Ralph Hotere was born of Maori heritage (Aupouri tribe) in Taikarawa, Mitimiti, in Northland. He first trained as a specialist art educator and then at King Edward Technical College, Dunedin under Gordon Tovey. From 1953 - 1960 he worked as a schools art advisor for the Education Department. In 1961 he was awarded a scholarship and studied at the Central School of Art in London. This was followed in 1962 by the receipt of the Karolyi International Fellowship for study in Vence, in the South of France. Between 1963-4 he travelled and painted around Europe. During this time he visited the Sangro River war cemetery in Italy where his brother and fellow service men from the Maori Battalion killed in WWII, were buried. The experience of this pilgrimage resulted in his Sangro Series of 1962-64. Europe at this time was plagued with political upheaval - the Cuban Crises and Algerian troubles in France. His interest and concern with these events saw the beginning of the first of many series of works relating to political issues and events both worldwide and within New Zealand. The Polaris series relating to the nuclear warhead Polaris, and the Algerie series are among them.
Hotere returned to New Zealand in 1965, and settling in Port Chalmers, Dunedin. He was the Frances Hodgkins fellow in Dunedin in 1969. It was during this period in the late 1960's that he first began his 'Black Paintings', a series which has continued to develop throughout his career. These ranged from starkly minimal cruciforms on canvas to finely drawn lines in enamel lacquer on board. His use of the colour black has come to be one of the characteristics for which Hotere is most well known. Black holds for us many associations - race, death, spirituality, severity, silence, nothingness and infinity - all of which can and have been implicated in readings of Hotere's work, and certainly are knowingly called into play and explored by the artist himself. Although Hotere's aesthetic has been described as "severe minimalist abstraction", his works are poetic, not only in the sense that at times they literally feature lines of poetry inscribed upon their surfaces. The implications of religion, spirituality, silence, beauty etc remain, and even where meaning may seem obvious such as in the Aramoana protest series; they are open to many layers of interpretation. Says Hotere,
…"No object and certainly no painting is seen in the same way by everybody, yet most people want an unmistakable meaning which is accessible to all in a work of art. It is the spectator who provokes the change and the meaning in these works."