Dick Frizzell v Ralph Hotere: Artist claims critics missed the point

Artist Dick Frizzell is under social media fire for saying painter Ralph Hotere was “good – but not THAT good”.

Furious commentators labelled Frizzell a “fake” and an “amateur” and described his art as cultural appropriation after screenshots of a Facebook post, in which he commented on the treatment of Hotere’s artistic legacy, were widely shared.

But this week, Frizzell says critics “have missed the point”.

Frizzell’s Facebook post was in response to a Weekend Herald exclusive revealing Dunedin and Christchurch art galleries had dumped plans to release a major new book alongside their blockbuster exhibition Ralph Hotere: Ātete (to resist).

A Local Government Official Information Act request turned up correspondence between the galleries and the Hotere Foundation Trust, which holds copyright on reproductions of Hotere’s work. It revealed that while a reduced one-off copyright fee of $3500 was initially negotiated, the Trust would ultimately seek a standard commercial fee of $250 per image – pushing copyright costs for the planned book up to as much as $30,000. It also requested a preview of any text relevant to each image.

Cam McCracken, Dunedin Public Art Gallery director, said “the lack of feasibility was due to this significant fee increase. But also the other conditions outlined…”

Following publication of the story, Frizzell likened the Trust to a “cranky mother hen” writing: “The Hotere Trust’s efforts to see their hero deified by sitting on his legacy like a cranky mother hen will only have the effect of seeing the myths evaporate like the smoke they essentially are. Ralph was good … but not THAT good”.

Now, Frizzell says: “I didn’t take on Hotere. I was just making the comment that by hiding their hero under a bushel like the Trust seems to be determined to do is not doing him any favours; is not doing the legacy any favours at all.

“Anyone’s reputation is fragile at best and as time goes by it can be undone. The glow can fade. You are measured by your work. The reputation is nothing without the work there to back it up … there’s nothing wrong with Ralph’s work!”

While some social media commentators expressed concern that access to Hotere’s art might be restricted, many more jumped on the apparent criticism of Hotere’s worth as an artist – and compared Frizzell’s output unfavourably.

“Frizzell rips off Māori to make tea towels,” said writer Morgan Godfery, in one typical response. “Amateur. Poser. Fake.”

Former MP Tau Henare wrote: “Mickey Mouse v Ralph Hotere. #HotereWinsEverytime.”

Frizzell, who is most famous for his work “Mickey To Tiki Tu Meke” (in which the Disney character morphs into a tiki), said he had been copping flak for decades.

“The malcontented who have decided that I’m cultural enemy number one, some sort of spiritual assassin? They’re never going to change their view … honestly, just my sheer existence seems to be an affront to a lot of people. There’s not a lot I can do about it, to be honest.

“I have a lot of admiration and respect for the man [Hotere] and his work. That was not my point.”

Hotere died in 2013. The Ātete exhibition, at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū until July 25, is the first major showing of his work in more than two decades.

Hamish Keith, art curator, consultant and social commentator, said Hotere was “without any doubt, one of our greatest artists, one of this culture’s greatest artists – and if we have two cultures, he’s a great artist in both of them”.

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