Essay

O Salutaris

O sa-a-lu-ta-a-ris * ho-o-sti-i-a

Quae cae-ae-li pa-an-dis * o-sti-um

Be-lla-a praemunt * hosti-i-li-a

Da ro * bur fe-er au-xi-li-um

 

Uni-i tri-no-o-que * Do-o-mi-i-no

Sit se-em-pi-ter-r-na * glo-ri-a

Qui vi-i-tam si * ne ter-r-mi-no

Nobis * do-ne-et * in pa-tri-a

 

PA HENARE TATE, the elderly Catholic priest who conducted the requiem mass for the artist Ralph Hotere, did so in Māori, Latin and English, with a bit of French thrown in here and there for good measure. At one point he referred to Ralph as a ‘Latinist’ as well as an artist. Because of the large crowd assembled on Mātihetihe marae at the end of a gravel road on the North Island’s remote west coast north of the Hokianga Harbour, the mass was held in the whare hui or meeting house called Tu Moana (At the Ocean) rather than in the small church, called Hato Hēmi (St James). The meeting house had room for about a hundred and fifty mourners, and at least that number spilled out across the marae next to the adjacent church and the whare kai or dining room called Nga Ringa Rau o Te Akau (The Hundred Hands of Te Akau).

Ralph was famous, a recipient of New Zealand’s highest civil honour, the Order of New Zealand, his work sought after by private collectors and public museums, and so the crowd included many from the art world where he was held in high esteem. But the majority of those paying their respects were Māori. The nearby car park was jammed with vehicles and children played among them. A large marquee had been erected next to the dining room; visitors had slept there and in the whare hui over the four days of the tangi or funeral. It was Monday, the last day. Many people had been up all night in the whare hui telling stories and singing. After the mass, Ralph was carried up the hill to Maunga Hione (Hill of Zion), the urupā or graveyard of Te Tau Maui, a hapū or subtribe of Te Rarawa. Ralph’s own family was from another affiliated hapū of Te Rarawa, Te Aupōuri. His mother Ana Maria is buried down by the church, but his father Tangirau and some siblings are buried up there in what locals call ‘Hotere Lane’. After lengthy debate on the marae, his grave was dug right out on the promontory affording what his brother Moss described as a million-dollar view; the best seat in the house.

Ralph’s coffin arrived in a black Air Force NH90 helicopter on Friday afternoon, after what was effectively a state funeral in the Catholic Cathedral in Dunedin. But the tangi at Mitimiti was the real one as far as most people there were concerned. The Air Force helicopter, a black New Zealand Army Humvee that conveyed his coffin from the landing pad to the marae, and the large catering tent with army supply trucks and staff, had all been requisitioned by senior Māori politicians. No one, least of all the Minister of Defence, the Chief of the New Zealand Defence Force, or the Governor-General Lieutenant General The Right Honourable Sir Jerry Mateparae, himself a former Chief of Defence, had apparently thought twice about turning the request down. The landing pad for the helicopter was in a paddock near the car park. It had been marked out with a large black cross of scorched diesel. Next to Ralph’s open coffin in the whare hui were a number of objects associated with him, placed there by members of his family and by friends. They included a customised number-plate: HOTERE – as the black Humvee suggested, he’d loved flash cars as well as the colour black.

However, the first vehicle of Ralph’s that I remember was a battered Land Rover in which we used to rattle over the hill to Purakanui in Otago to get mussels. I also remember a red Mercedes-Benz and an elegant E-Type Jag. Among the objects next to the coffin in Tu Moana were some of Ralph’s favourite golf clubs, including his number one wood, Big Bertha. After the burial rites up on Maunga Hione, mourners descending to the marae were invited to take one of Ralph’s drivers and belt a golf ball out across the black sand of the beach. Several elderly kuia hitched their black skirts up and confirmed what most people knew already, that Ralph’s extended family offered mean odds on the golf course. They’d mowed a nice driving strip just below the urupā, and one after another the white balls arced across the black sand or the oxidised glitter of the creek. A couple of Ralph’s hard-case nieces had jacked this up, and they’d got it just right – people were laughing as they went on down the hill, but the flights of the golf balls also drew gestures that, along with the black-cross landing strip, seemed to come from Ralph’s own hand.

The last time I saw Ralph alive was a couple of days after his eightieth birthday, in the Sacred Heart Home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor high up on Brockville in Dunedin. We had a glass of very good Twin Paddocks Pinot Noir from Sam Neill’s vineyard and a slice of birthday cake. Ralph had never said all that much but now the stroke he’d suffered some years previously meant he said even less. Then it began to snow heavily but slowly outside his window. It was late in the afternoon; the snow fell in thick arcs and loops across the dark foliage of the garden. Ralph put his glass down and began to trace the movement of the falling snow. ‘White,’ he said. I remembered his smile a year later as the white golf balls drew parabolas across the black sand at Mitimiti.

PA TATE MADE the requiem mass congregation in Tu Moana titter with a slightly risqué play on what he called ‘Sixty-Niners’ – those familiar with the pre-1970 Tridentine Mass. Then he took the children of Mitimiti School and Te Kura Taumata o Panguru through the Latin phrasing of ‘O Salutaris’, for which he’d handed out copies marked with the intervals and stresses for us all to follow.

‘Again!’ he said, rolling his eyes in mock frustration. ‘Again!’ The Sixty-Niners inside knew their stuff and sang along; they also knew the Latin responses in the liturgy. At one point, Pa Tate suggested that he probably deserved a salary hike on the strength of offering a Latin mass. After a well-judged comedic pause, he added that one of Ralph’s paintings would do instead. The congregation laughed – jokes about the market value of Ralph’s work had been a feature of the tangi. They laughed again when Pa Tate added, ‘So long as I can tell which way up it goes.’

Northland in New Zealand is poor country: unemployment figures are high, the unacknowledged cash crop is marijuana whose ‘social harm’ costs were estimated at NZ$100 million in 2012, but methamphetamine labs are also causing enormous harm. Unemployment figures are the highest in the country at about 10 per cent. So the running gags about works of art worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars have an edge up there. The edge has been sharpened by a few well-publicised disputes over ownership of Ralph’s work, and during the tangi there were mutterings about the Hotere Trust’s rumoured intention to dragnet ‘gifted’ art works. Ralph was famous not only for his alleged wealth, but also for the reasons why he wasn’t all that wealthy in the end – he gave a lot of work away, he paid for members of his family to visit his brother’s grave at the Sangro River in Italy where Jack had been killed in action during World War II, he gave away cars, he sometimes paid his lawyers, former landlord, dentist and occasional tradesmen with works, he gave works to friends to help with their kids’ educations… During the dusk-to-dawn story-telling session in the whare hui the night before the funeral mass, one person after another got up and told a story about Ralph’s generosity.

These were real stories, not just sentimental wake yarns. The sculptor Chris Booth told the story of leaving Port Chalmers in Otago where he’d had an artist’s residency and had built a large work on the promontory where Ralph’s studio was situated. Chris and his family were trying and failing to fit everything into their car. Ralph chucked him the keys to his ute and said, ‘Take it.’ Chris thought he meant borrow it, but he didn’t mean that. He considered it a fair swap for the work Chris had made. Or not even an adequate swap – as Chris and his family were leaving, Ralph and his wife then, the poet Cilla McQueen, ran out with paper parcels which they stuffed into the ute. Chris thought these were food, but back home in Northland they discovered the parcels were rolled-up artworks.

Ralph and Cilla’s daughter Andrea, who’d sat to one side of the open coffin in the whare hui for three days while Ralph’s wife Mary sat on the other, told a story (as I remember it) about the time she and her husband were struggling to make sense of things, and Ralph tossed the keys of the red Mercedes on their kitchen table and told them to keep it, the car would make it easier for them to visit. But, she said, the real reason was that Ralph knew how much she loved the Merc, and that it would cheer her up – it did.

When my son Carlos was about four years old he drew a circle with squiggly bits coming off it, called it ‘A Sun With Legs’, and gave it to Ralph. A while later, Ralph gave him a painting called ‘A Sun With No Legs’ – one of his immaculately drawn circles on a mottled ground of black and amber lacquer. Ralph and I collaborated a couple of times, and he always considered an exchange of works was fair enough in return for whatever I’d written. There are hundreds of these stories. There are also many stories about Ralph’s survivalist savvy. Once, after we’d collected a feed of mussels from chilly water at Purakanui, he took his soaking pants off, rolled them in the dry sand, and shook them out. It’s the kind of thing you’d get used to doing if you’d only had one pair at some time in your life. He helped me to lay a tongue-and-groove floor once. He knew how to do it without fancy tools, just a couple of nails and a four-by-two lever. He stared down the powers-that-be on the Otago Harbour Board and parleyed ownership of a fine old two-storey bluestone bank building on the main street of Port Chalmers when his studio up on the hill was demolished to increase wharf space.

He was an implacable leader of protests at the proposed siting of an aluminium smelter at Aramoana near the Otago Harbour heads. He seldom spoke out, but the works of art he made on that theme became the well-known speaking-objects of the protests. They made use of recycled sheets of rusty corrugated iron with beautifully scumbled and dripped surfaces, the lead-head nails he loved, bits and pieces of scrounged timber, and laconic, stencilled phrases such as ‘Aramoana pathway to the sea’. These works were both vernacular and sophisticated – recycled frugally from the kinds of useful stuff you’d hoard in remote, under-resourced places; and at the same time reminiscent of Mark Tobey’s white calligraphy, and in particular the pintura matérica  of the Catalan artist Antoni Tàpies, whose work Ralph knew well even before spending time in Barcelona in 1988.

ON SUNDAY, WHILE some of those attending the tangi were at mass in Hato Hēmi, I went up the Moetangi Valley with Ralph’s brother Robin Hotere (one of five surviving siblings – there were fifteen in all), his niece Debbie Martin (Robin’s daughter) and the cinematographer Fred Rēnata. Debbie was recovering from a loud, boozy party on Saturday night. It’s a good hour-and-a-bit’s hike up the creek to Moetangi where the Hotere house used to be. Ralph and the other kids used to walk to school at Mitimiti and back every day. But first, once they were about eight years old, they’d have to round up the cows and milk them. They’d start about four in the morning, in the dark; they milked by hand, in the open. The milk can went down to the road on a sledge behind a horse. The horse had to be rounded up in the scrub too.

Ralph’s mother Ana Maria, named for St Anne, was a devout Catholic. His father, Tangirau, was a katikīta or catechist; he was also a poet. Robin said there used to be a rosary garden by the house, and that the roses had run wild over the scrub. When we got to the little plateau above the creek where the house used to be there was nothing to see but a clump of self-propagating arum lilies. The severe summer drought of 2012 had killed the roses. Robin pointed out where the vegetable gardens used to be – you could see how the plateau retained the contour of cleared land. There were a couple of lichened, rotting fence posts still sticking up. There’s a spring that runs from a cleft in the hillside down to the creek. Once, there had been an orchard of peach trees above the spring’s gulley. They had apples and pears as well. They grew corn, kumara, potatoes and greens; they had chickens and sometimes a pig. 

The house had one room and a hard earth floor. There was a lean-to for cooking. Another room was added as the family grew larger. There was no lavatory at first – you did your business up in the bush. Later, the Department of Health provided materials for a long-drop. Sometimes Tangirau and Ana would be away at tangi for weeks at a time. The kids knew how to look after themselves. Further up the valley, said Robin, there’s a cave with some old canoes, feather cloaks, and other taonga or treasures in it; there were probably human bones. Robin pointed out an old karaka tree where bodies used to be placed until the flesh had gone and the bones could be interred. When heavy rain caused a slip to expose the entrance to the cave and to what was inside it, members of the whānau dynamited it and sealed it off. Now the markers that vectored the entrance are gone, along with most of the big forest trees.

On the way back down the valley we came to a bend in the creek where a natural pool formed. Robin looked at it a bit misty-eyed. This used to be the family’s bath. We could all see what he was thinking. We stripped to our undies and hopped in. Fred took a photo of Robin and his daughter Debbie up to their necks in the pond. They have their arms around each other’s shoulders and are grinning broadly. It looks like a kind of conjoint baptism, into memory, perhaps – the kind of memory that can never be erased from a place if you know how to read the signs, however minimal.

THERE’S A QUESTION that begins to form around the circumstances, memories, and symbols of Ralph Hotere’s tangi. He was one of the most esteemed, successful and celebrated New Zealand artists yet. In the late 1960s, after four years in London and in France, he began to paint what would come to be known generally as ‘Hotere’s black paintings’ – austerely minimal works in which, in three seven-part series from 1968, impeccably black lacquered rectangles were marked by finely drawn crosses, each panel’s cross in one of the seven subtractive primary or spectrum colours. At the time they were first exhibited, most critics drew parallels with the black paintings of Ad Reinhardt; Hotere himself was on record as having expressed regret at missing a lecture by Reinhardt at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 1964.

In 1997, after visiting America to watch Tiger Woods play at the US Masters Tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club, Ralph gave his dealer Sue Crockford a copy of the 1991 MOMA Ad Reinhardt catalogue. Having skipped fifty pages of plates, he annotated the eighteen plates of Reinhardt’s 1956–66 black paintings with the names of the Augusta Club’s eighteen holes, granting each a par of given yards, beginning at ‘Amen Corner’ with the overall attribution, ‘This is Tiger Country’ – also the title of one of his own works from 1983. This elegant homage links Hotere’s 1968 black paintings to what is in effect a book-end late series of works including large, black lacquered sheets of corrugated aluminium in 1999, again marked by variations on a cross, this time cut out of the metal or formed in part by vertical space between the corrugated sheets.

Ralph managed to combine his love of black with his love of fine cars: the late works were made in collaboration with an artisan car-painter in Dunedin who laid their impeccable mirror-black grounds. A major collaboration with his friend the artist Bill Culbert, Blackwater (1999), commissioned by René Block for the Fridericianum museum in Kassel, Germany, is said to have had its sheets of sleekly reflective corrugated iron painted by Mercedes-Benz at Ralph’s request. Here, a certain kind of content – a narrative about cars, friendship, and a political claim to pleasure – becomes a kind of deadpan subversion.

The minimalism, elegance and sophistication of these works made them favourites with critics and curators wary of narrative content, traces of regionalism, or, god forbid, affective hooks into the kind of cultural memory that might have been laid down in the artist’s childhood in tough, self-sufficient conditions in the remotest part of Northland, imbued with Catholic ritual and symbols and Māori mōteatea or poetry. Nor were the works’ enigmatic subversions noted. They were seen to be aligned with formalist international benchmarks of the time, not with some kind of narrative thick description or backblocks art semiotics. Ralph himself contributed to the laconic austerity associated with his work by famously refusing to talk about it. It was this aura of detachment and coolness that guaranteed the Mitimiti congregation’s knowing response to Pa Tate’s joke about ‘which way up’.

MANY IN THE congregation also knew that Ralph had chosen to live in Otago, a long way from the place of his birth near Mitimiti – a long way from them, his whānau, and a long way from Northland, for that matter. They knew about the time he’d spent in Europe, especially in France, including time at Avignon with Cilla McQueen from 1978, the year Pope Paul VI died; and in Minorca the following year when John Paul I died (a well-known series, The Pope is Dead, came from these events). Along with jokes about the value of artworks they might have stashed under the bed in the sleep-out, or whether a collector might now want to fork out a couple of hundred thou’ for the corrugated-iron shed down the back, the congregation joked about how they’d got Ralph at last – how he’d ‘come home’. The hidden narrative here, of course, is that there was a gap between where Ralph had gone and what he’d come back to in the end.

It’s the nature of this gap or the tension between here and there (there and here) that shapes the question that has kept emerging hesitantly over the years in critical discussions of Ralph’s work. Sometimes the question has been repressed in exhibitions that privileged the minimal black works and their apparent occlusion of content by form (with much explaining-away of the cross motifs). It’s made frequent, dithering appearances in discussions over what to do about the fact that Ralph was Māori but refused to be characterised as a ‘Māori artist’. It’s associated with Ralph’s own annoyance with the reappearance at auctions of his early, genre works including still-lifes. The question has sometimes appeared as a full-blown revision, answered when the cross motifs in Ralph’s work are sheeted back unambiguously to the religious traditions of the Hāhi Katorika, the syncretic Catholic-Māori devolution of French Society of Mary missionaries via Mill Hill Brothers in the Hokianga; or in which the white-scumbled, rivulet-and-splatter  surfaces of corrugated-iron works in the 1980s are read as transliterations of the mudflat landscapes of the Otago harbour; or in which ‘black’, both the colour and the metonym, is invariably read as political. But neither formalist avoidance of content, nor modernist squeamishness about the ethnographic, nor their contraries in literal narrative content match-ups, understand the question about the gap between here and there, let alone come up with good enough answers.

All of these options want to answer the question, What’s to be done with the apparently contradictory co-presence in Ralph’s work of austere understatement and rich content? And by implication: Does urbanity trump provincial narrativity, or can rich content be attributed to even the most minimal forms?

The space between the backblocks and the metropolis is easily – even usually – characterised as one between a simple, probably uneducated, culturally unsophisticated place, and the cultural complexity and sophistication of cities. The urban sophisticate appreciates refinement, including the aesthetic refinements of minimal abstraction. The provincial likes stories. This, at least, was the modernist diagram of progress towards hegemonic art ‘centres’. Though the diagram has been contested and redrawn since Ralph first made ‘black paintings’ in the late 1960s, it still exerts influence, and it still asks the wrong question. Development remains a one-way traffic, apparently. Anything going in the reverse direction from the city to the provinces is on a sentimental trip into the never-never – the jaded sophisticate in search of traditional authenticity, the urbanite looking for the naively exotic.

BUT AT MITIMITI for Ralph Hotere’s extended requiem, we were reminded of some simple facts. He was brought up and educated in a tri-lingual culture – Māori, English and Latin. His father, Tangirau, was a noted poet. Ralph himself was well versed in the poetic traditions of Ngāti Ruanui and Te Aupōuri, and could quote at length from memory. The place he grew up in was in the vicinity of old, buried treasures. Baptised Hone Papita Hotere by the successors of Bishop Jean-Baptiste Pompellier, the French Society of Mary missionary who came to the Hokianga in the 1830s, his name was both a reference to John the Baptist (described by Pa Tate as ‘a stirrer’) and to the French bishop. I got the impression his French was okay and he read poetry in it, and in Spanish. He was aesthetically at home both with the dark austerities of Reinhardtian minimalism and the poetics of Spanish tenebrists.

Often, however, the character of his work is defined by the radically simple anti-aesthetic of political outrage. His sociability – the extent of his friendships and associations, his legendary hospitality – was equally well described by the French word gentillesse and the Māori manaakitanga. In his garden at Carey’s Bay, he used to grow fierce, reddish Provençal garlic. His house contained an astonishing collection of art works, most of them by friends. And when he travelled, he liked to do so in style – as in the black Air Force NH90 helicopter that brought him back to the marae at Mitimiti, over the hill from Moetangi, the place he’d left in 1946, sponsored by the church to go to school at St Peter’s Māori College in the city, Auckland.

The cultural complexity of this metropolis in the 1940s may even have seemed thin by comparison with where he’d come from up north – or, at best, not likely to overawe Hone Papita Hotere, a kid ‘from the sticks’. He went where art took him, which was often a long way from Mitimiti, but it would be a mistake to see that journey as an improving trajectory from the benighted to the accomplished, or his ‘return’ as a vindication of roots. It’s not a question of how he managed to juggle ‘there’ and ‘here’, periphery and centre. He closed the gap – he shut the question down.

Griffith Review