in Mosgiel.

He later worked as a schools art adviser for the Education Department in the Bay of Islands before winning a New Zealand Art Societies Fellowship in 1961 to study at the Central School of Art in London.


His time in England coincided with the pop art movement and greatly influenced his later work.

He returned to New Zealand in 1965 to focus on his art and settled in Port Chalmers, holding his first solo exhibition, the self-titled Ralph Hotere, at the Dunedin Public Library the same year.

Two breakthrough solo exhibitions followed in Sangro Paintings and Human Rights (1965) and Black Paintings (1968), before he was awarded the University of Otago Frances Hodgkins Fellowship in 1969.

Many of Hotere's works referenced things the dark side of life and his political beliefs.

His Sangro series was a memorial to his brother, Private Jack Hotere, who was killed in action by the Sangro River in Italy on December 21, 1943.

The Polaris series was a response to the nuclear Polaris missile in 1984, while his Aramoana series attacked plans to build an aluminium smelter at Aramoana.

Black Union Jack protested the 1981 Springbok tour and Black Rainbow condemned France over the 1985 Rainbow Warrior bombing.

Another of the artist's legacies, The Hotere Garden Oputae, was built on Observation Point at Port Chalmers in 2005 after Hotere's studio had been controversially removed for Port Otago development. The garden includes his 1991 Black Phoenix II sculpture.

Hotere also collaborated on works with other artists and poets, such as Hone Tuwhare and Bill Manhire

In 1984, he represented New Zealand at Fifth Biennale of Sydney with Colin McCahon and was was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Otago in 1994.

In 2003, he was one of the 10 inaugural recipients of an Icon Award from the Arts Foundation of New Zealand.

In 2006, he was awarded Te Taumata Award by Te Waka Toi recognising outstanding leadership and service to Maori arts.

He received New Zealand's highest honour - the membership of the Order of New Zealand, which is limited to 20 living members - in the 2012 New Year Honours.

Governor-General Lieutenant General Sir Jerry Mateparae said the award was a reflection of the artist's "service, merit, endeavour, perseverance, commitment, excellence and, above all, mana".

Hotere celebrated his 80th birthday in 2011, with exhibitions throughout the country. He also completed an artwork for his Christchurch printer, Marion Maguire, as a sign of support for the quake-hit city.